FEMA provides millions to those affected by wildfire, but real cash help is still pending

Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham said the agency needs to do better following up after initial “denial”

By: - June 9, 2022 6:50 am

The remains of Diana Trujillo’s property in Monte Aplanado, N.M. (Photo by Shaun Griswold / Source NM)

MORA, N.M — Diana Trujillo stepped out of a single-story VFW hall on Tuesday afternoon, just after the Federal Emergency Management Agency deposited $37,000 into her bank account. 

That’s the maximum amount the agency provides to people who lost their homes to the Hermits Peak-Calf Canyon megafire in northern New Mexico, the biggest in the state’s recorded history. She was pleased with the agency’s quick response, though the mother and grandmother joked that she might have hastened the approval through sheer charm.

“I flirted with him the whole time,” Trujillo said about her meeting with the FEMA agent. “Like, the whole time.”

The fire destroyed her four-bedroom home in Monte Aplanado, one in the family for more than a century, she said. It’s where she lived for the last 15 years with four others, including her 7-year-old granddaughter she hasn’t seen since the fire began about a month ago.

Source New Mexico spoke to Trujillo and about a dozen other folks who stepped out of the makeshift disaster recovery center in Mora on Tuesday and Wednesday. They talked about their early encounters with the agency that is helping them rebuild and recover from the devastating fire. 

Many were pleased and grateful, though they, like Trujillo, acknowledged that the aid doesn’t go nearly far enough.

“I really don’t know what I’m going to do,” Trujillo said.

The disaster recovery center in Mora, pictured Tuesday, June 7. (Photo by Patrick Lohmann / Source New Mexico)

She doesn’t know where she’ll move or try to rebuild, whether this means the end of part of her family’s long history in the area, whether the five of them will reunite under one roof again. The $37,000 is helpful, she said, but doesn’t help her answer those questions. 

“I’m really, really, really, really angry and disappointed,” she said. 

In light of President Joe Biden’s disaster declaration, FEMA has descended upon a region still smoldering with anger about the federal government’s role in their predicament. A United States Forest Service crew’s errant prescribed burns earlier this year merged to consume more than 500 square miles of what was once lush and picturesque meadow and forestland. 

Several drivers who sped past by the recovery center on N.M. 518 in recent days shouted as they drove by, said Joseph Cisneros, a Salvation Army corps officer who has delivered food and other provisions from the parking lot. 

They shout things like “FEMA go home!” and “Losers!” and “Go back to where you came from!” Cisneros said. (He acknowledged he omitted the drivers’ profanity in his retelling.)

A FEMA spokesperson told Source New Mexico on Wednesday that the agency had provided $2.9 million to about 900 applicants. 

However, the agency did not immediately provide additional data about how many applications were pending, denied or being appealed.

Spokesperson Carmen Rodriguez Diaz said FEMA is doing its best to provide immediate assistance for basic needs like hotel reimbursements, home repairs and property losses.

Take the money that FEMA gives and start rebuilding, and then see what comes after.

– Carmen Rodriguez Diaz, FEMA spokesperson

It’s still unclear what might come after. There are several ways in which the federal government might provide additional compensation to those affected by the fires, especially given their liability. 

After the National Park Service caused the destructive Cerro Grande fire near Los Alamos in 2000, an act of Congress to enlist FEMA to “fully compensate” those who lost their homes or had other damage. The agency ultimately provided at least $243 million  in compensation to businesses, governments and individuals, which amounts to about $400 million in today’s dollars. 

In 2001, FEMA Director Joe M. Allbaugh presented a check to Los Alamos County for more than $13 million to make the community more fire resistant. (Photo by Andrea Booher/ FEMA News Photo)

A similar act compensating victims of the Hermits Peak-Calf Canyon fire has been introduced but is still pending in Congress. 

Attorneys are also circling, hoping to sue the federal government for negligence. Those firms are seeking clients and told Source New Mexico they’ve identified hundreds of possible claimants. Other firms are taking out Google ads to trawl for those seeking damages. 

But that additional compensation, if it arrives, is still far away. Rodriguez Diaz said the agency is doing its best to provide immediate compensation. So far, recipients have gotten about $3,000 on average. 

In the meantime, Rodriguez Diaz also said agency officials are discussing how to avoid confusion in the application process and how to acknowledge particular needs of this community. 

One issue the agency has encountered has to do with automatic letters provided in response to applications. 

Several applicants who spoke to Source New Mexico have been denied or know someone denied for help. Or at least they thought they were denied. They arrive at that conclusion after receiving a letter that says “DENIED” in big font across the top, applicants said.

However, with further reading, an applicant could learn that the denial is only preliminary and only for a particular funding source. And people have 60 days to appeal the decision. 

“All I’ve been hearing is negativity, like it’s so hard to get help, or they get turned away because of this or because of that,” said evacuee Andrea Romero-Montaño. “And for these people that have lost literally everything they own, they get very discouraged. And where else are they supposed to turn? Especially in a town like this?”

Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham spoke briefly to Source New Mexico on Tuesday about FEMA’s efforts, after she surveyed damage from the fire and attended a briefing about potential effects of the fire on the watershed.

As of Wednesday, June 8 at 6 p.m.

The Hermits Peak-Calf Canyon fire has burned 318,599 acres.

It is 65% contained.

She pointed to the denial letters as a way that the federal agency could do better.

“Folks feel really demoralized by, ‘I got a denial,’” the governor said. “And this notion (from FEMA) that, ‘Oh, that’s just how we do things,’ that doesn’t feel right. … In the end, it’d be a lot easier if they didn’t write ‘denial’ on there and instead they said, ‘This benefit may not be applicable, but these all are. We’ve put you in this system. We’re gonna call and send out a benefits specialist.’”

Rodriguez Diaz said the “denial” letters are sent out automatically for various reasons, like if a phone number doesn’t work or if an application is incomplete. She said she is aware that the issue is creating some confusion and urged all applicants to read the letters completely and to call FEMA if they have any uncertainty. 

“People get mad and they don’t finish reading the letters. They need to continue reading,” she said. “…They think that they are not qualified and don’t call us, and they may be eligible.”

She also said there has been some discussion within FEMA about the issue, but she was not aware if any changes were forthcoming. 

The governor said she will bring the problem up to President Joe Biden when he visits an emergency operations center in Santa Fe on Saturday.

“They’re not solving that in a fire (they’ve) created,” Lujan Grisham said. “Seems to me like you would try to solve that. So it’s a constructive criticism I’m going to give to the White House.”

As of Wednesday, Biden’s schedule does not show a visit outside of the Santa Fe emergency operations center, including to communities like Mora damaged by the fire.

NM Fire Victims Free Legal Assistance Hotline

Another problem FEMA has encountered has to do with proof of ownership. Residents said homes in the area often are passed to new generations without a formal transfer on a deed. That makes it hard for a homeowner to prove to FEMA that they should receive financial help.

Rodriguez Diaz, the FEMA spokesperson, said the agency offers disaster legal assistance for precisely this purpose and urged owners facing this issue to call FEMA’s assistance hotline:

Hours: Monday to Friday 9 a.m. to 1 p.m. MST

888-985-5141

More info: sbnm.org/wildfirehelp

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Patrick Lohmann
Patrick Lohmann

Patrick Lohmann has been a reporter since 2007, when he wrote stories for $15 apiece at a now-defunct tabloid in Gallup, his hometown. Since then, he's worked at UNM's Daily Lobo, the Albuquerque Journal and the Syracuse Post-Standard. Along the way, he's won several state and national awards for his reporting, including for an exposé on a cult-like Alcoholics Anonymous group and a feature on an Upstate New York militia member who died of COVID-19. He's thrilled to be back home in New Mexico, where he works to tell stories that resonate and make an impact.

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