FEMA leader overseeing New Mexico wildfire fund steps down amid criticism

January 29, 2024
wildfire firefighters

The director of a federal office managing a nearly $4 billion compensation fund for victims of a New Mexico wildfire, Angela Gladwell, recently announced her departure.

This move comes in the wake of sustained criticism over FEMA’s handling of disaster aid and payments for damages related to the Hermits Peak-Calf Canyon Fire.

Federal response to wildfire disaster scrutinized

Gladwell’s reassignment occurs as the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) is restructuring its disaster response in New Mexico.

This restructuring includes consolidating recovery programs into a single operation, a process still in its initial stages.

Gladwell, who has been a FEMA official for over 25 years, has frequently faced tough questions at town hall meetings about the slow pace of aid distribution and the bureaucratic hurdles faced by claimants.

The Hermits Peak-Calf Canyon Fire, the largest wildfire in New Mexico’s history, destroyed over 430 homes and incurred billions in firefighting costs and damages.

Approximately 29,000 claimants, including residents, businesses, and nonprofits, are potentially eligible for payments.

However, by midsummer, the claims office had distributed less than 1% of the total allocated funds.

As of now, $311 million, about 8% of the total approved by Congress, has been paid out.

Challenges in disaster aid and criticism from local communities

In a news release, Deborah Martinez, a spokesperson for the claims office, praised Gladwell for building the compensation program from scratch and assembling a knowledgeable local team.

However, FEMA’s decision not to compensate for intangible losses, such as stress from displacement, has led to two lawsuits.

At a recent town hall meeting in Las Vegas, New Mexico, Jennifer Carbajal, deputy director of the claims office, acknowledged the challenges in establishing procedures and hiring staff.

She informed attendees of the upcoming consolidation, which aims to combine the claims office with FEMA’s short-term disaster aid programs.

Future directions and community expectations

FEMA plans to appoint a chief operating officer to oversee long-term recovery efforts and focus on making payments.

The agency will also publish a guide outlining claim types and necessary documentation.

This comes after acknowledging that the paperwork burden for some claimants, particularly those with unclear land titles, has been excessive.

The Coalition for Fire Fund Fairness and local attorneys representing thousands of victims have called for Gladwell’s replacement to be someone well-versed in New Mexico’s culture and laws.

Antonia Roybal-Mack, a local lawyer, views the change as a positive step, emphasizing the need for a New Mexican leader in the new office.

FSJA Comment

The resignation of Angela Gladwell from the helm of the FEMA claims office overseeing the New Mexico wildfire reflects the complex challenges faced in administering large-scale disaster relief funds and underscores the importance of understanding local contexts in such efforts.

The criticisms and lawsuits against FEMA highlight the intricate balance between bureaucratic procedures and the urgent needs of disaster victims.

As FEMA moves forward with its restructuring plans, the focus remains on how effectively the new leadership will address the existing challenges in distributing aid and whether the changes will bring about the expedited and fair resolution that the victims urgently require.

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