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Begich Testifies in Hearing on FEMA and Alaska Natives

Senator Mark Begich

The government’s management of disasters and coordination with native tribes was the subject of a hearing in the US Senate Wednesday.  KDLG’s Chase Cavanaugh has more.

US Senator Mark Begich testified at a legislative hearing Wednesday on the subject of native tribes and the Federal Emergency Management Agency.  Specifically, it was about how FEMA coordinated its disaster relief efforts with tribes and reaching out to their governing bodies. After hearing from witnesses describing incidences where tribal bodies lacked sufficient resources in disaster situations, Begich said the Agency’s outreach structure was inadequate for the task at hand. 

“FEMA’s outreach over the years has been somewhat lacking. I feel Tribal Affairs’s structure within the agency doesn’t adequately reflect the critical role that tribal governments and organizations play in the emergency management community. I’m encouraged by the hiring of Milo Booth, Alaska Native tribal member of the Metlakatla Indian Community to lead Tribal Affairs in FEMA. I worry, however, that by housing Tribal Affairs within External Affairs or Intergovernment Affairs, the real impact of regulatory or statutory changes cannot be adequately addressed. Outreach and meaningful consultation should be done in a way that fosters a partnership, not a one way partnership or not just checking a box.”

In January of 2013, President Obama signed the Sandy Recovery Improvement Act, which, among many other provisions, allowed tribes greater leeway in requesting disaster declarations.  Concerned that FEMA was inadequately implementing the provision, he and fellow Democratic Senator Jon Tester of Montana wrote a letter to agency administrator Craig Fugate.  In the document, they urged him to quickly write guidance on implementing the SRIA provision, as well as not treating tribal outreach as a “one size fits all” approach.  Instead, they advocated for regional tribal liaisons, so the Agency could deal with each group’s individual concerns and recognize them as partners in emergency management. 

Begich accompanied Fugate during his first trip to Alaska, where he met with native leaders.  In Wednesday’s hearing, Begich said progress had been made, but there was more to accomplish.

“The new authorities granted to tribes through the Sandy Recovery Improvement Act allow for major disaster declarations to be made directly to the president without having to go through governors. This move puts tribes on par with states and illustrates the sovereignty, the government to government relationship, that has been so critical to making progress and building a strong relationship, but there is work to be done to fully accomplish this.”

Begich ended his testimony by swearing that he would “hold FEMA’s feet to the fire,” regarding outreach toward Alaska Natives.