Three members of New Mexico’s congressional delegation wrote a letter to the federal overseers of a nearly $4 billion fund to compensate victims of the Hermits Peak-Calf Canyon Fire, noting delays and missed deadlines in payments.
Sens. Martin Heinrich and Ben Ray Luján, along with Rep. Teresa Leger Fernández, sent the letter yesterday to Deanne Criswell, administrator of the Federal Emergency Management Agency. It says more than 100 claimants have not received payment offers despite the office accepting their claims more than 180 days ago.
The United States Forest Service accidentally ignited the 530-square-mile fire, the biggest in state history, in April 2022 after two botched prescribed burns. Congress passed a law in late September 2022 tasking FEMA with overseeing a compensation fund to thousands of victims, ultimately allocating $3.95 billion to “fully compensate” victims.
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The law requires FEMA to make offers for payment within 180 days. Two lawsuits filed in recent weeks identify dozens of clients who have been waiting longer than that. The lawsuits also note that some clients have been waiting far longer than six months to get offers, but FEMA determined the clock on claims started when it “acknowledged” claims, not when a fire victim first submits it.
The delegation’s letter reminds FEMA that the law calls for “expeditious consideration and settlement of claims.” The law does not provide a penalty to FEMA for missing deadlines.
A FEMA spokesperson recently told Source New Mexico it identified a “flaw” in its system that allowed cases to languish past the deadline. The spokesperson said the office was addressing that issue.
Regarding the letter, FEMA spokesperson John Mills said the office is “actively processing claims” and prioritizing the ones submitted a long time ago. He did not respond to questions about how many claims had taken longer than 180 days to process, or how many the agency expects could hit the deadline in the near future. FEMA has also not responded in court to the lawsuits.
The letter says that “many more” claims are expected to reach the 180-day deadline in the coming weeks. To address that, FEMA needs a big increase in claims reviewers to handle the backlog, the delegation wrote.
FEMA will soon transfer employees from the agency headquarters to help with the caseload, Mills said. FEMA also is hosting two hiring fairs in mid-February in Mora and Santa Fe.
But the letter urges any new hires to understand the task at hand, and not seek to limit payouts.
“It is paramount that new claims reviewers brought on during this process are trained to understand that they are not insurance adjusters trying to save money,” the delegation members write. “Rather, their job is to use the resources Congress provided them to fully satisfy claims and provide justice for those who have lost so much.”
This is the second time the legislation’s sponsors have written a public letter urging the agency to move faster. In May 2023, they said the agency had missed several internal deadlines and was taking too long to finalize regulations.
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Last week, the office announced that Angela Gladwell, director of the claims office, was leaving to take another job within FEMA amid calls for her to be replaced by someone local. The agency also said it was “consolidating” its disaster response programs across the state, but it has not yet detailed what that means.
The office also recently published guidelines and document checklists aimed to help victims navigate the process.
As of today, the Claims Office has paid out $330 million, about 8% of the $4 billion fund. Mills said the office has received $518 million in claimed damages.