A member of a flood-damaged acequia walks past burned trees April 8 during the annual cleaning in the burn scar of the Hermits Peak-Calf Canyon fire. Members of the local congressional delegation are criticizing FEMA for delays in payments to victims of the fire. (Photo by Patrick Lohmann / Source NM)
Update May 10 at 6:21 p.m.:
This story has been updated to include responses from FEMA.
Three members of New Mexico’s congressional delegation on Wednesday sent a letter to top officials with the Federal Emergency Management Agency, criticizing the agency for delays in distributing several billion dollars to those who are still struggling to recover from the biggest wildfire in state history.
FEMA has opened field offices and is reaching out to victims of the Hermits Peak-Calf Canyon Fire, ignited by the United States Forest Service as two botched prescribed burns. FEMA is tasked with paying out $3.95 billion in aid approved by Congress late last year.
But the agency has missed several self-imposed deadlines in making the payments, which are intended to fully compensate victims for the federal government’s errors more than a year ago. And FEMA has not yet established final rules that will govern what compensation will cover.
FEMA initially said it expected the claims office to be “fully operational” in early 2023. But the agency has so far not issued a single payment to households affected by the fire or ensuing floods, and it has declined to say publicly when it expects the rules to be finalized.
The delays have frustrated members of New Mexico’s congressional delegation who secured the $3.95 billion late last year. U.S. Rep. Teresa Leger Fernandez and Sens. Martin Heinrich and Ben Ray Luján sent a letter urging FEMA to move faster and to provide an update to the delegation on where the claims office stands.
“Our communities cannot wait any longer,” the members of Congress wrote in the letter. “Every day that passes without compensation to the victims delays their ability to begin rebuilding after losing so much. We ask that you put yourself into the shoes of those who’ve waited more than a year after the fire started.”
FEMA officials, asked about the letter by Source New Mexico, said in a statement that it could take several more months to issue final rules, a timeline the agency said it does not control. But officials said FEMA has processed hundreds of comments it received about how the office should distribute the funds, and they feel they can address many of commenters’ concerns while the final rules are being finalized.
“Overall, this is the fastest that the agency has implemented a brand-new program of this size,” a spokesperson said.
The agency also announced previously that it would make partial payments to fire victims based on simple claims for damages, even while the final rules are still pending. And FEMA has hired a team of navigators from New Mexico to assist people making claims.
Claims Office Director Angela Gladwell told a packed lecture hall in Mora last month that federal rulemaking is difficult and time-consuming. The rules must be approved by FEMA, the U.S. Department of Homeland Security and the Office of Management and Budget, she said.
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“And they need to prioritize it across all of the rules in the federal government,” she said at the meeting April 19. “We are working with those partners as much as possible to expedite that process.”
The letter said FEMA has told the New Mexico delegation that delays are due to bureaucratic wrangling on a couple of rules that have sparked anger among fire survivors, including one that caps payments for destroyed trees at 25% of their pre-fire value.
That rule was copy-pasted from the last time a federal agency botched a prescribed burn in New Mexico and then sought to compensate those who lost their homes. The Cerro Grande Fire Assistance Act in 2001 was enacted after an escaped National Park Service prescribed burn near Los Alamos destroyed hundreds of homes, many of them in suburban neighborhoods.
FEMA officials have acknowledged that the cap on payments for trees is not well-suited for victims of the Hermits Peak-Calf Canyon wildfire, who rely on trees and timber for income and heat, and often comprise the biggest losses for many rural families with hundreds or thousands of acres of private forest. They’ve also suggested the cap will be lifted in the final rules.
They included the cap on tree payments as they rushed to meet the congressional deadline of 45 days to publish interim rules, FEMA officials said. It would have taken months, they explained, to write a completely new set of rules and so chose to use the previous set as a template.
The delegation’s letter to FEMA asked the agency to eliminate the cap on payments for trees, as well as a limit on payments to households who spent money reducing future risk of floods and wildfires on their property. And to do it quickly.
“It is a holdover from a different catastrophe impacting suburban homes, not an economy based on forest,” the members of Congress wrote. “We reiterate the importance of removing these caps.”
FEMA did not respond to a question about whether any specific interim rules are to blame for delays in final rule approval.
The agency received at least 300 public comments and held six meetings between mid-November and early January to solicit feedback on the interim rules. Dozens of those comments took issue primarily with limited payments for trees.
Delays have “deepened mistrust” with the agency, the letter states. Many residents are already frustrated by FEMA delays and denials in its immediate response to the disaster, including with the rollout of its program to house survivors in FEMA trailers or mobile homes.
“The victims don’t have permanent homes,” the members of Congress wrote. “Their economic livelihood is destroyed, and the floods will begin making matters worse.”
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