Northern NM residents piece together rough housing solutions when FEMA aid doesn’t come
While many still can’t find stable homes, some houses sit empty, vacated because of flooding threat
Isidro Archuleta sits in his trailer on Wednesday, Sept. 14, 2022. His home is inaccessible due to road conditions after flooding off the Hermits Peak-Calf Canyon Fire burn scar. (Photo by Megan Gleason / Source NM)
One Mora County resident has been living out of his car or with friends for months after New Mexico’s largest fire burned his home down. Another couple has been living in a donated trailer behind the gas station. Another fled to her barn for safety, which ended up flooding. Someone else, unsafe at his house because of ongoing risks, bought a mobile home.
Those are just a few of the residents in northern New Mexico dealing with the aftermath of the Hermits Peak-Calf Canyon Fire and ongoing flooding disasters. After delayed or minimal responses from officials for help, many have had to figure out their own stopgap solutions for housing.
FEMA temporary housing delays, issues
Displaced residents without insurance or who are under-insured can apply for temporary housing or rental assistance funds through the Federal Emergency Management Agency. Twenty-one residents have been approved and are still waiting for temporary housing, FEMA spokesperson Angela Byrd said.
One of those residents is Bodi Mack, who moved to New Mexico in February 2022 and was renting a cabin that burned down in Mora County just months later. He said he got money from FEMA for food and clothing, and that the agency did a good job helping with that.
But he still doesn’t have anywhere permanent to live. FEMA has its hands full with getting displaced people housed, he said. In the meantime, others have been putting him up. He’s staying in a mobile home now at the Hummingbird Transformational Living Center, a community he’s apprenticing with that strives to connect with nature.
“FEMA’s having a hard time,” Mack said. “They keep calling me, asking me how I’m doing, and I said, ‘I’m just living out of my car. I’m staying at friends’ houses.’ And they would say, ‘Oh, we’re trying to find housing, but it’s really hard in the area.’”
Byrd said factors like site inspections, debris removal, damage evaluations and flooding risks affect how quickly people can get the housing. None of the approved applicants have gotten temporary housing yet, she said, though money has been allocated to some for rental or hotel assistance.
“FEMA works to move families into temporary housing as quickly as possible, although each family has a specific set of circumstances that affect their specific timeline,” Byrd said via email.
To get into housing, applicants must provide proof that their original home is uninhabitable due to the disaster. But that’s not possible for everyone.
The Archuletas have been living in a donated trailer behind an Allsup’s for weeks and can’t access their house because the road leading to it was destroyed by flooding. The National Guard came to move them out of their home in late July due to flooding risks, but the National Guard vehicle blew two tires due to the road conditions, and they had to borrow a neighbor’s ATV to get out.
That was back in July. The lack of access to the house caused issues and delays in pulling down FEMA funding for their property damage, Isidro Archuleta said, since the agency has to assess the damage in person. He said he has no idea how much more damage the area sustained since then, as the National Guard continues to work on the road.
“I have to get mad at one (FEMA representative) because he said, ‘I gotta get up there,’” Archuleta said. “Well, I told him, ‘Rent a helicopter and fly in. Or put on your boots and let’s go hiking.”
Their first help from FEMA will be a $597 check coming in the near future to cover rent, he said, but that’s not nearly enough. The couple has been out of their home for over seven weeks, and Archuleta pointed out that the funding doesn’t cover other necessities like groceries.
“It’s been so hard to work with FEMA,” Archuleta said. “It’s a long process. They make it so hard on you.”
His wife Jennifer said donations from the community have been extremely helpful. The couple was also grateful for the help of local volunteer Susan Vigil and County Commissioner Veronica Serna, who helped them find more aid. “Thank God for the people that donate things to us,” she said.
But it’s still a hard situation. Both have lost weight and are on oxygen, she said. They have lost their source of income, which came from selling Christmas trees they grew that are now burnt, and have no idea how their animals that they had to leave behind are doing. Isidro expressed anger toward the U.S. Forest Service for losing control of a prescribed burn that became the massive, historic blaze this spring.
“The forestry really did a number on us,” he said.
Flooding displacing people
Climate change issues contributed, too, said Dr. Fiona Sinclair, a resident who lives near the Rio de la Casa.
Since the flooding started in June, they said federal officials haven’t listened to their advice about how the waterways flow in the county and where the biggest dangers are.
Sinclair came back to Mora in June despite the evacuations because they contracted COVID and had nowhere else to go. They still had electricity because she runs on solar power and got food from the World Kitchen that was also providing food for the firefighters.
“I asked the sheriff if he’d let me in, and he did,” Sinclair said. “And it was burning all around me.”
Then, the monsoons came.
Their house is close to a river, and the threat of flash-floods was heavy on everyone’s mind. So Sinclair relocated to their hay field, where they have a cabin and barn. They moved all of their necessities and lived there for a short period of time.
“I was like, ‘This is my safe zone,’” Sinclair said.
And then that flooded.
The water damage left their hay field useless, Sinclair said. It had taken them five years just to grow all the different kinds of seeds in there, they said. Broken fencing borders the field now, so they can’t even bring her horses back.
Their own home, surrounded by sandbags and flood barriers, escaped largely without damage, and that’s where Sinclair’s staying now. But many of their friends and neighbors don’t even have homes anymore or can’t live in them due to flooding risks. And all of their friends are gone now, Sinclair said, “because they were so traumatized.”
“What happened up my road is 50% of it is now vacated,” Sinclair said. “People just left.” All of the houses along the river are empty, they added.
Jordan Minkin is a new temporary resident in the Rio de la Casa area. His actual home is right next to a river, which is more likely to flood because of how easily rain slips off the burn scars. He said he doesn’t feel safe staying there with the flooding risks.
So he bought a trailer and is living on land owned by Hummingbird for now. He said he imagines he’ll be in a limbo state for the next three to five years as the flooding threats continue.
Minkin bought flood insurance, so he doesn’t qualify for FEMA help. But even the insurance companies “are mostly fighting against you,” he said, and a lot of the other state and federal programs put in place aren’t really doing much.
“My life has been completely turned upside down,” he said.
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