FEMA is providing millions to those affected by the wildfires, but real cash assistance is still pending


MORA, NM — Diana Trujillo walked out of a one-story VFW room Tuesday afternoon, just after the Federal Emergency Management Agency deposited $37,000 into her bank account.

That’s the maximum amount the agency is providing to people who lost their homes in the Hermits Peak-Calf Canyon megafire in northern New Mexico, the largest in the state’s recorded history. She was pleased with the agency’s quick response, although the mother and grandmother joked that she could have rushed the approval out of sheer charm.

“I flirted with him the whole time,” Trujillo said of meeting the FEMA agent. “Like, all the time.”

The fire destroyed her four-bedroom house in Monte Aplanado, one in the family for more than a century, she said. This is where she has lived for the past 15 years with four other people, including her 7-year-old granddaughter whom she has not seen since the fire started about a month ago.

Source New Mexico spoke to Trujillo and a dozen others who emerged from the makeshift disaster recovery center in Mora on Tuesday and Wednesday. They talked about their first encounters with the agency helping them rebuild and recover from the devastating fire.

Many were happy and grateful, although they, like Trujillo, recognized that aid does not go far enough.

“I really don’t know what I’m going to do,” Trujillo said.

The Mora Disaster Recovery Center, pictured Tuesday, June 7. (Photo by Patrick Lohmann/Source New Mexico)

She doesn’t know where she will move or try to rebuild, if it means the end of part of her family’s long history in the area, if the five will come together under one roof again. The $37,000 is helpful, she says, but doesn’t help her answer those questions.

“I’m really, really, really, really angry and disappointed,” she said.

In light of President Joe Biden’s declaration of disaster, FEMA descended on an area still simmering with anger over the federal government’s role in their predicament. Earlier this year, the wandering prescribed burns of a United States Forest Service crew coalesced to consume more than 500 square miles of what was once lush, scenic grassland and forest.

Several drivers who speeded past the recovery center on NM 518 in recent days shouted as they passed, said Joseph Cisneros, a Salvation Army corps officer who delivered food and other provisions from the parking lot.

They yell things like “FEMA go home!” and “Losers!” and “Go back where you came from!” said Cisneros. (He admitted to omitting the drivers’ profanity from his account.)

A FEMA spokesperson told Source New Mexico on Wednesday that the agency provided $2.9 million to about 900 applicants.

However, the agency did not immediately provide additional data on the number of applications pending, denied or on appeal.

Spokeswoman Carmen Rodriguez Diaz said FEMA is doing its best to provide immediate assistance for basic needs such as hotel refunds, home repairs and property loss.

Take the money that FEMA gives and start rebuilding, then see what comes next.

– Carmen Rodriguez Diaz, FEMA spokesperson

We still don’t know what could come next. There are several ways the federal government could provide additional compensation to those affected by the fires, especially given their liability.

After the National Park Service caused the destructive Cerro Grande fire near Los Alamos in 2000, an act of Congress enlisted FEMA to “fully compensate” those who lost their homes or suffered other damage. The agency eventually provided at least $243 million in compensation to businesses, governments, and individuals, which equates to about $400 million in today’s dollars.

In 2001, FEMA Director Joe M. Allbaugh presented a check to Los Alamos County for over $13 million to make the community more fire resistant. (Photo by Andrea Booher/FEMA News Photo)

A similar act compensating victims of the Hermits Peak-Calf Canyon fire has been introduced but is still pending in Congress.

Lawyers are also circling, hoping to sue the federal government for negligence. These companies are looking for clients and told Source New Mexico that they have identified hundreds of potential applicants. Other companies run Google ads to search for those seeking damages.

But this additional compensation, if it arrives, is still a long way off. Rodriguez Diaz said the agency is doing its best to provide immediate compensation. So far, recipients have received about $3,000 on average.

In the meantime, Rodriguez Diaz also said agency officials are discussing how to avoid confusion in the application process and recognize the special needs of this community.

A problem encountered by the agency relates to the automatic letters provided in response to applications.

Several applicants who have spoken to Source New Mexico have been turned down or know someone who has been turned down for help. Or at least they thought they were denied. They come to this conclusion after receiving a letter that read “REFUSED” in large print at the top, the contestants said.

However, with further reading, an applicant might learn that the denial is only preliminary and only for a particular funding source. And people have 60 days to appeal the decision.

“All I heard was negativity, like it was so hard to get help, or they were turned away because of this or because of that,” said evacuee Andrea Romero-Montaño. “And for those people who literally lost everything they had, they are very discouraged. And where else are they supposed to turn? Especially in a town like this?

Governor Michelle Lujan Grisham spoke briefly with Source New Mexico on Tuesday about FEMA’s efforts, after reviewing the fire damage and attending a briefing on the fire’s potential effects on the watershed.

She pointed to the denial letters as a way for the federal agency to do better.

“People feel really demoralized by ‘I got a turndown,'” the governor said. “And this notion (of FEMA) that, ‘Oh, that’s just how we do things’, that doesn’t seem right to me. … Ultimately, it would be a lot easier if they didn’t They didn’t write “decline” on it and instead said, “This benefit may not apply, but they all do. We’ve put you in this system. We’ll call and send a benefits specialist.” “

Rodriguez Diaz said “denial” letters are sent automatically for a variety of reasons, such as if a phone number isn’t working or an application is incomplete. She said she was aware the issue was creating some confusion and urged all applicants to read the letters in their entirety and call FEMA if unsure.

“People get angry and don’t finish reading the letters. They need to keep reading,” she said. “…They think they don’t qualify and don’t call us, and they may be eligible.”

She also said there have been discussions within FEMA on the matter, but she is unsure if any changes are forthcoming.

The governor said she will take the issue to President Joe Biden when he visits an emergency operations center in Santa Fe on Saturday.

“They’re not solving this in a fire (which they’ve) created,” Lujan Grisham said. “It seems to me that you would try to solve this problem. It is therefore a constructive criticism that I will address to the White House.

Biden’s schedule on Wednesday shows no visitation outside the Santa Fe emergency operations center, including fire-damaged communities like Mora.

Free legal hotline for NM fire victims

Another problem faced by FEMA concerns proof of ownership. Residents said homes in the area are often passed on to new generations without a formal deed transfer. This makes it difficult for a homeowner to prove to FEMA that they should receive financial assistance.

FEMA spokesperson Rodriguez Diaz said the agency offers disaster legal assistance for precisely this purpose and urged homeowners facing this issue to call FEMA’s assistance hotline:

Hours: Monday to Friday 9:00 a.m. to 1:00 p.m. MST


More information: sbnm.org/wildfirehelp

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