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Los Alamos is one of 14 counties, four cities and four tribal entities that have declared a state of disaster and are waiting for news of whether they will receive Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) funds.
The process is now in the hands of Gov. Susana Martinez, who has not yet sent her executive order declaring a state of disaster to President Barack Obama. Presidential confirmation is necessary to release FEMA funds. The state is still waiting for news from Obama’s office regarding a declared state of disaster for several New Mexico counties in July.
Philmont Taylor, acting police chief and commander of the Emergency Services Division, cannot project when the processes might move forward, but he and other county officials are fairly certain FEMA funds to repair damaged infrastructure will be forthcoming.
“The principals set forth in the Stanford Act have not changed over the last 15 years,” said Taylor, who has been through several disaster events in New Mexico and elsewhere.
The Department of Public Utilities and Public Works have both submitted Preliminary Damage Assessment (PDA) reports to FEMA. The county’s initial estimate was approximately $5 million, but has risen as access to flood damaged areas provided more details.
The governor submits her request with those PDAs to Obama, who must then approve a certain level of funding.
FEMA then returns to the disaster jurisdiction for an applicant briefing. FEMA officials will meet with Taylor and representatives from DPU, Public Works, the administration and the Office of Management and Budget, explaining everything from how to fill out the forms to contracting and procurement rules and how to track expenditures.
After that, a Project Work Sheet (PWS) must be completed for each individual project, whether that’s repairing a fence or building a road. Each project is assigned a budget and parameters. OMB will create a multi-faceted spreadsheet tracking the minute details of each project from start to finish.
“They’ll get down into the real nitty-gritty on how actually to complete the repairs,” Taylor said. “The finance people have had a lot of practice in the last 12 years, and they’ve gotten really good at categorizing this stuff. We’ll have to track it, and it gets to be a very anal process. But the sharper your pencil is, the more money you get.”
FEMA then scrutinizes all that information, looking for any questionable expenditures. The county must be ready to defend every decision.
FEMA usually pays 75 percent of the governmental cost for repairing disaster damage, with the county match at 25 percent. The state usually provides 12.5 percent of those matching funds, but damage estimates from throughout the state are so astronomic, no one is certain that level of funding will be available.
The Stanford Act has some provisions for a federal match of up to 85 percent, and initial discussions with FEMA indicate the some of the DPU projects may be eligible for the higher match.
Staff cannot determine how the county’s match will affect the budget until FEMA funding is awarded.
“We can only do the basic emergency stuff until that declaration comes in,” said Steven Lynne, deputy county administrator/chief financial officer.
“If–and it’s a big if–it’s a sort of standard type of declaration and allocation process, where the local share is about 25 percent, that should be manageable. That still could be in around the million dollar range. Determining how to budget that will be similar to any other budget process that includes something that’s unexpected: we’ll reevaluate our options and our resources.”
Taylor said that just paying the salaries for county crews to repair damage will probably comprise most of that 25 percent match.
Taylor is developing a procedure to help individual property owners to apply for FEMA assistance, but warns residents not to bank on that money.
“There is probably not going to be a lot of individual assistance, and the criteria for getting that is probably going to be pretty difficult for a lot of folks here to qualify for,” Taylor said. FEMA will weigh factors such as economic hardship, assistance for the elderly and those with special needs.
“Those are the folks that might be eligible for something, but it’s not certainly going to be much, and we’re working to quantify that,” Taylor said.
Taylor noted that many residents who were affected by the Cerro Grande fire have misunderstandings regarding FEMA assistance. Because a federal employee started the fire, the federal government paid 100 percent after that disaster.
“Cerro Grande was an anomaly,” Taylor said. “Because the feds lit the match, you fell into a different category.
“There are some unrealistic expectations here as a direct result of the anomaly that was Cerro Grande. So I’m trying to put out there to the public that those are unrealistic expectations, and 100 percent for government damages and 100 percent for homeowner damages is not realistic.”
Taylor said he will issue a press release once he has developed a procedure for residents to report individual losses.
Taylor is unable to project when the FEMA process will move forward.
“The bottom line is, we’re just at the initial stages,” Taylor said. “We’re just standing around listening to the band. Nobody’s walked up and asked anybody to dance yet. We’ve got a long ways to go before the ring.”