Santa Rosa and Sonoma County A Year After the Fires

Santa Rosa      United Airlines had sent me several emails advising me to check on my flight to San Francisco.  Haze triggered by fires in California and the West were restricting visibility and delaying flights, therefore United was offering to reschedule.  When I called on Friday morning about the flight it was still on time, but when I arrived on Friday in the early afternoon, as a precaution I checked at the counter even though I already had my boarding pass to make sure flights were still on time.  By that point there was a two-hour hold on flights from Houston, so I drove back to work.

The next morning, I checked with the agents and the flight I would have taken was more than three hours late into SFO, so I had made the right decision to be part of the dawn patrol instead.  We landed in a thick brown haze that covered the hillsides between the airport and the city and didn’t start to break up until I was across the Golden Gate bridge and deep into Marin County and on my way to Santa Rosa to meet with the North Bay Organizing Project during the lunch break in their leadership development workshop.

I had met with Davin Cardenas several months ago about the progress of their rent control campaign before the fires and the efforts he and his colleagues had made in the recovery of Santa Rosa and Sonoma County after the devastating fires almost a year ago in mid-October of 2017.  In these times of environmental horrors for low-and-moderate income communities who are disproportionately hurt by climate change, as ACORN discovered after Katrina, the role of community organizations in responding is critical.  Visiting with the team, I was sorry to hear that the effort to put rent control back on the ballot in the wake of the affordable housing crisis exacerbated by the fire had narrowly fallen short by less than 1000 signatures.   On the other hand, the UndocuFund that they had organized to support the estimated 38,000 undocumented family affected by the fires in Sonoma County, either losing their housing or their jobs and income or both, had dispensed over $6 million in direct aid to these families who were not eligible because their status did not qualify them for FEMA support.

When leaving Sue Shaw, the co-director of the North Bay Organizing Project, with Davin, wrote out the directions for me to be able to see the fire’s footprint and recovery in the northern part of Santa Rosa and parts of Sonoma County.  The fire had destroyed 5% of the housing stock in Santa Rosa according to the mayor and 5000 homes almost overall exceeding a billion dollars in damage.  Talking to some of the folks at the church, the recovery sounded a long way from complete, and driving along the fire line, one could see some impact and the signs of construction now beginning, but it seemed a there was a long way to go.  On the winding roads through the county, FEMA trailers were dotted along the hills sides with cleanup and construction still going hand and hand.

 

Cardenas was interviewed by civileats.com last November and summed up the rebuilding challenge succinctly:

“But, overall, we hope that we can rebuild Sonoma County as a place where undocumented people—and working-class people—can not only survive, but thrive and raise healthy families. This is our opportunity to be courageous in the reconstruction of the county.” Still, Cardenas points out that a truly equitable recovery would require that city and county officials and those involved in the reconstruction address the existing affordable housing crisis in the area—where a 1-percent vacancy rate has been seriously exacerbated by the loss of 5 percent of the housing stock to the fires. Before the devastation, some families in Coffey Park—a close-knit neighborhood of working- and middle-class families that burned to the ground—were living two and three to a house to make ends meet.  “I think disaster capitalists are looking at this moment as a chance to enact the policies they’ve been desiring for the last half-decade,” says Cardenas. “Unless we start thinking about affordable housing, and other protections in the rebuilding of our neighborhoods, we run a great risk of Sonoma County becoming a completely white playground for the rich, and losing our working-class population—especially our undocumented population—altogether.”

From what I could see as I drove around, this is a fight still being fought, and we are still a long way from winning.

 

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The Failure of Imagination in Thinking about Disasters

People waited in line for drinking water outside a police station in Juncos, P.R., four days after Hurricane Maria made landfall.Credit Victor J. Blue for The New York Times

Cardiff     FEMA, the Federal Emergency Management Administration, has released an after-action report on its performance in Puerto Rico, and it met the disaster with a disastrously bad response.  Responding to Hurricane Irma’s devastation of the Virgin Islands, they had emptied out their warehouse in Puerto Rico of almost all supplies as they tried to respond.  Then only weeks later Hurricane Maria slammed the island of Puerto Rico.  The FEMA report essentially stated that in making contingency plans they prepared for the “occurrence of a single incident, rather than concurrent incidents.”

The Washington Post in their story on the report called this a “failure of imagination” writing,

The hypothetical hurricane FEMA planners had anticipated and prepared for in recent years was far less destructive than the one that arrived on Sept. 20. FEMA envisioned a storm knocking out power to 73 percent of the population, the report states. Maria destroyed the entire grid — much of it for months. The hypothetical storm would require search and rescue resources across 75 percent of the island. Maria required search and rescue for 99 percent.  The plan imagined that 56 percent of hospitals would be affected. The reality was 92 percent.

I’m in regular and often daily contact now with our star volunteer engineer and my companero in Puerto Rico, Willie Cosme, a host of “Salsa from A to Z” for 26 years and now a regular staple of all of our programming, but that’s a relatively new thing.  For six months we were lucky to be able to even get a text to him.  His electricity and internet still go out on a regular basis.  A backhoe blackened the island not long ago.  This is a long running disaster whose body count is still unknown.

My point today is not just that Puerto Rico got slammed twice, once by Maria and then by the ineffectiveness of the US government and its people from the White House on down.  That’s common knowledge.  My real concern is that we are continuing to have a “failure of imagination” when confronting disasters, both natural and political.

A screaming baby with a cellphone might be funny for a minute, but it minimizes the danger and destruction of Hurricane Donald even as it slanders all babies.  President Trump has curated his own worldwide “summer of rage” as he travels from one country to another, it is clear that we all still suffer from a failure to imagine the damage he brings and how bad it might still become with “concurrent incidents.”  After blowing up the G-7 meeting in Quebec, he flipped off NATO allies in Brussels threatening the whole European alliance, undercut the British Prime Minister, outran the Queen, and has brought us into a tariff and trade war that his Treasury Secretary has conceded he doesn’t know how to stop.  None of this counts the domestic devastation he has brought to civil and human rights, labor, women, the environment, health, education, social services, the courts and the rest of the endless acres of scorched earth he has rendered on American soil.

No one thought it could ever be this bad.  This was our failure of imagination.  It is every bit as bad as our worst nightmare, and there is no timetable on when we might be able to wake up from this horror and live normal lives again, much like the situation for all of the residents of Puerto Rico.  We need an after-action report for America that is as frank as what FEMA has detailed on their mishandling of Puerto Rico, and then, rather than just an “I’m sorry,” we need a total cure.

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