An Exploration of United States Federal Policy Targeting American Indian and Alaska Native Disaster Vulnerability



Lucy Carter is a research associate at the Center for Disaster and Risk Analysis at Colorado State University and a Research Officer for the Joint Centre for Disaster Research at Massey University. She received her M.A. from the Department of Sociology at Colorado State University.

lori_photoDr. Lori Peek is an associate professor in the Department of Sociology and co-director of the Center for Disaster and Risk Analysis (CDRA) at Colorado State University. She has published extensively on vulnerable populations in disaster. Dr. Peek will be taking over as the next director of the Natural Hazards Center at the University of Colorado, Boulder in January, 2016.

This article addresses American Indian and Alaska Native tribal engagement with US Federal disaster planning programs and the challenges that may be faced by tribes.

As of September 30, 2015, more than three-quarters of all Native American and Alaskan Native (AIAN) tribes were ineligible to apply for FEMA grants and cannot receive federal funding for disaster mitigation projects. The research presented in this article, which draws on Carter (2016), summarizes a comprehensive policy analysis that included the review of 66 federal documents focusing on disaster mitigation and American Indian tribal sovereignty and explores FEMA tribal disaster declaration data and tribal mitigation planning data.

In the past four decades, 120 disasters have affected tribal areas according to FEMA disaster declaration records. The number of disasters has increased steadily over time, and 2010-2016 had the most tribal disasters on record (see Figure 1).


Figure 1: Number of Tribal Disaster Declarations by Decade (1976-2016)

The most common type of disaster experienced by tribes is severe storms, accounting for 59 of the 120 disaster declarations since 1976. Tribal areas have also been routinely affected by floods and fires, as well as several other natural hazards (see Table 1).


Table 1: Disaster Incident Types (1976-2015)

Until recently, tribes were unable to request a disaster declaration as a grantee through programs under the authority of FEMA to assist in mitigating hazards. Instead, the governor of their state had to request a declaration on their behalf. Tribes had the option to request a disaster declaration as a sub-grantee, but some deemed this process a violation of tribal sovereignty.

The status of tribes changed in 2013 when the Sandy Recovery Improvement Act was passed, which ultimately led to the amendment of the 1988 Robert T. Stafford Act. The amendment recognized tribes as distinct from local governments and gave tribes a direct channel to request a presidential disaster declaration. Since then, seven tribes have used this method, side-stepping states in the process. Yet, since only 20 percent of tribes have federally recognized disaster mitigation plans in effect, the vast majority are ineligible to participate in the FEMA mitigation process.

The FEMA dataset that was used for this analysis included information for 566 federally recognized tribes. Those tribes were not distributed evenly across the United States or across the ten FEMA regions. Indeed, the number of tribes varies dramatically by region (see Figure 2 and Table 2), with the highest number of tribes located in FEMA Region X (where there are 270 tribes, with 228 tribes in Alaska alone), and the fewest in Region III (where there are no federally recognized tribes).


Figure 2: Map of Ten FEMA Tribal Regions with Number of Tribes per Region

Connecticut, Maine, Massachusetts, and Rhode Island, has the highest proportion of approved plans per tribe, with six of the nine tribes (66.7 percent) having mitigation plans. Conversely, in Region X—which spans Alaska, Idaho, Oregon and Washington—only 24 of the 270 tribes (8.9 percent) have disaster mitigation plans in effect. In Alaska, the state with the largest number of tribes, FEMA reports that just 3 of the 228 tribes (1.31 percent) have currently approved disaster plans. This is further illustrated within Table 2 below.


Table 2: 2015 Regional Comparison of Tribes Regarding Disaster Planning Status

Challenges and Future Suggestions

While some federal funding is available for disaster mitigation planning, producing a disaster mitigation plan can still be a challenge for AIAN tribes. For instance:

  1. A typical disaster mitigation plan for a tribe may range between 100-500 pages depending on the size of tribe. For smaller tribes that do not have dedicated emergency management teams, the production of a mitigation plan or of a grant application could be nearly impossible without outside assistance.
  1. Physical isolation represents another challenge in the planning process. In Alaska, for example, 42 percent of the AIAN population are living in areas not accessible by a road (Goldsmith, 2008). Other tribes are located in similarly remote regions of the United States, especially in the West.
  1. Some American Indian and Alaska Native governments have reported experiencing difficulty balancing traditional beliefs with modern, westernized approaches to mitigation planning. This includes the federal frameworks often not appreciating traditional knowledge viewpoints that account for culturally sacred sites and culturally specific resource management practices (Redsteer et al., 2013: 396).

Even if these challenges are overcome, there is no guarantee that a plan will be accepted by FEMA on the first review. Multiple revisions may be and often are required before a final copy is approved. FEMA also requires that a tribe’s disaster mitigation plans be updated every five years. In order to underscore the urgency of making planning participation for tribes a priority, the following steps should be considered:

  1. FEMA has an existing Tribal Affairs Branch and Regional Tribal Liaisons for each of the ten FEMA regions. How this branch and the liaisons work with the tribes, and how receptive the tribes are to these outreach efforts, have not been systematically documented. Further investigation into these relationships and other potential barriers to participation is clearly warranted.
  1. The disaster data that was analyzed (see Carter, 2016, for complete results) indicates that some tribes have experienced repetitive losses, yet still have not engaged with FEMA to mitigate future disasters. These tribal disaster hotspots should be prioritized for outreach from FEMA Regional Tribal Liaisons as well as technical and financial support to encourage mitigation planning.
  1. Disaster mitigation planning is only likely to be successful if other forms of social, economic and environmental vulnerability are addressed. As such, disaster mitigation planning can and should be tied to other efforts to move toward more socially just and equitable tribal policies.
  1. The minority of tribes that have actively engaged with FEMA and have approved disaster mitigation plans available should be invited to share the lessons they have learned during the process and the technical and financial resources they drew upon to successfully plan and mitigate future hazards. There are many lessons to be learned from these mitigation leaders, and future research should document their trials and triumphs with the planning process.

An earlier, lengthier version of this article “Participation please: Barriers to Tribal Mitigation Planning” co-authored by Lucy Carter and Dr. Lori Peek was published in the April 2016 issue of The Natural Hazards Observer (

Carter, Lucy. 2016. “An Investigation of United States Federal Policy Attempts to Reduce American Indian and Alaska Native Disaster Vulnerability” Masters Thesis, Department of Sociology, Colorado State University.

Carter, Lucy, and Lori Peek. 2016. “Participation Please: Barriers to Tribal Mitigation Planning” The Natural Hazards Observer, The Natural Hazards Center: Boulder, Colorado. Issue XL, Vol. 4. Pp. 8-13.

Goldsmith, Scott. 2008. “Understanding Alaska’s Remote Rural Economy.” Institute of Social and Economic Research. Anchorage: University of Alaska.

Redsteer, Margaret .H., Kirk Bemis, Karletta Chief, Mahesh Guatuam, Beth Rose Middleton, Rebecca Tsosie et al. 2013. “Unique Challenges Facing Southwestern Tribes.” Assessment of Climate Change in the Southwest United States: A Report Prepared for National Climate Assessment. Washington, DC: Island Press

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