NM legal aid attorney: FEMA system ‘broken,’ but don’t give up

By: - July 1, 2022 4:30 am

The wreckage of a home in Las Dispensas, the first area destroyed by the Hermits Peak fire in early April. (Photo courtesy of Kathryn Mahan)

A lawyer overseeing a slew of damage claims from the Hermits Peak-Calf Canyon fire said the Federal Emergency Management Agency’s aid process needs an overhaul.

Michelle Garcia, an attorney with New Mexico Legal Aid, encouraged those seeking FEMA relief to reach out for legal help to a coalition of lawyers who are helping with claims. 

FEMA is providing an array of disaster aid checks for those who lost their homes or property, or incurred emergency expenses following the biggest fire in recorded New Mexico state history, one that resulted from escaped prescribed burns crews started in the Santa Fe National Forest. The biggest payments for destroyed homes can reach up to $37,500 and be as small as $500 or smaller for emergency expenses. 

NM Legal Assistance Hotline 

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

888-985-5141

More info: sbnm.org/wildfirehelp

In person

NM Legal Aid is holding an in-person legal clinic on July 23 at New Mexico Highlands University from 10 a.m. to 2 p.m.

Deadline

Aug. 4 to apply for FEMA aid. Appeals must be filed within 60 days of a denial letter.

At last count, the agency had denied 30% of applications from New Mexicans who sought damages, though people can still appeal. The agency had provided more than $3.6 million to 1,061 applicants as of Tuesday — which works out to about $3,400 apiece. 

The agency has come under criticism for its practice of sending automated denial letters to individuals and families who seek assistance. Denials often happen because applicants can’t immediately provide proof of ownership or other documents. The agency has also issued rejections based on incorrect information it gathered. 

In one case detailed by Source New Mexico this week, an application for a home destroyed by the fire in Las Dispensas was denied because the home was deemed “safe to occupy,” In that case, the agency was also using a different address than the one on the deed, and it erroneously determined the house was a rental, according to documents and interviews. 

Garcia  said 3% of applicants have reached out to the FEMA legal assistance hotline, which routes callers to Legal Aid, the State Bar Association and the NM Young Lawyers Association. Three percent amounts to about 80 people, according to the latest application estimates from FEMA. 

Garcia said she regularly encounters cases where FEMA is denying applicants too quickly, and she’s not surprised to read about the agency getting things wrong. 

FEMA gave 4 reasons for denying aid to an NM family who lost their home. All were wrong.

“We’re dealing with a bit of a broken system where there’s a default of, ‘Well, we know it’s bad. So go ahead and apply and then deal with it in the appeal process,’” she said. “It’s almost like people are supposed to be OK with the system not working at the application stage… That’s really frustrating, beyond frustrating, for people that need help with the situation.”

Those affected by the fire have until Aug. 4 to apply, according to New Mexico Legal Aid. The previous deadline was July 5, but the agency extended it. 

Garcia urged those harmed by the disaster to call the hotline and speak to lawyers working on their behalf, even if they think their case is straightforward or if they think they don’t qualify. 

“Talk to somebody. We’re happy to help,” she said. “And the main takeaway is people should apply even if they’re not sure they’re going to qualify, even if they don’t have all the paperwork, even if they’re not 100% on what they might need. Just get the application started.” 

Applications get started with FEMA but get routed in various directions, like to the Small Business Association if an applicant doesn’t qualify for FEMA aid but can receive a low interest loan for help rebuilding.

In the case of small farmers, of which there are many in northern New Mexico, the process is “arcane,” Garcia said. 

A farmer with a small operation would begin at FEMA, which would refer it to the SBA, Garcia said. But the SBA doesn’t offer loans for farmers, so that farmer would be sent to the Farm Services Agency for aid.

You would have to go through three different agencies to even get an answer on who can help you, and that's hard. I don't know another word for it. It’s really hard.

– Michelle Garcia, NM Legal Aid

“You would have to go through three different agencies to even get an answer on who can help you,” Garcia said. “And that’s hard. I don’t know another word for it. It’s really hard.”

FEMA has said since it opened up shop in the burn scar that applicants should do their best to meet the requirements of the program and appeal if they are denied. 

“Take the money that FEMA gives and start rebuilding, and then see what comes after,” Carmen Rodriguez Diaz, a FEMA spokesperson, told Source New Mexico earlier this month. 

Our stories may be republished online or in print under Creative Commons license CC BY-NC-ND 4.0. We ask that you edit only for style or to shorten, provide proper attribution and link to our web site.

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.

MORE FROM AUTHOR