Equity and Recovery Series | Part I: Megan Barber Allende, CEO of The Community Foundation of Mendocino County

Thursday, June 21, 2018

Redwood Complex Fires

by Megan Barber Allende, President and CEO, The Community Foundation of Mendocino County

Natural disasters are the great equalizers, razing a cruel path regardless of income, heritage, or history. When the firestorm blazed through Redwood and Potter Valleys on the night of October 8th over 7,000 residents fled, leaving behind a lifetime of belongings. A week later when the evacuation was lifted, over 380 residences were lost, nearly 25% of the community’s housing.

This inimitable agrarian community developed a unique identity and was a haven to back-to-the-land populations, ranchers, and farmers who built their homes and raised their families in the valleys.  The devastation of the firestorm has changed the landscape and populations in long-lasting ways. It is our hope to support recovery efforts that allow the community to rebuild in a way that allows restoration of that unique identity.

According to a December 1, 2017 report by the California Department of Insurance, insured losses for Mendocino County totaled $183,109,706. Within and beyond these numbers are the many under- and uninsured losses. These have disproportionately impacted Native American, immigrant and rental populations. Many falling below the $42,980 median income for the county with over 20% below the poverty line. Anecdotal estimates of $8-10M have been suggested for rebuilding to support the uninsured and underinsured, of which the Community Foundation for Mendocino County has raised $2.5M for all recovery needs. That is at least a $6M gap.

As the custodians of these funds we must approach long-term recovery responsibly to equitably support those disproportionally impacted by the firestorm. Primarily this means focusing our resources on long-term housing solutions for the uninsured and underinsured, while offering other forms of recovery grant opportunities to the community as a whole. To do this we have tiered our levels of support in a flexible way. The first tier is small amounts which can allow a survivor to restore a sense of normalcy, including children’s activity funds, senior respite care, animal habitats, and restoration of utilities. The second tier is through Critical Needs Grants which remove a barrier to beginning the housing process or restore the ability to work for survivors that lost homes in the fire. Over 60 of these grants have been distributed to impacted families allowing them to secure rentals, install trailers on their properties to live in while rebuilding, or repurchase tools needed to restore home-based businesses. The final tier is in large housing grants that allow families to rebuild homes or purchase new or modular homes. These are limited by the amount of funds we have available; therefore we must give consideration to the most vulnerable populations without other pathways to long-term housing.

Community resiliency after a disaster has become a critical conversation in the recovery process. Our small community already faces challenges of a limited housing stock and inordinately high number of homeless individuals. It is imperative that we support the rehousing of the most vulnerable population that lost homes to the fire to prevent a homelessness crisis. Resiliency also means the ability to prepare and recover more quickly when natural disasters occur. Locally our county has allocated staffing to focus on community disaster resiliency, utilizing community feedback to define policies, programs, and interventions to mitigate future damage and recover after a disaster. From communications infrastructure improvements to allocations of critical resources plans are being drawn to prepare for the future. The long-term recovery committees chaired by the Community Foundation, with recovery partners, chief among them North Coast Opportunities (NCO), are utilizing the lessons from the 2017 wildfires as a blueprint for future recovery committees.

One of the greatest assets to our recovery planning has been the ability to organize long-term recovery steering committees quickly and effectively following the National Voluntary Organizations Active in a Disaster (NVOAD) model. The Community Foundation is chairing the long-term recovery committees and immediately hired a project manager to oversee the recovery efforts utilizing grant funding. This has been critical in allowing the Foundation to continue to function under its original mission, while also organizing the immense details necessary for recovery.

I recently asked a friend whose family lost everything in the fire, “What do you think you need most to begin recovering?” She looked me in the eyes and said, “That depends on what you mean by recovering – finding a place to live? Rebuilding the home we were raised in? Reforesting our barren lands? Or coming to terms with the grief and trauma of losing everything while escaping with our lives. What does recovering mean?” Her response is poignant and clings to my every thought as I contemplate how our long-term recovery work can best support fire survivors.

We do not have enough money to build everyone a new home, we cannot change the loss that is beyond words, we cannot return the priceless sentimental belongings which make up a life. We can only find small inroads to rebuilding one nail at a time, one hug at a time, one barrier removed at a time. Our committees focus on the immediate and critical needs of survivors, as well as their housing, emotional, and spiritual needs.

This is a small rural community – we all have friends and family who lost something in the fire: a job, a home, a life. We balance personal heartache with a long-term view of what is necessary to rebuild and become resilient in the face of such catastrophic loss. 


Recovery Efforts

To learn more or get engaged with Mendocino-ROC contact Project Manager Rose Bell at rosebellconsulting@gmail.com. To donate to the Disaster Fund for Mendocino County recovery efforts visit the website here >