Tag Archives: #journeysendmobilehomepark

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

 

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:)

 

After The Fires

15 Oct

It is 7:56am Sunday, October 15, 2017, as I begin the next phase of recovery after the fires in Santa Rosa nearly put an end to us.  There are so many friends and extended family members who want to know what happened, what we went through; I can’t tell this story over and over, it’s traumatic.  So I will tell it once, here, and share the link, and I will try to post weekly updates here, I’ll make it a minor goal to write a little each Sunday morning until we rise like the Phoenix.

My husband, Oliver, arrived home from work around 10:30pm last Sunday, October 8th.  He is a driver, part-time.  His primary goal is nearing the finish line, and that is to complete the final rendering of Cerebus Film.  It is an independent animation project he has been producing/writing/directing since before we met in 2009.  He works with a team of over 200 artists worldwide, all of them doing it in their spare time on their own computers, a labor of love by skilled and talented Cerebus fans.

It was too late to catch up on our favorite shows, so we got ready for bed.  We both remember saying it smelled like a camp fire.  “There’s a wildfire in Napa,” I’d seen some news about that.  I thought of my boss, Terri, who was visiting her friend in Napa last weekend, and hoped the fires there would not affect her.  (It burnt to the ground, we learned a few days ago.)

We fell asleep easily with our three cats nestled at our feet and next to us and on us, as they usually do.

I woke to the sound of voices outside, yelling, in a fog I think I heard the word “evacuate” and I reached over and my husband wasn’t there.  A moment later he was in the doorway, shining the light of his phone into the bedroom and saying in no uncertain terms, “Honey, we have to evacuate.  There’s a fire in the park.”  (Our mobile home park, Journey’s End, you may have heard about it in the news, it’s the one located next to Kaiser Hospital, which was evacuated in the middle of the night, like we were.)

It was dark, power was out, inside our home the air was breathable, it only smelled like danger, but when I opened the door to look outside, the air was ghastly.  My brain yelled, “Get out!”  It didn’t stop yelling at me to obey that command until we were well south of Santa Rosa on Hwy 101, the main artery between San Francisco and the North Bay cities.

“The kitties!” I shouted, “We have to get the kitties!”

“I can’t see them!  Where are they?”

“Where are the carriers?” I said aloud and I remembered, they were outside, somewhere in the shed.  The red glow of flames nearby said, “You can’t do that.  You can’t risk your lives breathing that smoke and take time to find the carriers and try to find the cats and try to push them into the carriers.”

“What about–should we let them out?”

“No!  It’s too smoky and chaotic, they’re more likely to get hurt out there.”

Split-second decisions had to be made.  We rushed out with the clothes we threw on and our phones and keys.  I managed to grab my purse and meds.  “Get out!  Get out!”

We had to get Oliver’s Mom, Inger, a few doors down.  He ran over there, I got the car and met him.  He was out in that toxic smoke banging on her home to wake her and get her moving.  Her neighbor, Louise, came outside in her PJs and robe and we took  her with us.  They piled into the car and I drove carefully through the dark, smoky park toward the only exit, where we saw police cars parked with lights on, we heard sirens, but there was no sign of a firetruck, and plumes of yellow and red flames and black smoke consumed at least two homes at once.

“Get out!”  I obeyed.  Hyper focused on driving at 3:38am, turned onto Bicentennial Way.  Many cars, but not a jam, many people evacuating.

The entire hillside above Journeys End, the Fountaingrove area, was consumed.  And there were no firetrucks there and none on the road.  The entire county was going up in flames.

The wind that night was noticeably worse than memory recalls ever hearing in California, and we are used to the winds that kick up every year–known as the Santa Ana winds.  “It sounds like it could blow off some siding or the awning,” I had said before going to bed.

Once we got onto the 101 South, I drove the speed limit and watched other cars carefully to avoid an accident, getting away from the smoke was all that mattered.  Everything else was blocked out.  Drive to safety, that was my job, like a robot.

“Louise, do you have your medication with you?” I asked because she was understandably in a mild state of shock and panic.  She is 84 years old and takes heart medication.

“No, I didn’t get my purse or anything!”

“Okay, okay, we’ll stop at a hospital and get your medications.”

“I can get them at Tuttles.  They have all my records!”

Tuttles, her usual pharmacy, was probably not going to be open in the morning.  It’s in Santa Rosa.  There was a car consumed by flames on the side of the road, police nearby, doing what they could to help mitigate the dangers and steer people away.

We approached the next little city, Rohnert Park, it was dark and smoky.  “I don’t want to stop here, I don’t want to have to evacuate again, okay?  I’m going to keep driving until we get out of this smoke!”  All agreed.

We passed Petaluma, also smoky.  We found local news on the radio and heard that Novato had fire alerts and Hwy 37 was closed.  So there was no point looking for a hotel in Novato either, but we saw a hospital open, and took Louise to the ER to get checked out and get an emergency supply of meds.  They weren’t allowed to give her pills to take with her, but they printed out her prescriptions, so we could get them from a pharmacy first thing in the morning.

The only hotel that was not swarmed with evacuees was in San Rafael and it was $264, so we decided we might as well go all the way to San Francisco.

By 5am we were safe and in a comfy room.  We turned on Kron4, the best local live news channel, and were horrified.  “The mobile home park next to Kaiser Hospital has been completely destroyed.”  The news crew was on top of the Kaiser parking garage, directly behind our homes.  Their cameras were aimed downward and all that was visible in the black of night and smoke, was twisted metal in a wall of flames.

“Oh my god!” Louise said over and over again, and burst into tears. “Oh my god!  I hope everyone got out–how will we know?  Oh my god!  We’ve lost everything?”  By “we” she meant everyone in the park.  It has been her home for 37 years.  She’s the sweetest little lady.  It broke (and breaks) my heart.  I hugged her and told her we’re going to get through this, “You’re not alone, we’re all going to help each other get through this!”

“I don’t have any insurance!  I can’t afford insurance!  I’ve lost everything!  Everything!  Oh, I wish I was dead!” she cried.  And we held each other and comforted each other.

Louise doesn’t have a wireless phone, and she couldn’t remember the phone number of her friend Lois or her niece Ann.  It was hours before she remembered a phone number, and it was for Ann’s husband’s phone.  So that was a relief, to get word to her family that she was okay.

Resigned to our losses, we found a Walgreens open in the morning and got the meds Louise needed.  We picked up some clothes at a Good Will Thrift Store, and went to IHOP for some comfort food.

I couldn’t bear the thought that my husband had lost 9 years of work.  The rendering computer was gone, the backup drives, gone, all of it gone.  How much of it might be in the cloud?  Not much.  Was the project dead?  I could not bear to ask him this.  Besides, Louise was already so fragile and distraught, we did not talk about our losses.  We focused on the positive.  We were safe and well.  We had each other.  Her family knew she was in good hands.

After breakfast, my husband said he had to go back and see it with his own eyes, he didn’t want to believe it.  Maybe it’s not “completely destroyed”.  Maybe the kitties got out, maybe the hard drives survived.  I did not want to go back.  I did not want to see it.  I believed what we saw and heard on the news.  I felt sick, and besides, we weren’t supposed to go back to the evacuated areas–the City and Police were telling everyone to stay away.  He had to, and his mother wouldn’t leave his side, and Louise wanted to go too, so they went.  I stayed in the hotel and cried.  After a while, I called my son and told him the horrible news.  He didn’t want to hear the details.  No sooner did I answer his question about the kitties, that they didn’t make it, he hung up and texted me that he did not want to talk about it.  I knew he had broken down in tears and was angry that I did not let them out.

It took hours for them to get back to Journeys End.  They had to park at the hospital and walk into the park.  It was smoldering, there were still plumes of smoke rising, but the police did not stop them.  It must have been amazing to see the homes on the south side of Sahara Street still standing, barely damaged, and the north side demolish, black and smoking.

I heard the news and wrote a quick email to my team at work, “Our home is still standing!”  Wow.  Talk about a silver lining!  “The kitties survived and they seem fine!”

That’s all I can write today.  It’s been a harrowing week, but we are all safe and well.  More good news to come, no doubt.  More silver linings.

Thank you to everyone for your support and caring and donations and prayers and for the peace and comfort you are giving us knowing we are not alone in this marathon.  We are deeply moved and uplifted by the support of my Red Hat manager and team, who set up this donation page to help!  https://www.gofundme.com/simonsenfamily

Thank you!!!  We’re all glad to be alive, even Louise–she’s been reunited with her family.

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Special thanks to my daughter, Chelsea, in Utah, who found this helpful post on Facebook… another silver lining…

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This article pretty much says it all: http://www.sfgate.com/bayarea/article/2-big-wildfires-prompt-evacuations-in-Napa-County-12262945.php#photo-14325373