NM Legal Aid Attorney: FEMA’s System Is ‘Broken,’ But Don’t Give Up
A lawyer overseeing a series of damage claims from the Hermits Peak-Calf Canyon fire says the Federal Emergency Management Agency’s aid process needs an overhaul.
Michelle Garcia, a legal aid attorney from New Mexico, encouraged those seeking help from FEMA to seek legal help from a coalition of attorneys who help with claims.
FEMA is providing a range of disaster relief checks to those who lost their homes or belongings, or incurred emergency expenses following the largest wildfire in the state’s history. New Mexico, the one that resulted from escaped prescribed burn crews in the Santa Fe National Forest. emergency expenses.
At last count, the agency had denied 30% of claims by New Mexicans seeking damages, though people can still appeal. The agency had provided more than $3.6 million to 1,061 applicants as of Tuesday, which equates to about $3,400 each.
The agency has come under fire for its practice of sending automated rejection letters to people and families seeking help. Refusals often occur because applicants cannot immediately provide proof of ownership or other documentation. The agency also issued rejections based on incorrect information it gathered.
In a case detailed by Source New Mexico this week, a request for a fire-destroyed home in Las Dispensas was denied because the home was deemed “safe to occupy.” In this case, the agency was also using a different address than the one on the deed, and it incorrectly determined the house was a rental, according to documents and interviews.
Garcia said 3% of applicants contacted the FEMA Legal Assistance Hotline, which directs callers to Legal Aid, the State Bar Association and the NM Young Lawyers Association. Three percent is about 80 people, according to FEMA’s latest enforcement estimates.
Garcia said she regularly encounters cases where FEMA is turning down applicants too quickly, and she wasn’t surprised to read that the agency was wrong.
FEMA gave 4 reasons for denying help to an NM family who lost their home. All were wrong.
“We’re dealing with a bit of a flawed system where there’s a flaw of ‘Well, we know that’s bad. So go ahead and apply and then deal with it through the appeal process,” she said. “It’s almost like people are supposed to be okay with the system not working at the application stage… It’s really frustrating, beyond frustration, for people who have need help in the situation.”
Those affected by the fire have until Aug. 4 to apply, according to New Mexico Legal Aid. The previous deadline was July 5, but the agency has extended it.
Garcia urged those injured by the disaster to call the hotline and speak to attorneys working on their behalf, even if they think their case is straightforward or they think they are ineligible.
“Talk to someone. We are happy to help you,” she said. “And the main takeaway is that people should apply even if they’re not sure they’re eligible, even if they don’t have all the documents, even if they’re not 100% sure about what they might need. Just start the app.
Applications start with FEMA but are routed in various directions, such as to the Small Business Association if an applicant does not qualify for FEMA assistance but can receive a low-interest loan to help rebuild .
In the case of small farmers, of which there are many in northern New Mexico, the process is “obscure,” Garcia said.
A farmer with a small operation would start at FEMA, which would refer it to SBA, Garcia said. But the SBA does not offer loans to farmers, so the farmer would be sent to the Farm Services Agency for help.
You’d have to go through three different agencies to even get an answer on who can help you, and that’s tough. I don’t know any other word for it. It’s really difficult.
– Michelle Garcia, NM Legal Aid
“You would have to go through three different agencies to even get an answer on who can help you,” Garcia said. “And it’s hard. I don’t know any other word for it. It’s really difficult.”
FEMA has said since opening shop in the burn scar that applicants should do their best to meet program requirements and appeal if they are turned down.
“Take the money that FEMA gives and start rebuilding, then see what comes next,” FEMA spokeswoman Carmen Rodriguez Diaz told Source New Mexico earlier this month.