Wildfires in northern New Mexico last year quickly destroyed homes, property and trees in a race to the horizon. But the agency that’s supposed to help victims with housing and reimbursement operates in slow motion, if it operates at all.
As a recent story by Source New Mexico and Pro Publica made clear, the Federal Emergency Management Agency has done almost nothing, hogtied by its own regulations and bureaucratic inertia. On May 10, U. S. Sens. Martin Heinrich and Ben Ray Lujan, along with Rep. Teresa Leger Fernandez, wrote FEMA and its parent agency, the Department of Homeland Security, to express their “deep concern.” Nearly $4 billion promised New Mexico sits untouched.
Governors have been pounding on FEMA’s desk and griping to presidents for at least two decades.
Remember Hurricane Katrina in 2005 – the floating bodies and the stadium full of helpless people in New Orleans? FEMA and its hapless administrator took heavy flak, but problems started before.
President Carter created the agency in 1979 to guide the federal response to disasters, natural and man-made. Post 9-11, in 2003, FEMA became a division of the Department of Homeland Security. By 2004, first responders and local officials complained that the small, agile, independent agency they knew had disappeared inside a mammoth federal department. FEMA continued to dispense water, food, tents, and other supplies, but now Homeland Security’s inspector general was scrutinizing spending and investigating allegations of fraud.
That had the effect of slowing and chilling FEMA’s response. Spending slowed, appeals of internal decisions increased, and internal communications bogged down.
By 2005 governors were trading horror stories about FEMA. "Every state has had the same experience,” Gov. Brad Henry told The Oklahoman. "Some of the stories I've heard from other states are worse.” After FEMA Director Mike Brown resigned in September 2005, news outlets reported Homeland Security’s hand in the bungled response to Katrina.
In the next decade climate change also battered the agency. Disasters have struck more frequently, but FEMA has had staffing shortages, according to the Government Accountability Office. During the 2017 and 2018 disaster seasons FEMA’s operating groups were operating with one-fourth of needed staffing, and some employees refused deployments because of burnout and difficult conditions in the field. Personnel who did deploy weren’t always qualified.
Last August, as fires burned New Mexico, Gov. Andy Beshear, of Kentucky, complained that FEMA was denying too many requests for help. He told people applying for disaster aid: ”Number one, do not give up. Number two, if you’re denied, go and look these people in the eye.”
President Biden toured the region and promised Kentucky, as he did here, that the federal government would provide support until residents were back on their feet. And yet flood victims were denied help when they couldn’t produce the required documents.
So it’s no wonder that Source New Mexico and Pro Publica can report that FEMA hasn’t made payments here. It hasn’t completed rules governing compensation and can’t say when that might happen. A FEMA official told locals that rules must be approved by FEMA, Homeland Security and the Office of Management and Budget.
Which sounds like a bureaucratic nightmare.
The famous FEMA trailers are scarce. After months of delays and red tape, fire victims used their own money to buy campers, or they’re living in tents or cars, or they’re sofa surfing. FEMA termed these fallbacks “another housing resource” and declared applicants ineligible. Others jumped through hoops to get a trailer on their land but found that FEMA rules made it impossible.
FEMA isn’t working here or any place else, and yet the president keeps making promises. Our congressional delegation should find enough bipartisan support to overhaul FEMA, if that’s even possible in a divided Congress. At the very least, FEMA should be independent again.
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