NEW MEXICO (KRQE) – If your house has been damaged by recent wildfires, you might be eligible for federal disaster assistance. Here’s what you need to know about who can apply and what’s covered.
Federal disaster declaration
Given multiple ongoing fires across the state, Governor Michelle Lujan Grisham recently asked the federal government to declare a “disaster.” With President Biden’s signature of approval on Wednesday, May 4, the disaster declaration unlocks federal assistance funds for some impacted New Mexicans.
That funding comes from the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA), part of the Department of Homeland Security. At the direction of the president of the United States, FEMA can identify a damaged community’s needs and provide federal funds to help residents recover and return to their homes after a disaster.
And generally, the emergency declaration does come after a natural disaster. But in the case of New Mexico fires, the President authorized federal funding even while the fires are ongoing. Recently, the Governor announced that several FEMA disaster personnel would be assisting in New Mexico, arriving in communities throughout the state.
The first teams arrived on May 6 in Ruidoso and Glorieta, assisting families affected by the McBride Fire and the Hermits Peak Calf Canyon Fires, respectively. Since then, more teams have arrived. “FEMA staff are on location, on-site in Lincoln, Sandoval, San Miguel and Taos counties,” the Governor said on May 10.
So, homeowners and renters who have lost property to some New Mexico fires are now eligible for federal recovery funds. But there are some stipulations as to who can receive funds.
How much cash is available?
FEMA funds can include cash to help pay for temporary housing and home repair, according to FEMA. There may also be access to low-interest loans from the Small Business Administration to help with uninsured property loss.
For FEMA funds, the amount available generally depends on the cost of the damages. To find out exactly what you qualify for, you need to apply to FEMA. For the recent fire disasters, there’s also a one-time $500 payment to cover immediate needs — that’s $500 per eligible impacted household.
FEMA Assistance can include grants for temporary housing and home repairs, low-interest loans to cover uninsured property losses and other programs to help individuals and business owners recover from the effects of the disaster.
As of May 11, 2022, more than 237 individual assistance applications have already been approved, according to the FEMA website. More than $82,000 in housing assistance and $135,000 in assistance for other needs have been approved.
“There will be enough assistance for everyone who is eligible and applies for assistance within the application period,” says Carmen G. Rodriguez Diaz, a FEMA media specialist. “It is not a first come, first serve basis. Even if a person is applying the last day under the registration period, they will receive the assistance they are qualified for.”
Certain areas eligible
As of May 6, 2022, the FEMA declarations span five counties in New Mexico. So only individuals from Colfax, Lincoln, Mora, San Miguel, and Valencia Counties are potentially eligible. You can also check to see if your home location falls within the eligible area by typing your zip code into the federal DisasterAssistance.gov website.
But to process the funds, FEMA workers may need to conduct damage assessments, where they check to see what property was destroyed by fires. Of course, they can’t do that where there are ongoing fires.
If you have homeowner’s insurance
FEMA funding only covers costs not already covered by homeowner’s or renter’s insurance. So, if you do have insurance, you should file a claim with your insurance company as soon as possible, according to FEMA’s press release.
“The overall program, as defined by law, it does not actually allow us to duplicate benefits, which includes the insurance benefit,” says Sandy Eslinger, the FEMA coordinator helping in New Mexico. “If you’ve got insurance, please go ahead and submit your insurance claim. It doesn’t necessarily mean you’re not qualified for any FEMA assistance.”
So make sure you file a claim with your insurance company, then apply for FEMA assistance.
Applying for funds
To see if you’re qualified and to access funds, you need to contact FEMA. You can register online at disasterassistance.gov (DisasterAssistance.gov/es for Spanish) or by phone at 800-621-3362. Once there, you’ll make an account where you’ll submit info and also receive info about your assistance.
If you’re in a disaster area where there are FEMA workers on the ground, you can also connect with them. There are multilingual assistance teams in impacted communities in New Mexico, according to a recent press release. They can help you register.
“You have to register,” says Governor Lujan Grisham. “None of this is available on the federal effort unless you get registered.”
To register, you’ll need a few things:
- A current phone number (one you can be reached at, not one in a damaged home)
- Your address during the fire and the address of where you’re now staying
- Your social security number (if you have one)
- a list of what’s been damaged or lost
- The policy number and insurance company name of any insurance you already have if you’re insured
If you aren’t a U.S. citizen, non-citizen national, or qualified alien, you may still qualify for funding if you are the guardian of a minor who is a citizen, according to FEMA. If they reside with you, you can apply using their social security number.
The list of damage should help you answer questions like: “Is the home habitable?” explains Carmen G. Rodriguez Diaz from FEMA. “Take your time and do a tour (it may be an imaginary tour) around the house, your living room, bedroom, bathroom, garage, etc. Document damages to doors, windows, electric systems, water systems, solar panels, roof, garage doors, cars, etc. Also, tell us if you lose your job because of the fires. If you are a mechanic and lose your tools, like hammers, screw drivers and other tools boxes, document it.” School books, computers, etc. should also be documented.
If local officials say it’s safe to return to a damaged area, you should take photos of the damage, according to FEMA. Keep all receipts for purchases related to the cleanup process. Also keep receipts for repairs.
What happens after initial registration?
After you apply, FEMA will review your application and see if you’re eligible. If your primary residence was damaged, they may schedule a home inspection to verify the damages. They will contact you to schedule that.
They’ll also contact you to explain how much assistance you qualify for. That letter, which will be mailed to you or sent through your online FEMA account, will explain how the funds must be used. The total amount is determined by comparing your losses with the available services at FEMA. But note that FEMA isn’t insurance, and you should not expect FEMA to replace all that was lost.
According to FEMA, the federal funds are only intended to make basic repairs to make a home livable again. But you can appeal FEMA’s decision if you disagree with their offer within 60 days of getting their offer. For more info on how to appeal, follow this link.
Food, shelter, and additional help
In addition to the funds, FEMA is also offering shelter items, food, and water for impacted individuals. They have resources for 30,000 people, according to a press release.
The American Red Cross is also working with the state to set up shelters. The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers are on-site with generators to provide power.
For mental and crisis counseling, you can call the Disaster Distress Helpline. Their number is 1-800-985-5990. They are available 24/7 to help people work through emotional distress.
Also, the U.S. Internal Revenue Service (IRS) is providing tax relief for victims. To wit: Certain tax-filing and payment deadlines for some people are being postponed. Generally, the same people that qualify for FEMA assistance may qualify for tax relief. The IRS says they will automatically identify taxpayers located in the covered area. But you can also call the IRS disaster hotline to request relief: 866-562-5227.