US reaches out to Native Americans on climate change

The Federal Emergency Management Agency has developed a new strategy to better engage with hundreds of Native American tribes in the face of climate change-related disasters, the agency announced Thursday.

FEMA will include all 574 federally recognized tribal nations in discussions about the possible future dangers of climate change. It has allocated $50 million in grants to tribes looking for ways to ease the burdens of extreme weather. Tribal governments will be offered more training on how to navigate applications for FEMA funds. The new plan calls for tribal liaisons to report annually to FEMA leaders on tribal readiness.

“We are seeing communities across the country facing increased threats due to climate change,” FEMA Administrator Deanne Criswell said in a conference call with media. “What we want to do in this strategy is make sure we can reach out to tribal nations and help them understand what potential future threats will be.”

In recent years, tribal and indigenous communities have faced upheaval related to rising sea levels as well as increased flooding and wildfires. Tribal citizens have lost their homes or live in homes that need to be moved due to coastal erosion. Some cannot preserve cultural traditions such as hunting and fishing due to climate-related drought.

Lynda Zambrano, executive director of the Washington-based National Tribal Emergency Management Council of Snohomish, said tribes historically had to settle for no one to guide them. For example, over 200 Alaska Native villages had to share a FEMA Tribal Bond. Or different tribes were told different things. So nonprofits like the council have tried to fill the gaps with their own training, she said.

“The way I equate it to people is that they built the freeway, but they never made the on-ramps,” Zambrano said. “If FEMA just started building the ramps, well, that would be a good thing. But there must be a very clear policy, procedure and direction, and they must be consistent. »

Tribes have always been disproportionately affected by natural disasters because they are in high-risk areas and have little infrastructure, she added. They will only continue to be vulnerable.

FILE – Louise Billiot, left, a member of the United Houma Nation Indian tribe, walks around the home of her friend and tribal member Irene Verdin, in Pointe-aux-Chenes, Louisiana, May 26, 2022. The Hurricane Ida is heavily damaged Verdin’s house.

It wasn’t until 2013, under the Sandy Recovery Improvement Act, that federally recognized tribes gained the ability to directly apply for emergency and disaster declarations. Before, they had to apply for disaster funding through the states.

The new strategy emphasizes making sure tribes know about each FEMA grant program and how to apply. The hope is that it will give them a fair chance of getting funding. The agency hopes to find ways around obstacles such as FEMA cost sharing or how much of disaster or project funding the federal government will cover. In some cases, tribes simply cannot afford to pay their share.

“In areas where we can’t, what we want to do is be able to work with the tribes to help them find other sources of funding to help them put together the different streams of funding that might exist,” said Criswell.

However, FEMA’s new strategy for engaging Native tribes appears specifically aimed at those who are federally recognized. This would seem to exclude tribes that have only state recognition or no recognition. In a place like Louisiana, that nuance could leave out many Native Americans most affected by climate change.

When Hurricane Ida landed in 2021, it devastated a large swath of southeast Louisiana that has been home to Native Americans for centuries. With climate change, hurricanes are expected to get stronger and wetter. But the tribes most affected by Ida say not having federal recognition has hampered their ability to prepare for and recover from the storms.

Cherie Matherne is the Cultural Heritage and Resilience Coordinator for the Pointe-au-Chien Indian Tribe. Upon hearing about FEMA’s announcement, she said she wanted the changes to also apply to tribes without federal recognition like hers.

“It’s an oversight if they’re not working with state-recognized tribes,” said Matherne, who lives in a trailer next to his gutted home in southeast Louisiana. “If there are grants for tribal nations and tribal people, that would be very useful information for people.”

FEMA will continue to work with state and local governments to ensure that state-recognized tribes receive assistance, agency officials said.

Another change under the new strategy is for more FEMA staff to meet tribes on their land, a request the agency has received from several tribes. This will include everything from in-person technical assistance in small rural communities to attending large national or regional tribal events.

Bill Auberle, co-founder of the Institute for Tribal Environmental Professionals at Northern Arizona University, said this focus on regular interactions on tribal lands is a huge development. More intimate discussions such as workshops, panel discussions and webinars are “extremely important for the tribes”.

“It’s one thing to send a review and say, ‘We’d like your response,'” Auberle said. “Some of these tribes are small but have very serious needs. FEMA can certainly appreciate that.

In addition to making more funds available to tribes, FEMA could also help by providing things like technical support as tribes prepare for and adapt to climate change, Auberle said.

The effort to ensure that all tribes fully understand how to access FEMA assistance or other related grants will be done with webinars, tribal consultations, or regular meetings with regional FEMA staff.

Agency workers will also be trained and learn historical and legal insight into tribal sovereignty and cultural sensitivities.

Zambrano of the National Tribal Emergency Management Council hopes this will allow each tribal nation to secure funding for an emergency management program.

“Our tribal nations are well over 30 years behind in developing their emergency management programs,” she said. “No one is better able to identify, mitigate, prepare for and respond to a disaster in Indian Country than the people who live there.”

Nohemi M. Moore