$3.95B not enough to meet all New Mexico disaster victims’ needs, NM delegation says

U.S. senators and representatives urge federal housing agency to send more recovery funds quickly to state, not waiting for ‘delayed’ FEMA dollars to get out

By: - June 21, 2023 2:16 pm

A house that the Hermits Peak-Calf Canyon Fire burned down, pictured in September 2022. HUD grant funding would cover housing assistance needs of disaster victims. (Photo by Megan Gleason / Source NM)

Update: June 22, 2023 10:04 a.m.

This article has been updated to include HUD’s response to Source NM questions about the letter.

New Mexico’s federal delegation is pushing to urgently get more disaster relief money to all fire victims in the state. The members say there could be as much as $1.54 billion in unmet needs, even after Congress last year approved billions of dollars for disaster victims.

U.S. Sens. Ben Ray Luján and Martin Heinrich, joined by U.S. Reps. Teresa Leger Fernández, Melanie Stansbury and Gabe Vasquez, sent a letter on Friday asking Marcia Fudge, secretary of the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development, to approve an imminent allocation and distribution of financial aid to New Mexico.

The delegation said the $3.95 billion Congress put aside last year isn’t enough to meet the needs of everyone in areas burned and flooded by last year’s historic fire season. The delegation is concerned HUD has already decided not to provide additional funding to disaster victims here because of how much has already been allocated from different sources.

The $3.95 billion is supposed to go to victims of the Hermits Peak-Calf Canyon Fire, the largest wildfire in New Mexico’s history. Victims of the McBride, Nogal and Cerro Pelado Fires won’t get anything from that pot, the New Mexico delegation pointed out in the letter.

They sent HUD a list of questions about how and when New Mexico will get disaster recovery assistance.

A HUD spokesperson said on Thursday morning the federal agency is still “processing and evaluating” the letter. They noted that not all major disaster declarations get the disaster recovery grant funds the New Mexico delegation members want.

For those who are eligible for the $3.95 billion, the Federal Emergency Management Agency is in charge of distributing the money through its Hermits Peak-Calf Canyon Claims Office.

It’s not clear if FEMA has actually distributed any funds yet, though a Claims Office spokesperson said earlier this month the agency has started paying for flood insurance policies. In response to questions from Source NM, FEMA on June 6 declined to say whether they had paid out any loss claims.

The federal delegation said there has been a “delayed timeline to deliver that funding to communities” and asked HUD if that’s affecting their own disaster grant timeframe.

The letter says the federal grant funds could fulfill, at minimum, $242 million or, at most, $1.54 billion in needs not covered by FEMA, according to data from the New Mexico Department of Homeland Security and Emergency Management.

The estimated unmet recovery needs

The letter lays out funding still needed to help victims recover:

  • Between $95 million and $189 million for housing needs;
  • Between $118 million and $1.28 billion for infrastructure needs;
  • Between $2.7 million and $27.4 million for economic development needs;
  • Between $26.7 million and $39 million for planning and capacity building.

If HUD paid for the maximum recovery needs estimated, it would take up half of the $3 billion pot they have for fiscal year 2023.

“FEMA support alone will not be able to fully address the damages from New Mexico’s worst ever fire season,” they wrote.

The senators and representatives said they fought to make sure New Mexico would be eligible for Community Development Block Grant Disaster Recovery grant funds through HUD. That’s what the delegates want sent to the state.

HUD set aside more than $3 billion in March 2023 to help with recovery for disasters that happened in 2022 or later. Though New Mexico may be eligible, it’s not included on the list of states or territories HUD designated as “most impacted and distressed” areas resulting from qualifying recent disasters that require the grant funds.

The disaster grant fund isn’t a permanently authorized program, the HUD spokesperson said, and HUD gets additional funds from Congress to allocate dollars.

After a disaster, these grants can cover housing repairs and construction efforts, infrastructure fixes for roads and water facilities, and workforce activities, such as job training or financial aid for businesses.

Before HUD gives out the money, officials have to figure out how much help victims are getting from FEMA, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, the Small Business Administration and insurance agencies.

The goal is to “supplement and fill remaining gaps” for long-term recovery efforts in presidentially declared disaster areas, according to HUD. The HUD spokesperson said these funds are “intended to be used to address needs not met by other funding sources.”

But New Mexico’s delegates are fighting to get that money sent to the state quickly without waiting for FEMA’s $3.95 billion to actually get into the hands of community members.

“The impacted communities cannot wait years while FEMA assistance and the Claims Office awards are finalized before (Community Development Block Grant Disaster Recovery) funding is allocated,” they wrote.

The delegation urged HUD to work with FEMA “to ensure that funding is distributed in a fair and efficient way.”

Luján’s office told Source New Mexico via email that the federal delegation is concerned HUD believes that the FEMA Claims Office will cover all the unmet disaster needs from last year’s fire season so the grant funding won’t be necessary.

“The goal of this letter was to make it clear that we do not agree with that assessment and urge HUD to assess unmet needs for all 2022 disasters, including the Cerro Pelado and McBride fires,” Luján wrote via spokesperson Adán Serna.

The New Mexico representatives and senators pointed out that the disaster victims are largely low-income families who have been living on that land for generations. These people need help in a timely manner, they said.

The full list of questions

The letter included the following questions for HUD:

  1. When will HUD notify New Mexico on how much disaster recovery grant funding it will receive in response to the 2022 fires?
  2. Is there any additional information from FEMA, the Small Business Administration, New Mexico, the federal delegation or other sources that HUD needs in order to make a determination?
  3. Has HUD been coordinating directly with FEMA in assessing the impact of the funds FEMA will provide, given the significant administrative costs to standing up the claims office and the delayed timeline to deliver that funding to communities?
    1. Does the timeline in which FEMA will provide support at all affect HUD’s timeline or allocation?
  4. Are the Hermit’s Peak/Calf Canyon Fire, McBride Fire, Nogal Fire and Cerro Pelado Fire all being assessed separately for their individual eligibility for the disaster recovery grant funds?

Read the letter in its entirety:


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Megan Gleason
Megan Gleason

Megan Gleason is a journalist based in Albuquerque. She recently graduated from the University of New Mexico, where she served as the editor-in-chief of the Daily Lobo. Other work has appeared under the New Mexico Press Association as well as in the Independent, Gallup Sun and Silver City Daily Press.