Happy Easter in a plastic egg • Source New Mexico

Last week I received more support, help and caring in a green plastic Easter egg than I have received from the Federal Emergency Management Agency in the two years since a fire started by the U.S. Forest Service burned my home and hundreds of others to the ground. 

Inside that egg were five jelly-beans, one chocolate mini-egg and a massive amount of love and caring. It came from Neighbors Helping Neighbors, a grassroots group for which I had the privilege of watching its very birth. 

In April 2022, during the chaos of evacuation on the night the Calf Canyon Fire joined the Hermits Peak Fire, a handful of local people, primarily women, stood in a circle, assessing the need of refugees. A plethora of water, food, and other goods that came unsolicited from the caring people of the community needed organizing and evacuees needed help and guidance. 

They formed a plan and created order out of chaos.

Two years later, this handful of caring people continue to effectively do the exact same thing: assess the needs of their neighbors and create solutions to those needs. 

Last week, it was making sure a bit of stability went to those still living in uncertainty with homes destroyed and an interminable waiting for FEMA to disperse federally authorized reparation funds.

Neighbors Helping Neighbors, did what it has done for every holiday since the fire and brought an Easter to the people. This year’s celebration included a full chicken dinner, a grocery gift card and a plastic Easter egg. My green egg now rests in a drawer where I keep precious memories, a seed to start replacing all those mementos lost in the fire.

For over a year, the group volunteered to set up a warehouse where fire refugees could access food, clothing and household items.

Thanks to support from the United Methodist Committee on Relief (UMCOR), Neighbors Helping Neighbors has paid staff. As a result it can also fill another gap by coordinating disbursement of philanthropic funds to individuals and families in need.

For a long time, I saw local philanthropic groups struggle with how to effectively disburse donated funds to those affected by the fires. Frankly, I left the Long-Term Recovery Group when I saw a FEMA advisor strive to impose the same type of restrictions on disbursement of donated funds as those imposed through disbursement of FEMA Stafford Act allocations.

Neighbors Helping Neighbors saw the problem and found a solution. With sponsorship from UMCOR, Neighbors Helping Neighbors now advocates for individuals and families affected by the Hermits Peak-Calf Canyon Fire and subsequent floods. 

I’ve done it, and they helped me. 

I want those in similar situations to know about this service. Advocates will work with those requesting help to compile their case, including getting contractor estimates when needed. The group then presents those cases to others responsible for disbursing philanthropic funds. It made a major difference in my life and many others. 

Any Hermits Peak-Calf Canyon Fire or flood victim in need of their advocacy can call Neighbors Helping Neighbors at 505-426-7833.

Let’s contrast the successes of a grassroots organization filled with highly caring people but with limited resources, and those who responded to FEMA’s apparent call for locals to help their friends and neighbors. 

Every effort of Neighbors Helping Neighbors is a direct response to the needs of those affected by the fire and floods. When the Hermits Peak-Calf Canyon Claims Office opened, it appeared that responsiveness to claimant needs would be a high priority. 

I haven’t seen that happen. 

Every delay and every decision that fails to best serve disaster victims, increases the confusion and dissatisfaction of a community that has suffered and continues to suffer.

Take, for example, the hiring of Jennifer Carbajal as the Deputy Director of the local claims office. Suffice it to say that I have not observed FEMA using her position to respect the requests of locals. People wanted  a local advocate at the decision-making level to improve responsiveness to the needs of the people. If that has happened, and Carbajal was allowed to have an actual voice in decisions, then I don’t know her as well as I think I do.

Then there is the advocate effort within the local claims office. The senior advocate is from New Mexico but not local to the area.It appears this “local advocate” came from within the FEMA system.

When the advocate portion of the office first opened, I ran into two trusted friends at a coffee shop who had just been hired to work with the advocate in response to the desire to have local voices within FEMA. I learned recently that they are gone. I don’t know the details, but they’re voices are now gone. While in Mora attending a community meeting, I was advised that the Claims Office advocate would be hosting a session meeting with claimants.

I was approached by a woman who said she was an advocate with the office. I asked if she was local. She’s a contractor out of Santa Fe. What happened to that stellar idea of local advocacy?

Then there are the Navigators, locals hired by FEMA to help with information intake as claimants file Proof of Loss. It is a complex and onerous process, far more difficult than what I experienced with my insurance claim. The Navigator’s job is essential, but those Navigators don’t make the decisions. That goes up the food chain to non-locals, a process sometimes requesting some rather astounding documentation, like gas receipts from two years ago.

Those Navigators can’t talk with me. I know that. To do so would endanger not only their jobs, but also the claimants that they are fighting to serve. I overheard one Navigator share disappointment they couldn’t help their loved ones and that the entire job was like pushing a rock up a hill. 

And now, I come to the point. As of March 22, the Claims Office reports disbursement of $465 million of the nearly $4 billion allocated by Congress to “make whole” those devastated by the Hermits Peak-Calf Canyon Fire. That’s less than 12 percent of the funds available, in a year and seven months since the funds were authorized by Congress and signed into law by the President.

I understand it’s hard walking uphill. Administering a complex program such as this isn’t easy. My question for FEMA is, why are you creating rocks? 

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