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FEMA backs plan to let tribes go directly to president for disaster relief

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WASHINGTON – The Federal Emergency Management Agency re-emphasized its support Thursday for legislation to let federally recognized tribes seek emergency and natural disaster declarations directly from the president instead of having to go through their states’ governors.

FEMA Administrator Craig Fugate said the legislation would let his agency improve disaster responsiveness by working “peer-to-peer” with tribal governments – something it cannot do now because FEMA does not recognize tribes as sovereign governments.

“It’s important that every member in Indian country needs to make their representative aware of this and what this means for Indian country,” Fugate said.

Navajo officials Thursday welcomed Fugate’s continued support of the bills.

Currently, tribes must go through state governments first to request declarations of emergency, said Clara Pratte, the executive director of the Navajo Nation Washington Office. She said that can be a particular problem for her tribe.

“With the Navajo Nation being in several state jurisdictions, you have to go through multiple entities,” Pratte said.

She said the extra layers can create delays in disaster response.

“That’s been something we’ve seen not only in our region but working nationwide, particularly with tribes that are rural, remote and small,” she said.

Brian Quint, the government and legislative affairs associate for the Navajo office, said some tribes have complained that aid in response to ongoing wildfires has been delayed because of the current process.

Pratte said that being able to declare an emergency earlier would also help individuals receive disaster benefits sooner from agencies other than FEMA, meaning they can start rebuilding their lives sooner.

Fugate said it would take a “concerted effort” to move the bills – a House bill introduced in May 2011 and a Senate companion bill introduced this March – through Congress. Neither bill has yet to get a hearing.

While Fugate said FEMA has already begun the planning process for implementing the changes, Pratte said she does not expect the legislation to pass before this fall’s elections. But she called it “one of the least contentious” bills in Congress right now and thinks Fugate’s announcement may expedite the process.

“Having the agency come out in support of the issue is definitely helpful,” Pratte said. “It implies they have the infrastructure to handle it and have the capacity to do that.”

The National Governors Association did not return calls seeking comment on the bills Thursday.

In a blog post on the federal agency’s website, Fugate said Tuesday that he sent letters to the committee chairmen, urging them to take “swift action” on the bills.

“If Congress passes and the president signs such legislation into law, my office will act promptly in the development of appropriate regulations and policies for implementation,” he wrote.