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California Wildfire Survivors One Year Later

15 Nov

News of the Camp Fire that spread in one hour from 1,000 to 5,000 acres and by the end of the day had wiped out an entire town became too much for me.  I noticed I felt compelled to avoid images, and especially video, of flames and people fleeing in terror.  The mere mention brings me to tears and makes me feel unsafe and depressed.  I want to run and hide.  I want to live somewhere wet.  I feel trapped by circumstances outside my control.  And pouring salt on these wounds is an American President incapable of empathy.

 

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The day after the Camp Fire raged, I received an email from the Northern California Fire Lawyers acknowledging the pain this news must be causing to survivors of the most destructive fires in the state’s history last year–which has now been topped.  Their email suggested that we find ways to help today’s survivors by sharing our stories, our recommendations, our experience about how to cope, how to face the reality that your community has been destroyed, your home is gone, and your nerves are frayed and you feel fragile, yet decisions are bearing down on you every hour of the day.  At the time that email arrived, it was too much to ask of me.  I could not even bear to think about it.  I moved the email immediately out of sight, set it aside in my “Relocation” folder.

Now, a few days later, unable to escape the images and news of Paradise, Thousand Oaks, and Malibu, I feel capable of sharing some insights that may be helpful to today’s survivors.

How did I do it?  How did I move through the decisions that had to be made?  How did I find the mental and emotional strength to sort it all out?  The answer to that is that when you have no choice but to put one foot in front of the other and there is only one direction to go, you do that.  How was it so clear to me that we had to leave Santa Rosa?  I want you, dear reader, to know how much I loved Santa Rosa.  I still cry.  I cry not only because I loved living there, I cry because such a beautiful little city was decimated.  I cry because the senior community of Journey’s End was destroyed and we can’t recreate it.  I cry because I know how much it hurts my former neighbors to lose what we had.

We fled in the middle of the night.  Flames were everywhere, not licking at our car windows like the videos I’ve glimpsed of people trying to get away from a Paradise in flames, but it was terrifying nonetheless.  We saw glowing red, orange and yellow everywhere, the wind whipping it into a frenzy.  We saw neighbors’ homes engulfed, we couldn’t tell whether it was two or three homes, it was a big fireball fueled by wicked winds.   We saw a charred car on the side of the 101 highway and still burning–nobody was in it, and a police officer was present, directing evacuees around that lane.  We evacuated early, so we were not trapped in traffic.  I can’t imagine–I don’t want to imagine–I know how terrifying it was and my heart breaks for them.

So how did we go from that terror, sadness and chaos on October 9th to closing escrow on November 22nd?  In large part, it was me.  While members of my family seemed to be a little lost in hope that there was some reason to stick around, wait it out, see what happens, every molecule in my being shouted to my brain: Get out of here!

#1 – The smoke polluting the entire region was toxic.  I have a health condition that puts me at higher risk, but even without that, it was really bad to be breathing that smoke day in and day out.  The smoke wasn’t going anywhere.  Sonoma, Napa and Lake Counties were on fire and it took weeks to get it under control.  We had to get away from this and the only thing that made sense for us was to head south, to be near family in southern California.

#2 – Immediately file a claim with your insurance company and with FEMA.  Immediately figure out how to do that and get it done.  Fortunately for my family, I am a very organized person and I was able to pull it all together.  Keep every receipt, take a photo of every receipt as you go along, and upload the photos to a secure folder in the cloud.

#3 – Get back to work as soon as possible.  For people whose employment is local, that is a much bigger challenge.  My husband’s job was impacted.  My situation was more flexible, since I work online, I can work anywhere as long as I have a laptop and internet access.  My boss told me to take it easy, time time off, do what we needed to do–but for those first few days, there was really nothing we could do other than wait…wait for access to our personal belongings…wait to meet an insurance adjuster…wait for FEMA to come through.  So working was a relief.

#4 – Avoid the news.  Avoid hearing and seeing the devastation over and over, all day, every day.  Give yourself a break!  Shut down.  Unplug.  For Californians, thankfully, we have access to dispensaries that provide non-narcotic relief from anxiety, insomnia, and depression.  I bought some tinctures in the days after the fire.

#5 – Realistic expectations are vitally important.  Set them early and reset them as you go along.  It was unrealistic to hope or wish that utilities would be restored to our homes–our homes were damaged but still standing–but the infrastructure, the underground utilities–all of that was completely melted.  Our mobile home park was served by an onsite well.  The pipes and pumps were destroyed, and the well was contaminated.  I did not need to know that before I made a decision to leave Santa Rosa.  The smoke was so bad, and the recovery would require years–it was painfully obvious–we could not stay there.  There was nowhere to live!  We couldn’t stay indefinitely in a motel.  We couldn’t leave our cats in a kennel indefinitely.  We simply had to start over!

#6 – Someone has to be decisive.  In this crisis, it turned out to be me.  The pivotal reality was that I had to get away from the smoke and I had to get back to work–my family’s welfare was on the line.  It was not necessary to get hysterical or manic, it was a painful realization that was stated quietly and firmly, with sympathy.  My mental health had to be preserved so that I could function.  So my priorities were what they were:  self preservation, people are depending on me.  I had an obligation, a duty, to my children, to my mother, to myself.  Sanity is paramount.  Be realistic.  Take care of yourself.

#7 – If you can withdraw money from your 401(k) to invest in a new home, do it.  I did not feel so bad raiding my retirement account, knowing that real estate is usually one of the best investments you can make.  I searched for a condo that would be easy to sell in a few years.  This was a strategic purchase–not intended to be a permanent solution, but rather an immediate solution with a likelihood of paying off later when we figured out where we really want to retire–if we cannot go back to Santa Rosa, then where?

So this is my little contribution to today’s survivors who may be looking for clear advice. Every situation is unique, but these things apply to all.  Get it together, solve the immediate problems of where to stay while you figure it out, then figure it out and try to make the best of things.

Above all, what gets you through it is the gratitude of the fact that you did survive.  That gratitude got me through a lot.  We escaped.  We escaped a firestorm.  A year later, that gratitude still lifts me up above the sadness.

Wishing you a year filled with kindness, grace and gratitude.

 

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ABC News: One year after Tubbs fire

 

Four Months of Limbo

12 Feb

After The Fire

Today is the 18th Monday since we sat in a hotel watching in horror as our neighborhood burned to the ground, and although we would later count ourselves among the lucky ones because our homes were still standing–we didn’t lose everything–the irony is that we, the #JE44, are the ones who have been in limbo all this time.  Here are the facts.

Because our homes are still standing, the insurance payout was only limited to the policy cap of additional living expenses due to displacement, which was on average $6,582.

Insurance also paid to repair physical damage, cleanup of smoke damage, property loss, and spoiled food–which essentially means that once we are able to use our homes again, we will pay the difference between the actual cost to repair and replace, since the insurance companies payout based on their estimates of fair market value at the time of the incident.  The fact is, the actual cost has skyrocketed because of the enormous demand for materials and services.

FEMA denied housing assistance because we had insurance.  For those still living in a FEMA motel, their time runs out soon and they have to file an appeal based on being “under insured”.  None of us knew we were under insured.  We all thought, “No problem, I have insurance!”  Many of my neighbors are in dire straits because they cannot use their home–utilities have not been restored and the owner of the park is trying to sell the land, and the buyer is promising to build “affordable” housing (highly unlikely that the legal requirement of this new “affordable” housing will match what we had, which was less than $700/month including utilities).

Basically, our retirement homes were destroyed and they’re not coming back, and even though we had insurance, our losses were not covered because technically the insurance company did not have to move our homes, and legally we cannot force the land owner or the buyer to restore what was.

Let this be a warning to everyone who thinks they’re covered.  We all would have been better off if we had no insurance at all–every one of our neighbors who had no insurance was eligible for FEMA housing assistance.

After four months, we still have no idea what is going to happen to our homes.

“Can’t you move it?”  One neighbor received a quote of $60,000 to move their double-wide custom home.  Another neighbor received a quote of $13,000 to move a single-wide less than 30 miles away.  There are no available sites within 100 miles.

So 44 families are still in limbo because the park owner and the prospective buyer won’t tell us what they are planning.  This feels wrong.

Journey’s End … Before & After

Thankful To Be Safe And Well

23 Nov

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It has been 45 days since we fled for our lives and watched in horror from a hotel room as television news crews witnessed entire communities, including ours, burn to the ground.  I can never forget those feelings.  Now, on Thanksgiving Day, I am overcome with amazement and gratitude that we are safe and well.  If my husband had not awoken as early as he did, if he had not investigated why it smelled like a campfire, we might have been among those who were trapped by flames on all sides.

Today we do not care about turkey or feasting or bargain hunting.  Today we paint.  We powered through the emotions, pushed and pulled through financial hurdles, and found a place to call home, and yesterday at 5:30pm we received the keys to our next adventure.  Together.  Safe and well.

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Tomorrow we get WiFi and lots of little touches that make it Home.  Saturday we check out of the hotel that has been our temporary shelter, and introduce our three kitties–who are also noticeably thankful to have survived that wretched night!–to their new safe haven.  Sunday we wake up at home.  Home.  It has a whole new depth of emotion associated with that word, that sound in my head.  Home.  Home Sweet Home.

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Giving Thanks for a New Home

19 Nov

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Week Six

It was evident within days of the firestorm that destroyed our community that living in Santa Rosa was no longer an option.  The issue of affordable housing had already been a factor in the region, and with multiple disasters hitting the U.S. in September and October, a sudden shortage of new construction materials would mean higher prices and longer waits.  Compound that problem with the necessity of City and County reorganizing and rethinking how best to rebuild, and now you’re talking years before we can return to Santa Rosa.  Our decisions had to be made immediately and would impact the rest of our lives.  For me and my husband, it made sense to return to SoCal.

We are fortunate in that I can work anywhere via internet and my husband can find work in any major city.  At first we considered San Diego because my husband’s son lives there and we thoroughly enjoyed our vacation in that sunny, breezy, beach city.  The other idea was to invest in a condo near California State University in Long Beach because my son is transferring there in 2018, and since I promised to help him through college, this was the most practical location.  It was with some trepidation, however, that on October 23rd we signed a contract with our future and opened a 30-day escrow period; tomorrow we sign loan documents to seal the deal, and on Wednesday we will have the keys.

This year on the fourth Thursday of November, we will begin moving into the top/front unit in the building shown above–the one with the beautiful arched window over the balcony.  Donations from co-workers, friends and family combined with a partial insurance payout buffered most of the loss, and pulling a chunk out of retirement savings made our Thanksgiving home possible.

Our joy is mixed with sorrow, however, while my husband’s Mom remains in dire straits.  Her insurance policy did not cover the full cost to move the mobile home, she still owes $19,000 to the bank, and reports of looting in our neighborhood have kept her on edge.  She has been very sick for two weeks, and has been staying in hotels or with friends for six weeks.  We hope she can sell her home soon and start over in a city near us that has affordable homes for retirees.

JEMHP-SaharaStIt has been a daunting post-traumatic period, cushioned by many acts of kindness and friendship.  Throughout this epic loss, the blessings of living in a civilized country have kept us from sinking into poverty and despair.  The firestorm would have incinerated the entire region were it not for thousands of brave people and the advantages of technology pushing back the flames.  We are most thankful that my husband awoke when he did, that our lives were spared, and that we did not lose everything.  ♥

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Image courtesy of LivePuntaMita.com

 

 

Harsh Reality

9 Nov

One Month After The Santa Rosa Firestorm

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It’s called a disaster for a reason.  The situation is a massive disruption of normalcy!  And now, a month after our frantic 3am evacuation, my family has arrived at the harsh reality of multiple levels of red tape and deep uncertainty.

Our homes are among those still standing in a mobile home park that is otherwise utterly destroyed.

The insurance says our homes can be repaired, and they are paying for the cost of repairs, however, even after repairs, we cannot live in them.  Indefinitely.  The future of the park is yet to be determined, as is the case with most of the neighborhoods destroyed–exactly what to rebuild there is in question.  Santa Rosa needed more affordable housing before the fires.  Now it needs much more!

The park owner has not figured out next steps or a timeline.

Meanwhile, our homes are exposed to further damage by looters and homeless people seeking shelter.

In my mother-in-law’s case, her home is almost new and she owes the bank $19k, and the bank has told her she is not allowed to move it.  She also cannot sell it, since no one can live in it (there are no utilities and it will likely take months to rebuild all of the infrastructure in the park).  So, the insurance will only pay for repair, she can’t live there, can’t sell it, has paid $57k for this home and still owes $19k, and she has to figure out where to live until all of this red tape is sliced!  My stomach is in knots about it and her anxiety level is sky high.

Donate funds to assist Inger Simonsen

So this has been a month long roller coaster, or rather, it’s been more like a House of Horrors–with monstrous ordeals suddenly shrieking at us from hidden places.  Words like “asbestos contamination” and “condemned” and “ineligible for assistance” changed our course daily.  One week to the next, patiently waiting, and no one able to provide answers.  Rumors and speculation.  Guesswork.  Suspended indefinitely between hope and fear.

At this point, our only hope is that someday a settlement will be reached with PG&E to compensate the losses.  There is evidence that their faulty equipment and/or negligence caused the Tubbs Fire that destroyed 4,658 homes in Santa Rosa.

For now, we are stuck in limbo.  The fence around the mobile home park was put up by the City and is being taken down at the end of the week.  There is no security onsite.  We have retrieved valuables from inside, and will lock them up, but that’s as good as it gets.  We can only hope this situation is resolved sooner rather than later.

We have talked with City Council, the Mayor, the Press Democrat, FEMA, Red Cross, United Way, and a couple of attorneys.  And we are still stuck in limbo.

This is what it means to be caught in a sudden natural disaster of such magnitude that an entire region is disrupted.

Here’s a video shot by firefighters for perspective.

Silver Linings

4 Nov

Week Four

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Neighbors at Journey’s End Mobile Home Park, 1 Nov 2017

A lot happened this week.  We finally heard from Evans Management that residents of Journey’s End Mobile Home Park would be given access to retrieve personal property.  My husband made the long schlep again from L.A. to North Bay, 474 miles.  His mother went with him to get as much as they could take in the car, and put things into storage until we have a place to live.  We were supposed to have five days, November 1st to 5th, from 8am to 4pm, but on Friday morning, the park was shut down by the EPA because of hazardous materials–including asbestos!  The park is now officially condemned.*

 

[*Update: “Condemned” status is short-term. Authorities stated in a meeting yesterday with Journey’s End residents that test results are expected Wednesday.  So we are in still in limbo.]

That is both good news and bad news.  For those of us who have been in limbo because our property is still standing, but the conditions were unlivable (due to no utilities and surrounded by toxic waste), it was a welcome relief because as far as insurance was concerned, our homes could be salvaged.  Now, word on the street is that the EPA is not going to let anyone take anything else out of the park, to minimize the spread of contamination.  That means we cannot have our homes towed to another site, which means in essence, the fire destroyed our homes through cross contamination.  This should mean that the insurance company should payout as a total loss.  We still do not have confirmation that they will see it this way, but at least we have a case–if they do not treat our homes as destroyed, we can appeal their decision and get a judge’s opinion.  One thing is certain:  We can all stop looking for a place to move our homes.  Those contaminated homes are not going anywhere!

This is bad news for our uninsured neighbor, Louise, and those like her who could not afford homeowners insurance.  For them, it is all loss.  The silver lining for her is that she had a chance to save some of her favorite things, and she has family to help her cope with the trauma of losing her community of 37 years.

Resilience means focusing on those silver linings.  The total destruction of stuff gives one a blank canvas.  The altering experience of waking in the middle of the night to imminent danger gives one fresh perspective.  We take the blank canvas and newfound appreciation and with tremendous gratitude create a new home.

Such experiences strengthen our bonds with family, friends, and co-workers.  Feeling loved and supported transforms all involved.  Relationships, as everyone knows, are most important, and disasters have a way of growing trust and admiration, whether directly or vicariously impacted.  It has made us all think and feel about what matters most.  We have all hugged more, been more gentle with ourselves and others, and have felt more thankful for life’s simple pleasures.

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Lost Disneyland

30 Oct

Week Three

After the Apollo 13 crew landed safely following a near disaster, astronaut Jim Lovell wrote about it in a book titled Lost Moon.  That was his experience…he lost the moon.  As much as I try to power through, focus on the silver linings, and deeply appreciate the generosity and compassion of everyone whose donations are helping my family recover from the Santa Rosa firestorm, sadness has had a grip on this week because October 23-29 was supposed to be a special week with my daughter and grandkids.

We had planned our vacation together for months.  We were going to do a lot of fun stuff.  All week long we felt the pain of this loss.  So please forgive me, though I want to focus on the positives, and make everyone feel good about how they have helped my family, week three hangs low under two words: Lost Disneyland.  This lost week of joy with my kids is beyond measure.

On the bright side, we found a condo that we like, made an offer on it, and it was accepted.  We are now in escrow and hope to have keys to a place where we can physically start the process of rebuilding our lives.

My husband, Oliver, has been out of work for three weeks.  He is driving to Santa Rosa tomorrow with his mom, Inger, to meet with FEMA reps and insurance adjusters.  aerial-calif-fire4-rd-ml-171012_4x3_992We still do not have access to what remains of our property.  JEMHP is unsafe.  Pacific Gas & Electric has been tearing up the streets to repair and secure underground lines, and they won’t let anyone in until they make it safe.  So for those of us lucky to have homes still standing, each day brings us one step closer to the salvage situation.  Hopefully, Oliver will be allowed in next week, and can bring clothes and important documents.  [Edit Sunday evening: A representative of Evans Management called and informed us that residents of JEMHP will be allowed in November 1-5.]

On the bright side, we are starting to think about moving into the condo on Thanksgiving weekend (if escrow closes in 30 days, as we are all trying to make happen).  In a few weeks, we will have keys to four walls and a roof, and will begin to make it our home.  It’s a good feeling.  And I would like to leave you with that good feeling.

We are looking forward to finding furniture pieces that have some character.  Starting to browse pictures online of what local stores have in stock.  Starting to think about the Pacific breeze that will cool our evenings, and the foggy mornings that will greet each new day as we settle in SoCal.

0414170703a_HDR“We’ll always have Santa Rosa,” we said to each other with a sincere smile.

We will always remember our three wonderful years of tranquility, living in the green beauty of northern California.

 

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Beautiful Sonoma, we cherish the memories we made there. Bodega Bay 013-COLLAGE

Inger Simonsen in Armstrong Redwood Forest; Carma & Oliver Simonsen in Bodega Bay and Mendocino Headlands; two feral kittens we rescued and gave to good homes; and rafting on the Russian River.