New Mexico Agency Overwhelmed by Disaster Relief Requests

December 18, 2014

Records show relief aid for New Mexico communities affected by fires and flooding was slowed by dysfunction within the state Homeland Security and Emergency Management Department.

A review of internal reports, emails and audits obtained by The Santa Fe New Mexican shows the agency was overwhelmed by even relatively modest requests for relief.

Officials in San Miguel County say torrential rains forced a disaster to be declared in 2013 but it was nearly a year before the department came out to assess the damage.

The county’s unfavorable experience with the department wasn’t a first.

Former staff members and people from other agencies who have dealt with the department say there has been a chaotic culture and administrative instability since it was founded seven years ago.

Their assertions are supported by state audits, federal reports, emails and a whistleblower lawsuit depicting personal controversies, questionable financial accounting practices and alleged violations of state procurement regulations.

Deputy Secretary Anita Tallarico Statman defended her tenure at the agency, saying she tried to make it more professional.

“I think people are used to doing what they’ve been doing in any situation,” she said. “I think we all need a little nudge every once in a while. Some people are receptive to that and some are not.”

Paula Flores, a former grants supervisor, left the department in August for a job with the state. She said internal problems affected more than just the staff.

“All the pettiness that was going on affected every jurisdiction because the local governments weren’t getting what they needed from the state,” Flores said.

San Miguel County Manager Les Montoya shared his frustration in an April letter to State Auditor Hector Balderas and former department Secretary Gregory A. Myers.

At the time, the county still had not received relief funds for the 2013 flooding. Montoya said department officials had informed him they were “overwhelmed” with the amount of federal grants coming in for disasters across the state.

Gov. Susana Martinez’s office defended the agency. Spokesman Michael Lonergan said the department has leveraged resources from across the state and worked with federal officials to ensure projects were done quickly and correctly.

The governor recently appointed M. Jay Mitchell to take over the agency. He told The New Mexican he has been working with senior staff to identify areas where the agency can improve.

After the initial floods in July and August 2013 prompted the governor’s state disaster declaration, San Miguel County officials figured it would take Homeland Security a couple of weeks to send out inspectors to assess the damage. That didn’t happen and then more severe floods hit in September.

San Miguel County spent $87,280 of its own money for repairs. By March 2014, it still hadn’t been reimbursed or received funds to complete repairs.

San Juan County Emergency Manager Don Cooper said he’s always received financial help from the department when he’s needed it, but the payments have been delayed. He said the problem is that experienced people keep leaving the department.

Santa Clara Pueblo also had problems getting state and federal funds released through the department after fires and floods devastated dams and spillways on pueblo land in 2012 and 2013. Sen. Tom Udall, D-N.M. supported a federal measure passed in November 2013 that allowed the pueblo to skip the state altogether and go directly to the federal government for disaster aid and speed up the funding.

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