Plight of evacuees: 'People are falling through the cracks'

·11 min read

May 22—Eight-and-a-half months pregnant and penniless, Amity Maes had no idea where she was going to sleep Wednesday night.

An evacuee of the largest wildfire in New Mexico history, the 30-year-old Mora woman bounced around for weeks before finding shelter at an evacuation center in Glorieta, where she believes she contracted COVID-19. Officials at Glorieta Adventure Camps said late last week there had been 67 cases among evacuees, including some that required hospitalization.

After her isolation period, Maes said she was urged to leave Tuesday and go to a hotel in Santa Fe where she could be closer to a hospital if she went into labor.

She left, which she immediately regretted. The hotel didn't have her reservation when she arrived around 9 p.m. Maes managed to get a room two hours later. But the stay was only good for one night.

"What are we supposed to do after 11 o'clock when we have to check out?" she said about an hour before she and her 54-year-old father and his girlfriend, who were also evacuated, would have to leave the hotel.

"They keep encouraging us to go to Albuquerque," where evacuees are being housed in hotels, she said, her voice cracking. "We don't have gas. We don't have no income. There's no gas vouchers. There's no anything. I'm on a quarter-tank of gas, and I don't know what I'm going to do."

She's not alone.

The Glorieta retreat center, which has housed hundreds of people this month and hosted a dozen organizations providing services and resources to evacuees, is set to close its shelter Friday to prepare for its annual summer camps.

While staff members were trying to ensure all of its guests have a place to go when the doors close, some families said they weren't certain where they would land.

'It's also burning into our souls'

Maes' plight is emblematic of the challenges facing evacuees from one of the most impoverished areas in New Mexico, some of whom have been evacuated for more than a month and whose financial resources are dwindling, if not gone. Evacuees have grown weary of their predicament but are even more worried about the uncertainty that lies ahead, particularly for people who live off what is now scorched land.

"We're going home to the unknown," said Susan Vigil, a resident of Chacon.

In the meantime, evacuees are dealing with what Vigil called a fragmented and broken system.

When the president of a coalition of behavioral health care providers showed up Thursday at one of the hotels where evacuees are being housed in Albuquerque, to offer their services, Vigil told him evacuees are grappling with myriad issues.

"There are people who are struggling with more than just a fire, with illness, with cancer, with having to go to Santa Fe to get cancer treatments, hurting financially," Vigil told Jeremy Lihte, president of New Mexico Leaders in Recovery. "There's lots of issues."

Lihte expressed sympathy.

"There's no situation better equipped to cause hurt and mental health right now than being displaced, confused, not getting the information you need, so we're going to try to get more behavioral health workers here the next couple of days," Lihte said.

Vigil thanked Lihte for listening.

"You know, we have so much hurt here today, including myself. I'll probably need mental health treatment by the time I'm done," Vigil said, adding she lost a sister and that her family has been unable to plan a funeral.

Her 91-year-old mother has been counting the days her daughter has been in a funeral home, she said.

"That's the kind of hurt that this has created," she told Lihte as tears ran down her face. "It's more than just a fire that's burning trees and burning homes. It's also burning into our souls."

'My heart breaks for the people of Mora'

Heather Nordquist, who has been engaged in issues affecting Northern New Mexico residents, said evacuees' needs are going unmet.

"I thought that with the declaration of an emergency [by President Joe Biden] and funding for the wildfires that these evacuees would be taken care of, but the story I got from Susan was very different," she said, referring to Vigil. "They were down to their last case of bottled water. Many had no money for gas to get to medical appointments."

Nordquist has collected about $3,000 in donations, which she has used for food, gift and gas cards, and supplies for evacuees.

"It was clear from visiting [evacuees at the Querque Hotel] that they were stranded and forgotten," she said. "There is a tiny breakfast room for about 200 people. Children were playing Legos in the hallway. Families were gathering on benches in the lobby because there's really nowhere else to go."

Nordquist said hundreds of evacuees who are used to rural life in the mountains have been abandoned in the "concrete jungle" of Albuquerque.

"I am so deeply discouraged that our tax dollars aren't finding their way to these evacuees," she said. "My heart breaks for the people of Mora."

Vigil, who has been helping fellow evacuees obtain the resources they need, said there's been a lack of coordination of services, such as medical care.

"We're talking about a wide range of what makes a person whole — mind, body, spirit," she said. "That's how I see everyone that I come across. We're not just refugees. We're so much more. We matter. Mora matters."

Norma Herrera, 68, said she applied for assistance from the Federal Emergency Management Agency but was told she was ineligible because her driver's license shows an Albuquerque address. She said she moved to Albuquerque after she got a divorce but has been back in Mora for about eight years.

"They wouldn't like to be rolling around, would they?" she said in Spanish.

"I wanted to stay in my home, but they told us to get out," she said, adding she was evacuated twice.

"The same day we went back home, we had to leave," she said.

"I don't think that any of us, including at the state level, were prepared for the magnitude of this" wildfire, Vigil said.

'People are falling through the cracks'

State Rep. Roger Montoya, D-Velarde, said evacuees are receiving, for the most part, the services they "need and deserve." But the state's response has been less than ideal, he said.

"When there's a trauma or a situation that arises in any community, but especially those that are vulnerable and marginalized — that's why I spent the last 35 years in nonprofit because there was so much work to do — I expect government, especially in New Mexico, to respond with the compassion and efficacy of a social worker because that's what our state needs," he said.

Montoya said he has the same expectation of FEMA and other agencies "so that the gaps are filled with compassion and love and care, giving the quality of aid and comfort that our people deserve, especially when this tragedy was forced on them at the hand of the federal government."

The U.S. Forest Service started a controlled burn April 6 in the Pecos/Las Vegas Ranger District near Hermit Peak. Winds pushed it out of control, prompting the first in a series of mandatory evacuations five days later.

Another fire west of the first ignited April 19. Although the cause of the second fire remains under investigation, the two fires merged April 23 and had burned over 314,000 acres by Saturday. While it has slowed in recent days, it remains only 40 percent contained.

Montoya, who encountered opposition from the Governor's Office when he tried to deliver food and supplies to residents who ignored evacuation orders and stayed behind to try to protect their homes and livestock, said he hasn't received the kind of support he hoped to get.

"People are falling through the cracks, and the response that I expected hasn't come even yet," he said. "I have a deep compassion, and I will fight to the last breath to bring the service that our people need. But when you're doing it almost alone, and you're being disregarded by your own leaders, that's a hard thing to swallow."

Montoya said a recommendation that emerged Friday, during a debriefing on a rural summit he organized earlier this month to discuss the wildfires and other emergency health and public safety-related issues, is for the state to create a "one-stop shop" that mirrors what the state Department of Health set up to respond to the coronavirus pandemic.

"A member of the New Mexico Alliance of Health Councils said, 'The COVID response architecture was awesome. Why reinvent it?' " he said.

Nora Meyers Sackett, the governor's press secretary, said in an interview Friday the state is working in conjunction with a variety of partners, including local governments and relief organizations, to provide aid to evacuees.

"We are all working as hard as we can to make sure that we are meeting every possible need. That being said, this is an unprecedented situation," she said. "It's the largest wildfire in New Mexico history, and it has created great need for an unprecedented number of New Mexicans, and there's no doubting that reality. And that's why the governor is pushing so hard for the federal government to give the state the assistance that New Mexicans need and deserve and for the federal government to commit to covering 100 percent of all response and recovery costs."

Evacuees, however, are facing immediate needs.

Sackett said FEMA is offering $500 in critical needs assistance to help people in those situations.

"The [critical needs assistance] funds are being funded within 48 hours of an approved application, so that's why it is incredibly important that anybody affected or impacted by the wildfire register with FEMA as soon as possible," she said, adding more information is available at disasterassistance.gov.

Sackett also said efforts are underway to house people who must leave the Glorieta retreat.

"All New Mexicans staying at Glorieta will be offered stays in hotels, and the Department of Homeland Security and Emergency Management and FEMA are working together to coordinate that transition throughout next week," she said.

Vigil and others say some of the evacuees, such as the elderly, are not computer literate, though such resources are also being made available.

The city of Albuquerque's Emergency Operations Center, for example, stepped up to provide housing and other services for evacuees. The city, which expects to be reimbursed by the federal government, is currently housing about 400 people at six different hotels.

"Something that we did starting Monday was stand up a community hub," said Danielle Silva, a city spokeswoman.

Evacuees can pick up boxes of food, hygiene products, laundry detergent and other supplies they didn't pack or can't afford, she said.

"We also have the Presbyterian mobile clinic out in front of the building so they can help people with the medical needs that they have. They're offering mental health and things like that," Silva said. "FEMA is out there, and they actually have staff available to help people fill out FEMA applications."

While evacuees appreciate the help, they say government red tape doesn't account for more immediate needs.

Strangers come to pregnant woman's aid

What's clear is that the needs are many, and each situation is unique, such as the woman who is 8 1/2 months' pregnant.

After a reporter tweeted about Maes' plight, strangers immediately offered to give her money and other assistance. So did the Governor's Office.

Sackett said a representative from a third-party organization, not the state, spoke with the woman, which led to her leaving the Glorieta evacuation center.

"We have communicated with that organization to ensure that that situation will not happen again," Sackett said.

Maes said the state arranged for her and her father and his girlfriend to stay in a hotel for about two weeks.

"It's such a [expletive] relief, especially after everything we've gone through," she said.

"Now I can relax and have a baby in peace," she added.

Maes also said she received financial donations from people who connected with her through social media.

As she was driving to a gas station later that day, she said the gas light on her vehicle turned on.

"I was like, 'Oh my God. We can put a whole tank of gas,' " she said. "We haven't been able to do that in weeks."

Follow Daniel J. Chacón on Twitter @danieljchacon.