President Biden asks for almost $3 billion more for northern New Mexico wildfire victims

By: - November 30, 2022 5:09 am
President Joe Biden greets Interior Secretary Deb Haaland and FEMA Administrator Deanne Criswell at the steps of Air Force One at Kirtland Air Force Base in Albuquerque in June for a visit related to the Hermits Peak-Calf Canyon Fire.

President Joe Biden greets Interior Secretary Deb Haaland and FEMA Administrator Deanne Criswell at the steps of Air Force One at Kirtland Air Force Base in Albuquerque in June for a visit related to the Hermits Peak-Calf Canyon Fire. (Photo by Austin Fisher / Source NM)

President Joe Biden has asked Congress for another $2.9 billion for New Mexico to recover from a wildfire ignited by the United States Forest Service, the largest in the state’s recorded history. If passed, victims would be in line to receive more than $5 billion total in federal compensation. 

Biden in late September signed a spending bill that included $2.5 billion for victims of the 340,000-acre fire in northern New Mexico. Members of Congress said at the time that the amount still might not be enough to fully compensate people for lost homes, burned businesses and properties, and many other types of damage in the aftermath. 

“If we need to go back to our colleagues and future funding cycles, whether that’s at the end of the year, or in the coming appropriations bill, we’re not going to be shy about doing that,” Sen. Martin Heinrich, a Democrat, told reporters after the measure was passed. “But first and foremost, we need to get this set up well and get the money flowing into the community.”

The $2.5 billion was hailed as “historic.” Biden’s proposal more than doubles that. A total compensation package worth $5.4 billion equals nearly two-thirds of the entire New Mexico state budget. 

The U.S. Office of Management and Budget (OMB) prepares proposals to send to Congress on the president’s behalf. In a document published on the office’s website, the Biden administration includes an additional $2.9 billion for New Mexico “​​to address outstanding claims for the Hermits Peak Fire.”

Two out-of-control prescribed burns started by the U.S. Forest Service merged in April and burned until late August, destroying more than 1,000 structures. Ensuing floods over charred land compounded the damage. 

Today, many roads are impassable, much of the landscape destroyed, and many victims are in desperate need of help to return to their land and get their lives back together. 

Federal estimates suggest $5.4 billion is really the amount the state is owed. An estimate from the OMB notes that though $2.5 billion was approved, the president’s budget proposal would create an “entitlement to compensation,” rather than compensation being based on a limited amount of money available through Congress at the time.

The OMB did not immediately respond to a request to elaborate on its proposal. 

If this additional $2.9 billion were appropriated, a little over $1 billion of it would be spent in 2024, followed by almost $1.3 billion in 2025, $616 million in 2026 and $3 million in 2027, according to OMB estimates. 

More than $37 billion in disaster aid under scrutiny in congressional lame duck

Like the money that’s already approved for New Mexico, this funding would go through the Federal Emergency Management Agency. FEMA is currently accepting public comments about how it will administer the newly created Hermits Peak-Calf Canyon Fire Claims Office. 

The agency is scrambling to get the office up and running as quickly as possible, having been given only 45 days to establish interim regulations for the program, officials said. 

Some of the money will go to FEMA for administering the program, along with any contractors it hires to help run the office. The agency is exploring outsourcing much of the work, though it’s not yet clear what a private company would be paid. 

Biden’s call for additional recovery money for New Mexico isn’t a sure thing. Congress will consider the request along with others from the administration for disaster relief around the country.

Congress will likely weigh the funding next month, when members would have to pass spending legislation before a stopgap government funding bill expires on Dec. 16, shutting down some of the U.S. government.

Whether they will do it remains to be seen, and Republicans could hold out on major funding decisions until their party takes control of the House in January.

In the funding request for natural disasters across the nation, the Biden administration wrote that the federal government needs “to help our communities recover and rebuild from extreme weather events …”

“That’s why we are requesting $37.3 billion to fund critical disaster response and rebuilding efforts in Florida, Puerto Rico, and other communities across America that have faced severe flooding, wildfires, drought and extreme heat over the past year.”

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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.

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