It’s been a year since fires ripped through San Miguel, Mora, and parts of Taos Counties like a galactic bulldozer. I’m only one of thousands who were severely impacted by the Hermit’s Peak/Calf Canyon Fires, and I won’t say that there haven’t been and continue to be heart numbing moments of grief. Still, I’ve gained an even deeper level of love and respect for the people of this area, a fact that has eased the wounds, even fed my optimism.
If you want to learn the skills and principles of resiliency, don’t look to those populations who know and have known privilege and prosperity. Look to those who have known hardship, even oppression—those who enjoy and build upon periods of opportunity, yet know how to survive obstacles, even devastation. Local examples include: the Pueblos—indigenous peoples who never lost their sovereignty and have a millennial-old history of persistence in good times and bad; descendants of Spanish and Mexican land-grant settlers who maintain dedication to the land, water, and communities, remaining focused on those values even if it counters the mainstream focus on prosperity; and a hodge-podge of new additions to local diverse cultures including everything from those whose lineage includes early settlers coming west to artists drawn here by the beautify of the land and its people.
What I see around me are people unafraid to speak up for themselves and their communities. On the other hand, they make realistic choices because, as expressed by a common modern phrase, “it is what it is.”
Largely due to both these traits, I’m seeing new developments that give me a strong glimmer of hope. The biggest development involves what I see so far of the FEMA Hermit’s Peak/Calf Canyon Restoration Claims Office.
Frankly, I’ve watched cautiously the development of the Claims Office, my views tainted by frustrating experiences with FEMA during the early disaster response. Like so many, I have expressed anger at obvious condescension, even obstructiveness, in attitudes toward fire and flood victims. At this point, I’m beginning to suspect that it may truly be possible to teach an old bureaucracy new tricks. I see Claims Office implementation efforts and organization being responsive to input provided during public meetings and through other formal written input. It seems that FEMA is listening as it creates the system for distributing funds intended by the legislature to “make whole” those devastated by wildland fires caused by two separate National Forestry “controlled” burns.
Examples of points that make me optimistic:
•The claims office listened when many stated that locals must be included as front-line workers but also at decision-making levels.
•Locals now hold key positions, including Jennifer Carbajal as Deputy Director for the Claims Office and Paula Gutierrez from Santa Clara Pueblo who will serve as lead Advocate for people served, a task for which she has prior experience.
•Clearly stated official values that provide a critical foundation for effective service. As stated during a recent public meeting, those values are compassion, fairness, integrity, and respect.
•A critical specific involves acknowledgement of a mistake in determining value of trees in the preliminary rule for FEMA administration of the Hermit’s Peak/Calf Canyon Restoration Act. Based on the Cerro Grande Fire policies as a “template,” a ceiling was put on trees based on trees used for landscaping rather than commercial use. That rule limited compensation for trees at 25% of the pre-fire value. FEMA has stated that rule will not be applied.
It appears that the HP/CC Fire Recovery Claims Office has made a 180-degree shift from former FEMA policies in consideration of fire victim needs. The Claims Office has expressed a total change in philosophy.
“We have a moral responsibility to those affected by the fires,” said Angela Gladwell, Claims Office Director, at a recent public meeting.
Slowly and cautiously, I’m starting to believe her. When I saw Gladwell and the first public meeting following release of the initial rule for application of the HP/CC Recovery Act disbursements, I fear I thought something very uncharitable. Either she really cares or FEMA has sent their very best enabler, I thought.
I’ve gone from cautiously optimistic to just plain optimistic as to how the Claims Office will handle its treatment of the people and communities I love. I hope there will come a time when I need to meet Angela Gladwell in person and apologize to her face for my doubt in her as a person and as a FEMA representative.
Having said that, I still have concerns. I’ve had multiple conversations with affiliates of the Claims Office who state that the process of taking applications and, potentially, making preliminary disbursements could not be delayed while waiting for issuance of the final rule, but I’ve been in business nearly 30 years. If there is an existing document stating clearly one requirement and verbal assurances saying otherwise, it makes my caution lights go off.
The preliminary rule clearly states:
“An Injured Person who elects to accept an award under the Act is barred from accepting an award pursuant to a claim under the Federal Tort Claims Act or a civil action against the United States or any employee, officer, or agency of the United States arising out of or relating to the same subject matter.”
On the one hand, I’m pleased that the Claims Office intends to conduct early processing of claims, including the potential for partial payments. I have insurance, and with the support I’ve received from that, I have found a comfortable longer-term, temporary living situation, but I know of others who need help, and they need it now. Verbally, I heard Angela Gladwell assure the public that accepting a partial payment does preclude legal action if a party is not happy with the final offer. While I’m inclined to believe the sincerity of her offer, the businesswoman in me has difficulty accepting verbal assurances over a written, legal document. For me, I’ll be cautious, but I know each person and family affected must make the best decisions according to their circumstances.
New developments with the FEMA Claims Office are important, but I’ve seen another glimmer of hope that may have even broader benefits. Unfortunately, it seems to be slipping under most people’s radar. For my entire life, whenever possible I have chosen to live close to the land rather than opting for the career and financial opportunities found in urban areas. As a professional in the nonprofit sector, I have also seen that rural communities, although not generally acknowledged to be so, are another disadvantaged community. I suspect that long-term reality has greatly and detrimentally affected the current political and social environments across our country.
In a series of planning meetings in Mora, I had the opportunity to hear presentations by local representatives of a new national initiative started by the Biden Administration. They have created the Rural Partners Network which, among other things, has many national agencies now required to address the specific needs of rural communities. USDA is no longer the predominantly and sometimes sole federal agency serving rural America. I’m still learning more, but I strongly recommend that local entities check out rural.gov. If nothing else, the website maintains a list with links of current opportunities that could be beneficial to rural communities.
Check it out. If rural communities want to be heard, it is important that we take advantage of opportunities to speak.
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