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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. 

 

 

Chaos, Grief & Gratitude

22 Oct

Week Two

My husband and I have had moments of laughter, in spite of the chaos and grief in the aftermath of the Santa Rosa firestorm.  We were chuckling yesterday about how crazy popular The Cars album was.  The subject came up because I mentioned that every time I go through something, a chorus from that album pops into my head and helps me get through the craziness.

That sums up week two after the fires.  It’s all mixed up.

Grief and gratitude mix about as well as vinegar and oil.  They have to be shaken pretty hard and well seasoned to make a palatable dressing.

Living indefinitely in a hotel with three cats is not an option.  Going home is not an option.  Going anywhere near home is not an option.  Meeting our insurance adjuster this week was not an option.  Getting information from the park management was not an option.  We hear on the news that after a disaster there is chaos and emotions run high.  Chaos is a word until it defines your life.  Now it’s real.  This is what chaos means.  It means the news says one thing, a local friend says another, the multiple authorities in charge say something else, the manager in charge of your community doesn’t answer the phone and doesn’t return voicemail (because they’re waiting for clear answers from whomever is in charge–and that keeps changing); it means the internet isn’t working, you can’t do research; your phone flakes out when you need it most–it’s one thing after another, road block after road block; inexplicable detour and traffic jams on the information highway.

FEMA sent me an email saying that we were eligible for transitional shelter assistance, and there was a link, forms to complete, and finally a map with hotels that take in displaced families and pets after a disaster.  I tried to make a reservation, only to learn that the list was outdated.  Several hotels were no longer part of the program, or for some reason were not participating at this time.  Finally, success!  We have landed in a home away from home until November 9th.  Now, what do we do for the rest of November?

One thing became crystal clear immediately after the fires… we can’t go back home.  There is no home to go back to, even though the structure is standing.  The community is gone.  Infrastructure, utilities, melted.  They can’t simply run an electrical line from the street to our mobile home.  Anyway, these are all logistics.  This week has been about the emotional aftermath, which is that odd mixture of grief and gratitude.

We both fell silent and lethargic periodically as depression hit hard.  For me, it’s that my retirement plan has been destroyed.  My perfect little retirement home, my affordable little retirement home–all that research, planning, saving–all the years of work that resulted in a successful outcome–my life after retirement was all set, and now, it’s all gone.  But stop and smell the roses!  YOU’RE ALIVE AND WELL!!!

Grief and gratitude, it’s all mixed up.  Tears of sadness and relief.  Moments of horror as memories of running for your life are triggered, followed by moments of amazement by the generosity and compassion of the people who have said, “We want to help your family!”  The sweetness of hotel staff makes living in a hotel with three cats a little less painful.  And the gratitude–always, the gratitude–keeps the floor under us.  Things could have been so much worse.  We came so close to losing everything.

Silver linings have been free breakfasts and all the little and big acts of kindness.

It is hard to sleep when you have to make big decisions, when every day that you don’t have a place to live after November 9th, the last day of hoteling from FEMA, means you’re paying $3,000/month or more in rent.  Urgency deprives you of sleep.  Something must be done!  But what?

We reached an agreement that Long Beach is a sound economic direction for us to go, because I have been paying for my son to rent a room near college in that area.  Rather than continue to pay rent for him, we will combine households.  He’ll live with us again, we’ll buy a condo near California State University at Long Beach.  That way, I can continue to help him finish college, as he pursues a degree in Industrial Design.  I can also help him learn to drive, so he can get to and from the temp jobs he’s been ubering to.  He can drive our dependable 1998 Toyota Camry.  It has over 207,000 miles on it, and it’s still a quiet and comfortable ride.

We have come to terms with the changes.  Instead of living in the natural beauty of sleepy Sonoma County, where we could drive 10 minutes and find serenity in the greenery… once again, we are in the concrete and asphalt jungle with traffic and noise.  From Los Angeles, it takes hours to drive to a wild place.  We will miss our Sunday afternoons in the Armstrong Redwood Forest.   There’s the grief.  And then the gratitude… aerial-calif-fire4-rd-ml-171012_4x3_992

Carma & Oliver

We have each other:)