Three things FEMA could do better, according to a Congresswoman fielding NM fire victims’ calls

By: - July 8, 2022 4:14 am

A home destroyed by the Hermits Peak / Calf Canyon Fires in Mora County, New Mexico. (Photo by Shaun Griswold / Source NM)

When the ash finally settles from the biggest fire in New Mexico history, it will take congressional might to change how the Federal Emergency Management Agency handles disasters like the one here, according to the member of Congress whose district is left scarred by the Hermits Peak-Calf Canyon blaze.

U.S. Rep. Teresa Leger Fernandez said her office gets at least 10 calls per day lately from constituents frustrated by FEMA or other challenges related to the aftermath of the fire. 

She told Source New Mexico in an interview Wednesday that her office can help get some cases moving or provide correct information to FEMA on an individual basis. But that’s not enough, she said. 

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She also recently got answers from the agency about why so many cases are being denied. 

About one-third of applicants have been deemed ineligible, according to the latest figures, and many other cases are being appealed. The agency has also provided more than $3.7 million to about 1,100 applicants. 

“The high rates of denial is very disheartening,” Leger Fernandez told Source New Mexico. “I understand how frustrating it can be to have lost your home, to have survived the calamity of the fire, and then to deal with an agency that’s supposed to help and to get denied. It feels like nobody’s listening to you. And it crushes hope.”

Her office recently intervened on behalf of a family denied aid after they initially applied and again in an appeal after their home was destroyed. FEMA gave four incorrect reasons, including that the home was “safe to occupy” for that denial, though the building was reduced to nothing but rubble and scrap. The agency ultimately gave the family about $40,000 and encouraged others in their situation to appeal and keep in contact with the agency. 

FEMA did not immediately respond to a request for comment on the congressperson’s criticism, but Leger Fernandez’s office did provide the agency’s response to her inquiry. 

Three reasons so many people are getting denied, and what can be done to stop it, according to Leger Fernandez and FEMA:

  • No call backs

FEMA officials make one phone call a day for three days to each applicant, often to ask for additional documents or to set up an inspection. 

The agency has been getting “low to no responses,” from applicants, FEMA told Leger Fernandez’s office. They make more than 100 calls a day. 

That could be because cell phone users are accustomed to ignoring phone calls that come from out of state, as these FEMA calls tend to do, Leger Fernandez said. 

The cell service is spotty in the area, as well. 

She urged those seeking FEMA help to answer phone calls, even if they seem sketchy. 

If FEMA can’t reach applicants after three attempts, the case is closed until the applicant contacts FEMA. 

  • Duplicate applications

If two people from the same household file applications for the same property, FEMA denies both applications, Leger Fernandez said. 

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A FEMA spokesperson did not respond to a request for comment about why the agency denies both applications instead of just choosing one and sending it on to the next step. 

Leger Fernandez said she’s asked FEMA to change this practice.

  • Bad addresses

Another problem is that FEMA is potentially consulting a list showing different addresses than what’s on many applicants’ deeds. The rural counties where the fire occurred re-addressed many properties to make them easier for first responders to find. 

Leger Fernandez said she’s asked FEMA to be better, generally, about working with applicants instead of issuing blanket denials. 

“Once (FEMA) understands the problems, like, we’re seeing duplicates, let’s not deny both duplicates, OK?” she said. “Let’s be careful about the addresses… Do not assume they’re wrong. Defer to the applicant, because the applicant knows where they’re living, right? And to not just do a rejection, but to follow up and have those conversations.”

Congressional leverage

Leger Fernandez said Congress will have an opportunity to raise concerns about FEMA’s response in New Mexico later this summer when funding for the agency is approved, and other hearings could be held. 

She said the agency is improving “but still not where they need to be” when it comes to responding to disasters like this one. 

She said she doesn’t anticipate introducing legislation, specifically when it comes to curbing the agency’s use of automated denials. She’d need to look into whether such a change would best occur within the agency as a change to its procedures instead of a statute enacted by Congress. But she said she’ll raise the issue when it comes to funding and looking back at what FEMA did right and wrong in this disaster. 

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But that doesn’t help folks struggling now, she acknowledged. 

“There is a commitment by the FEMA Director and by the White House to make sure that they learn from their past mistakes and learn from each disaster so that they are helping the survivors better,” she said. “And we expect the same to happen here. But we don’t want to wait until afterwards. We want to make sure that they start improving their response in real time.”

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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.