A week before Congress approved spending $2.5 billion to fully compensate victims of botched prescribed burns that escalated into the largest wildfire on record in New Mexico, the agency tasked with paying the victims began to consider hiring private companies to do much of the work.
The Sept. 22 “Request for Information” by the Federal Emergency Management Agency asks companies if they would have the capacity to handle key aspects of the Hermit’s Peak-Calf Canyon fire claims office. The request calls for a contractor to help with “every step” of developing the claims office, as well as creating a claims management website and call center, as well as investigating and recommending damages- interest to victims.
The request also includes more information than FEMA has released publicly about what agency officials anticipate it will take to create a one-stop office, including who might work there and how many people might file claims. . This is only the second time FEMA has been tasked with providing full compensation to victims of a fire or disaster like this. Normally, it only pays victims limited amounts to help them immediately after a disaster.
Part of building a brand new program like this means relying on outsourcing, according to a FEMA spokesperson. The agency doesn’t have much experience handling claims other than its flood insurance program, said Angela Gladwell, FEMA official and director of the Hermit’s Peak-Calf claims office. Canyon.
“We are still working on the details of this. But again, our office will be a mix of federal staff, as much locally hired as possible, and contract staff…” Gladwell told Source New Mexico. “So we’re going to be looking to bring in a lot of the experts that we need to help us, especially with the assessment of these different types of losses that you don’t find in a lot of other places.”
The first time FEMA was tasked with fully compensating victims was the 2000 Cerro Grande fire in Los Alamos, and much of the new claims office is modeled after that.
However, FEMA has not outsourced much or all of the duties under the Cerro Grande Fire Assistance Act, according to a review of federal contract records.
Gladwell said FEMA expects a mix of FEMA employees and contractors to oversee various aspects of the program, though officials said they don’t yet know exactly what the mix will be.
The agency has yet to put any of the Claims Office contracts up for tender. It is unclear from government records how much the contractors would earn if they won a bid for the claims office.
The Hermits Peak-Calf Canyon fire grew out of two escaped prescribed burns started by the Federal Forest Service earlier this year. It burned over 530 square miles, mostly in San Miguel and Mora counties, as well as 1,000 structures. After that, flooding over the scorched ground caused further and extensive damage.
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On September 29, Congress agreed to give FEMA $2.5 billion to spend on repairing victims after the fire, including replacing destroyed homes, paying for lost business revenue, rebuilding the burned landscape, and paying a myriad other losses during the months-long disaster.
According to the “request for information,” FEMA intends to ask a private company to provide up to 70 staff for two offices the agency will open to help handle claims. This includes 15 claims reviewers, 10 customer support specialists, five site inspectors and a team responsible for creating and overseeing a website. He is also reportedly looking for two economists, ecologists, data scientists and civil engineers, among other jobs.
Notably, he doesn’t appear to be looking to hire someone to serve anything like a “navigator,” which members of Congress have called and said is one reason fire victims should feel comfortable file a claim without the assistance of a private attorney. . A “navigator” would advocate on behalf of a claimant during the process.
FEMA spokeswoman Angela Byrd said the agency is currently “mapping the claims process” and may update contractor requirements before it begins accepting applications to hire them.
“We … continue to gather feedback from stakeholders and communities to inform this process, as well as the final regulations,” she said. “An example of the feedback received is the importance of having browsers and providing multilingual access to materials and services.”
The FEMA document states that a contractor should expect 25% of all calls to require Spanish translation. In San Miguel County, where many fire victims live, about 23% of households speak less than “very good” English, according to census figures. It’s around 13% in Mora County, which also suffered extensive fire damage.
The “request for information” is a way to assess whether private companies will have the capacity to handle requests from the new claims office, Byrd said. The agency did not respond to a request for comment on the number of companies that responded.
FEMA is asking a contractor to develop a system that can hold 30,000 total records, including surges of up to 1,000 per day. The call center should be able to handle 50 calls per hour on the first day it is online. Calls are expected to last an average of 25 minutes, the document says.
“The (request for information) has been written as an estimate to gauge the contractors’ available support capacity and is not indicative of final claims handling projections,” Byrd said.
The document also instructs all contractors to recruit New Mexico businesses and hire locals whenever possible, although it does not appear to require them to do so. The agency will hold events to hire local residents in the coming weeks, officials said. Having new Mexicans in key positions will help ensure the agency understands the special needs of those recovering from the fire, Byrd said.
FEMA did not respond to why it was not imposing work requirements, saying only that the document was written to estimate the contractor’s capability, and that the agency “understands the importance to integrate local voices and expertise into this office and ultimately the claims process to meet the unique needs of affected communities.
A spokesperson for U.S. Representative Teresa Leger Fernandez, whose district includes the burn scar, made the comments to FEMA, as did the office of U.S. Senator Martin Heinrich.
An aide to U.S. Senator Ben Ray Lujan, who co-sponsored the legislation approving the $2.5 billion program, said his office was working with FEMA to understand the interim regulations released by the agency last week and move from the front.
“We are committed to ensuring that FEMA establishes and enforces the requirements of the bill,” read a statement from his office. “The senator remains focused on delivering the $2.5 billion in relief he secured for the victims of the Hermit’s Peak-Calf Canyon fire.”
Source New Mexico is part of States Newsroom, a network of news outlets supported by grants and a coalition of donors as a 501c(3) public charity. Source New Mexico maintains editorial independence. Contact editor-in-chief Marisa Demarco for any questions: [email protected] Follow Source New Mexico on Facebook and Twitter.