30% of New Mexicans seeking FEMA help got denial letters, but they can still get aid

Those deemed ineligible have 60 days to appeal

By: - June 14, 2022 5:00 am

The burn scar of the Hermits Peak-Calf Canyon fire pictured Thursday, June 9, 2022. (Photo by Patrick Lohmann / Source New Mexico)

The Federal Emergency Management Agency has so far deemed 740 applicants ineligible for federal aid for damages caused by the Hermits Peak-Calf Canyon fire, though an official stressed Monday that the door is still wide open for those people to get FEMA help. 

Spokesperson Angela Byrd provided new numbers to Source New Mexico about applications from those affected by the state’s biggest wildfire, which as of Monday had destroyed more than 320,000 acres and caused thousands to flee their homes. 

As of Monday, June 13, 2022, at 7 p.m.

The Hermits Peak-Calf Canyon fire had burned 320,495 acres.

It was 70% contained.

The denial letters from FEMA sparked criticism from nearby residents and Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham, who say the denials create a perception of blanket rejection of applicants. The letters are automated but say someone has been denied in bold letters across the top. 

“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,” the governor told Source New Mexico on the side of the road in Mora County last week. Instead, the letter should read “‘We’ve put you in this system. We’re gonna call and send out a benefits specialist,’” the governor said.

President Joe Biden, in his visit to New Mexico on Saturday, said FEMA representatives would be sure to make a follow-up phone call to every person who was initially deemed ineligible for aid. 

“We also have a team on the ground to help you register. FEMA is calling every person who is denied assistance to ensure they get the help they need in the language they speak,” Biden said at a news conference. “…We’ve learned in our administration it’s not just enough to provide the help, but to let people know how they can access the help.”

Byrd provided the following breakdown to Source New Mexico on Monday:

  • 982 applicants have been approved
  • 740 were deemed initially ineligible or withdrew an application, though they can still appeal or file again
  • 136 were pending
  • 687 were officially deemed ineligible due to having insurance or an inspector finding no damage

Byrd did not have information available about how many appeals have been filed. Applicants who receive initial denials have 60 days to file an appeal. 

Those figures show that about 30% of applicants have received initial denial letters from the agency. It’s common for a denial to be issued if an applicant hasn’t provided enough documents, Byrd said. 

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

“I hate to use the word deny, because they have the opportunity to appeal,” she said. “But they have to look at the base of why they were found ineligible and support whatever documentation is needed.”

Byrd and other FEMA officials urged recipients of those letters to read the letters closely and call the agency with concerns. And they stressed that an initial denial notice does not close as many doors as it might seem. 

Individuals and families who receive the denials are referred to the Small Business Administration for a potential loan. Those who don’t qualify for a loan will be referred back to FEMA, Byrd said. 

“Then they could come back and they can get help from FEMA. So it’s not a final, final decision,” she said. 

So far, FEMA has provided $3.2 million to the 982 individuals, which works out to about $3,200 apiece. 

Common reasons an applicant is deemed ineligible, according to FEMA: 

Insurance: If an applicant is insured, FEMA cannot pay for damage covered by insurance or duplicate benefits from another source. A person must provide documentation showing the denial or exclusions of an insurance settlement before FEMA will again consider eligibility.

No report of home damage:  Some evacuees are still waiting to get back to their homes to verify damages. If applicants initially reported no home damage but later discover it’s not habitable anymore, contact FEMA again. 

Home is habitable: FEMA housing assistance typically only covers costs to make homes safe to occupy. Damage to non-essential space, landscaping or spoiled food is usually not covered by FEMA grants

Proof of occupancy: When FEMA is unable to verify occupancy of someone’s primary residence, people can return with documentation, such as utility bills, a bank or credit card statement, phone bill, pay stubs, a driver’s license, state-issued ID card or voter registration card showing the damaged dwelling’s address.

Identity verfication: FEMA must be able to verify someone’s identity with a valid Social Security number. FEMA accepts documents such as a copy of a Social Security card if accompanied by federal or state-issued identification, a U.S. passport, military identification or certain documentation from the Social Security Administration.

No initial rental assistance: Applicants who indicated to the inspector that they were not willing to move while a home was being repaired were deemed ineligible for FEMA temporary rental assistance. But, if an applicant finds further damage that might require an occupant to move, they should contact FEMA again as soon as possible. 

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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.