Ledes from the Land of Enchantment

FEMA leader overseeing NM fire compensation fund to step down, agency announces

Angela Gladwell, the director of the federal office overseeing nearly $4 billion in compensation for victims  of a wildfire accidentally triggered by the federal Forest Service, is stepping down as part of what the agency describes as a restructuring of federal disaster response across the state. 

The move comes amid sustained criticism of the performance of the Federal Emergency Management Agency, which Source New Mexico and ProPublica have reported on for the past year. The office didn’t pay its first claim until April, and through midsummer it had paid less than 1% of its allocation. The pace has picked up since, but many residents were in limbo as they awaited checks to rebuild. FEMA faces two lawsuits over its decision not to pay for intangible losses, even though the state Attorney General maintains it should. And it faces other lawsuits claiming it has missed payment deadlines.

Calls from advocates and local elected officials for Gladwell to be replaced have increased in recent weeks.  

Gladwell is a longtime FEMA official who was tasked to create the Hermits Peak-Calf Canyon Claims Office in late 2022. The office oversees compensation to victims of the wildfires that were ignited accidentally in early 2022 by the United States Forest Service. The blaze destroyed at least 430 homes and cost billions of dollars in damage and suppression costs.

FEMA has paid out just 2% of fund to help wildfire victims rebuild. Some can’t wait much longer.

On Wednesday morning, claims office spokesperson Deborah Martinez said FEMA is launching a new effort to consolidate recovery programs in New Mexico into a single operation, including the claims office, and that Gladwell would “transition to a new role” within FEMA as part of that change.

Martinez did not immediately respond to requests for comment on what exactly that consolidation means or how long Gladwell’s departure has been in the works, except to say that the office “is in the beginning stages” of the change and that more information would be forthcoming. Gladwell and other claims office officials have never mentioned a plan to consolidate federal disaster recovery operations here in numerous public meetings since the office was created. 

“Shortly after the passage of the Fire Assistance Act in 2022, Angela Gladwell was appointed to the director role and successfully built a compensation program from the ground, assembling a team of locally hired staff with knowledge of New Mexico and the communities affected by the wildfires,” Martinez said. 

FEMA will soon hire a chief operating officer to lead “on-the-ground long-term” recovery efforts, Martinez said. She did not respond to a request for comment on how the office will select this person, including whether he or she will be from New Mexico or hired from within the claims office.

A local group, the Coalition for Fire Fund Fairness, along with attorneys for thousands of victims have called for Gladwell to be replaced by someone who they said would better understand New Mexico’s culture and laws, like a former judge. The group’s founder, Manny Crespín, Jr., called FEMA’s announcement “welcomed news” and asked that the new leader not be “another FEMA bureaucrat.”

The Hermits Peak Fire Assistance Act allows FEMA to appoint an independent administrator to oversee the claims office. Instead, the office hired Gladwell, a FEMA employee for more than 25 years in Washington, D.C. In November 2022, after the office announced Gladwell as director, she declined to comment on why the agency didn’t hire an independent overseer. 

Martinez said claimants need not worry about the effect of the change or Gladwell’s departure on their claims. They will continue to be processed without interruption, she said. 

As of Dec. 21, the latest figures available from FEMA, the agency had paid $276 million of the $3.95 billion fund. That amounts to about 7% of the total, more than a year after the office was established. Fire victims have grown increasingly frustrated as money slowly trickles out of the fund. Recently, the community of Las Vegas mourned a former police chief who died while trying to return to his home in Rociada, one of the hardest-hit areas by the wildfire. 

A former Las Vegas lawman fought to rebuild after NM fire. He died before he could come home.

The claims office, under Gladwell’s leadership, has also faced several lawsuits from law firms who accuse the agency of missing legally required deadlines for payment offers and pushing victims to abandon their attorneys. 

Antonia Roybal-Mack, a local lawyer representing hundreds of clients, said she welcomes the change of leadership. She credited ongoing advocacy by lawyers and residents and reporting by Source and ProPublica in bringing about the change, but she’s watching closely to see who takes over the new office. 

“I think it’s a step in the right direction,” she said. “People in northern New Mexico – we need to now ask them to put a New Mexican in that position.”

According to law firm Singleton Schreiber, dozens of fire victims have waited longer than 180 days to receive offers of payment from the date the claims office “acknowledged” their claims. The firms also accuse FEMA of illegally waiting to start the clock on payment processing until they formally “acknowledge” claims, rather than from the date a claim is submitted. 

In the scar of New Mexico’s largest wildfire, a legal battle is brewing over the cost of suffering

Source and ProPublica also recently published an investigation into her office’s decision to not pay claims for the emotional toll of the disaster for fire victims. The claims office maintains that the federal legislation creating the fund allows only payments for financial, business and property loss. That decision is being challenged in court, as well. 

Martinez, in her statement Wednesday, said the office will also soon release a “policy and program guide” with details about the types of claims that are being paid and guidance on documentation needed. The agency has recently acknowledged that the paperwork burden is too high for some claimants. It’s common among multi-generational families with long roots in the rural areas burned in the fire not to have clear titles or deeds in the correct names, among other challenges of proving legal ownership. 

“The release of the (guide) marks a milestone in implementing compensation authorized by the Fire Assistance Act,” Martinez said. “Additionally, to simplify and expedite the process, the Claims Office will release checklists for the most common types of loss along with the documents needed for each of those losses.”

This is a breaking story and will be updated with additional information as it becomes available. 

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