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Earlier this month, Native News Online sat down with Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) Administrator Deanne Criswell. She spoke with us about how FEMA is striving to meet the needs of Native communities throughout the U.S. We’re publishing our Q & A with the Administrator here. The discussion has been edited for content and clarity.

NATIVE NEWS ONLINE: Tell us what's new with the Biden administration's FEMA, as it relates to Tribal nations, and what changes will be made to how the Stafford Act is being implemented, in relationship to tribal nations.

CRISWELL: This is such an amazing time in our country, because the Biden-Harris administration has really set the tone for all of us in making our relationships and our partnerships with Tribal nations front and center. And really important, as you know, the Biden administration just released their memorandum on tribal consultation, and recently held their first Tribal Summit. And these are incredibly important steps to make sure that we are moving forward as a nation and recognizing the sovereignty of our Tribal nations. 

At FEMA, what we're doing is developing our first ever Tribal strategy that's going to focus and help guide our efforts, and how we do outreach and engagement with our tribal partners, and ensure that they're getting the equitable delivery of services that FEMA has to offer. 

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With respect to your question on the Stafford Act, specifically, the Sandy Recovery Improvement Act, and that was the first time ever that piece of legislation recognized the sovereignty of our Tribal nations, allowing Tribes to request disaster declarations directly to the President. We have had no other changes to our Stafford Act policies as of late, but what we're doing here at FEMA is to continue to work with our Tribal partners, through our our national Tribal liaison officer as well as our regional liaison officers to continue to engage and increase the outreach that we're doing with our partners, to make sure that we're meeting your needs, where you're at.

NATIVE NEWS ONLINE: Tell us about FEMA’s involvement in supporting Tribes, especially post-Hurricane Ida in Louisiana.

CRISWELL: Hurricane Ida was a devastating storm that left a path of destruction across Louisiana as well as several other states, from Louisiana all the way to the east coast. In Louisiana, there were four tribes that were impacted by Hurricane Ida, and they are receiving any eligible assistance through the state programs right now--through the state declaration. Our Tribal liaison that's in the region will be working directly with those tribes to help make sure that they understand what they're eligible for as they recover from the impacts from Hurricane Ida.

NATIVE NEWS ONLINE: What's FEMA doing to ensure that the tribes are ready when natural disasters take place?

CRISWELL: I think the mitigation plan is one piece of this. Recovery plans are another component. How are they going to recover after a disaster and start rebuilding, and as they rebuild, take into account some of the mitigation measures that need to happen to make them more resilient? We do require at FEMA mitigation plans to be eligible for mitigation funding. We don't require recovery plans, but they're incredibly important. And again, these are the types of projects that our tribal liaisons work with tribal nations across the country to help them if they would like to develop them, and we provide technical assistance that can come in and help draft these plans.

NATIVE NEWS ONLINE: How is FEMA ensuring mitigation plans are in place, prior to a natural disaster, so tribes can access funding immediately?

CRISWELL: Mitigation plans are such an important part of what we as a nation need to be doing in order to combat the effects that we're seeing from climate change. Mitigation plans help identify what a Tribe’s risks are, and start to think through the type of actions that can be taken to reduce the impacts from the increasing number of severe storms that we're seeing. 

They're also a requirement in order to receive funding from our mitigation programs. And so what we do is we work through our Tribal liaisons in the regions and they do outreach and engagement across the country. They know who has a mitigation plan or whose mitigation plan might be expiring, and they will go and offer technical assistance to help make sure that we're developing these mitigation plans. 

Again, the important part is the fact that when we write these plans, or we update these plans, we really take the time to understand our risks to the severe weather events that we're seeing. And even more important today, as we're continuing to see, severe weather events increase as a result of climate change, that we're thinking through what these future risks might be. 

And so again, our tribal liaison officers will be happy to work with Tribes who don’t have mitigation plans, to help provide technical assistance to either update or create these plans.

NATIVE NEWS ONLINE: Is there anything else FEMA wants to address or uplift or highlight for Tribal nations?

CRISWELL: I want to highlight the Cherokee Nation. They were able to use a portion of the CARES Act funding through COVID-19 to help open up two facilities. These facilities were able to manufacture personal protective equipment at a time when it was scarce and limited across the country. And they were able to produce enough personal protective equipment or PPE, to not only support their tribal members, but also non tribal members in the communities that are surrounding them. They were able to donate 16,000 masks to different schools in the area. It’s such a great example of the partnership, of how we come together as a nation and help each other during times of crisis. 

And I want to highlight the Choctaw Nation of Oklahoma. With the funding that we provided at FEMA through our Public Assistance Program, they were able to provide emergency feeding to the tribal members. They were able to feed 100,000 Tribal members. Through programs like these, they were also able to hire community members to help support the distribution of food and PPE for those that were recently unemployed as a result of COVID-19. 

These are just two of many examples out there of the value and the effort that goes into supporting communities.

NATIVE NEWS ONLINE: Thank you Administrator Criswell.

CRISWELL: I look forward to future conversations so we can continue this dialogue and make sure we're getting information out.  

To learn more about FEMA's work with tribes, visit https://www.fema.gov/about/organization/tribes.

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