FEMA Holds First Public Consultation Meeting on Wildfire Damage

November 19 – LAS VEGAS, NM – New Mexicans affected by the historic Hermits Peak/Calf Canyon fire tell federal officials they need them to do more as they try to recover from the disaster that lasted for months.

During the first of four scheduled public comment sessions with the Federal Emergency Management Agency – responsible for administering $2.5 billion in financial assistance to communities charred by the fire – victims said that they wanted a New Mexico claims administrator who understood the collective sense of loss caused by a fire that destroyed hundreds of homes and land vital to the survival of many people in the area.

“There’s a cultural value system that values ​​things differently than how you value them,” said Frank Flores, one of about 125 people who attended Thursday night’s session in Las Vegas. “You have to sit down and listen and follow the lead of people in this community on how you appreciate.

“You don’t value buildings the same way or land or trees the same way,” he added. “Talk to people about how they appreciate the things they’ve lost and do them together.”

Restitution following the fire that lasted for months can be difficult. Many in Mora, San Miguel and Taos counties say they lost more than land, homes or livestock. They also lost a way of life.

“When my house burned down, the person I was died,” said Rociada resident Kayt Peck, who lost her home to the fire in late April.

She said that for many people, wealth lies in the land they owned and worked, not its monetary value.

“Yes, money matters,” she said Friday morning after the meeting. “You have to rebuild. But it’s much more about treating people with dignity and respect.”

She and others at the meeting said their past experiences with FEMA officials had not always been cordial or respectful. A few expressed distrust of the agency, saying federal employees who don’t live or work in their communities will never understand what they need.

Angela Gladwell, the FEMA official who will oversee a planned claims office in New Mexico that should be operational within months, said the agency will hire local “experts” to help develop and administer the claims process. claim, including assessment of losses.

Toward the end of Thursday’s meeting, she told the assembly that it was difficult for “us, as a federal family, to offer you a set of programs that were not at all designed for what you have lived”.

After the meeting, she said she knew there was “so much suffering that happened in New Mexico as a result of the fire. I think what we’re looking at is how we can compensate people as much as possible… to help ensure that New Mexicans can get back on their feet and feel like they can close those big gaps.”

On Monday, FEMA officials said they would begin processing notices of claim from those who lost homes, businesses, property or other valuables in the blaze. The agency has also set up public comment sessions, which will take place in early January, in the Las Vegas and Mora areas. FEMA has also issued interim regulations for filing aid applications. Eligible residents have two years to apply for assistance.

Lawyers have worked with some residents to file a lawsuit against the federal government, which admitted culpability in starting the prescribed burns that consumed more than 340,000 acres.

Some attorneys attended the Las Vegas event, and at least one said attorneys’ fees should not be deducted from compensation for fire survivors, but rather awarded outside of damages. .

Some who attended Thursday’s meeting also said they wanted to see a process for claiming compensation for travel time related to the disaster – like a road trip from Las Vegas to Santa Fe, or Albuquerque, or even Denver to obtain the necessary documents for their claims. .

Some have expressed dismay that FEMA can only compensate them for up to 25% of certain losses, especially with reforestation efforts on their land. They said they should be compensated 100% for what they lost.

One man said that 25% is “not enough to get us back to where we need to be. We have lost houses, we have lost meadows. It’s going to take three or four years to get us back to where we need to be.

Peck also said at the meeting that she wants FEMA officials to be transparent about exactly where the money is going and how it is being spent.

“Can we see these numbers? ” she asked.

During the meeting, Gladwell said those injured in the fire did not need to provide documents when submitting initial claims.

She said that after the meeting, people may have lost all the documents supporting these claims in the fire, but that doesn’t mean they won’t be compensated.

“It’s not a unique problem here for FEMA,” she said. “We see this in different places. There are other ways to determine that someone owns a property and has been there… land records, affidavits, there are other ways. That’s our goal: to see what that it is reasonable to get it done without documentation.”

The Claims Guidelines give claimants the option of accepting FEMA’s final claim offer or appealing. But if the plaintiff accepts the offer, they must agree not to seek “other legal avenues,” Gladwell said during the presentation, held at Old Memorial Middle School in Las Vegas.

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