Nov. 19 – LAS VEGAS, NM – New Mexicans affected by the historic Hermits Peak/Calf Canyon Fire tell federal officials they need to do more as they try to recover from the months-long disaster.
In the first of four planned public meetings with the Federal Emergency Management Agency — tasked with administering $2.5 billion in financial aid to fire-charred communities — victims said they wanted a claims administrator in New Mexico, who understands the sense of community of the loss caused a fire that destroyed hundreds of homes and land that was vital to the survival of many in the region.
“There’s a cultural value system that values things differently than you value them,” said Frank Flores, one of about 125 people who attended Thursday night’s session in Las Vegas. “You need to sit down and listen and follow the lead of the people of this community in how you value value.
“They don’t value buildings the same way or the land or the trees the same way,” he added. “Talk to people about how they appreciate the things they’ve lost and make them whole again.”
Recovering from months of fire can be difficult. Many in Mora, San Miguel and Taos counties say they have lost more than land, homes or livestock. They have also lost a way of life.
“When my house burned down, the person I was died,” said Kayt Peck of Rociada, who lost her home to the fire in late April.
She said for many people, wealth is in the land they own and farm, not in the monetary value of it.
“Yes, money counts,” 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 have not always been cordial or respectful. Some expressed distrust of the agency, claiming federal employees who don’t live or work in their communities never understand what they need.
Angela Gladwell, the FEMA official who will oversee a proposed claims bureau in New Mexico that is expected to be up and running within months, said the agency will hire local “experts” to help develop and manage the claims process, including assessment of losses, to help .
Towards the end of Thursday’s meeting, she told the congregation that “it has been difficult for us as a federal family to bring you a set of programs that are not at all designed for what you have been going through.”
After the meeting, she said she knew “so much suffering has happened in New Mexico as a result of the fire. I think we’re looking at how we can compensate people as much as possible … to help make sure New Mexicans get back on their feet and feel like we can fill these big gaps.”
On Monday, FEMA officials announced they would begin processing damage reports from people who lost homes, businesses, property or other valuables to the fire. The agency also set up the public comment sessions, which will run through early January in the Las Vegas and Mora areas. FEMA also published transitional provisions for submitting grant applications. Eligible residents have two years to apply for assistance.
Lawyers have worked with some residents to file suits against the federal government, which admitted blame for starting the mandatory 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 fire survivor compensation, but should be awarded outside of damages.
Some who attended Thursday’s meeting also said they would like a process to claim compensation for travel time related to the disaster — say, a car trip from Las Vegas to Santa Fe or Albuquerque or even Denver — to obtain the necessary documents for their to receive claims.
Some have expressed dismay that FEMA may only compensate them for up to 25 percent of certain losses, particularly in reforestation efforts on their land. They said they should be compensated 100 percent for what they lost.
One man said 25 percent is “not enough to get us back to where we need to be. We lost houses, we lost meadows.
Peck also said during the meeting that she wants FEMA officials to be transparent about where the money is going and how it’s being spent.
“Can we see those numbers?” She asked.
During the meeting, Gladwell said those injured in the fire are not required to provide documentation when filing initial damage claims.
She said after the meeting it’s possible people may have lost all documentation to support these claims in the fire, but that doesn’t mean they weren’t being compensated.
“This is not an issue unique to FEMA here,” she said. “We see that in different places. There are other ways to determine if someone owns property and has been there… land registers, affidavits, there are other ways. That’s our goal: to see what’s reasonably available without documentation.”
The Claims Guidelines give claimants the opportunity to accept or object to FEMA’s final claim offer. But if the applicant accepts the offer, he or she must agree not to seek “other legal avenues,” Gladwell said during the presentation, which was held at Old Memorial Middle School in Las Vegas.