FEMA reverses course on ‘safe-to-occupy’ home after pressure. But what about everyone else? 

The agency has denied 29% of cases, though applicants can still appeal

By: - July 7, 2022 4:00 am

Rayyah, the 3-year-old daughter of Kathryn Mahan and Jamie Knutson, sits on the steps of their home destroyed April 12 by the Hermits Peak fire. FEMA initially deemed this home “safe to occupy” as a reason behind to deny an aid application, but later changed course. (Photo courtesy Kathyrn Mahan)

After initial denials, the Federal Emergency Management Agency reversed course and will provide the maximum in disaster aid to a family whose house was the first destroyed by the Hermits Peak-Calf Canyon fire. 

The agency previously provided four reasons to deny aid to Kathryn Mahan and her family for their destroyed home in Las Dispensas. All of them were incorrect. One of the reasons was that the home was “safe to occupy” despite it having been reduced to a pile of ash and sheet metal. 

Mahan’s home, which she shared with her 3-year-old daughter and husband, was destroyed April 12 after a prescribed burn escaped United States Forest Service control and, along with another errant prescribed burn, became the biggest fire in state history. 

Mahan and her husband began seeking help from FEMA in early May. They received a denial letter May 8, a day after an inspector reviewed the damage. The letter also denied the application because the agency incorrectly concluded the home was not their primary residence and that the ownership wasn’t verified, records show. 

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

On June 27, Mahan’s husband filed an appeal, which also appeared to be denied, according to a document Mahan provided to Source New Mexico for a story published June 29. The story detailed the family’s ordeal and criticism the agency received about its system of automated denials.  

This Sunday, Mahan said she got an “unexpected call” from two FEMA inspectors who came out that day. 

“They came out Sunday and we gave them exactly the same info we had submitted with the appeal,” she said in a text message. “They didn’t know there had already been an inspector or why it would have been denied.”

On Wednesday, Mahan got a letter approving the family for about $38,000 in housing assistance, Mahan said, which is the maximum provided by the agency for a destroyed home. She also got a bit more money for rental assistance, she said. 

A FEMA spokesperson declined to comment, saying the agency does not weigh in on individual cases. However, the agency has said previously that applicants should appeal any denial that they feel is incorrect. 

FEMA receives appeals and supporting documents in the following ways:

  • FEMA Helpline 1-800-621-3362 (FEMA), or (TTY) 1-800-462-7585
  • DisasterAssistance.gov to create an account and upload all supporting documents.
  • In-person at a disaster recovery center
  • By mail at:

FEMA – Individuals & Households Program National Processing Service Center

P.O. Box 10055

Hyattsville, MD 20782-8055

As of July 1, the agency has issued initial denials to 29% of applications, according to figures the agency provided to U.S. Rep. Teresa Leger Fernandez’s office and shared with Source New Mexico. Those denials can be appealed within 60 days they’re issued.

Leger Fernandez, whose district includes the burned area in northern New Mexico, intervened on Mahan’s behalf last week.

In an interview Wednesday, the Congressperson said her constituent services office has been getting 10 calls a day lately from fire victims. She said her office provides the “WD-40” often needed to get individual cases unstuck.

“We were able to explain, ‘This is the address. This is the family. Their home was completely destroyed. They are living in the home. It’s not a second home,’ ” she said. “And they were able to then get that verified by the family and it got resolved.”

She said the issue largely came down to a discrepancy with the address and other misunderstandings, though she did not get an explanation about how the agency deemed a home reduced to ash as safe to live in.

“Once they came to understand that there was no home, that the home had been completely destroyed, they were quick to resolve the question and apologize,” she said.

Mahan said that while she and her family “aren’t complaining” about the sudden change, she worries about others who didn’t have the same public attention to their cases.

“It definitely makes us a little uneasy to think it could be possible we were handled differently” because of a news report, she said. “Not that we aren’t grateful, but that would mean the system is less fair than we hoped.”

Keep an eye out for more from Source NM’s conversation with Leger Fernandez.

Her constituent services number website is here, and her Santa Fe office phone number is (505)428-4680.


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.