A steady stream of Camp Fire survivors spent much of a rainy Wednesday at the Disaster Recovery Center in Chico, slowly making their way through a maze of stations as urgent rescue and immediate relief transition to slow and painstaking recovery.
The Federal Emergency Management Agency, or FEMA, has the deepest pockets, but agency representatives insist that they collaborate and follow the lead of state agencies and local governments.
Currently, officials are engaged in two major efforts: consolidating evacuees needing immediate temporary housing into official, Red Cross sanctioned shelters, while finding medium-term housing that is both more private and more appropriate.
Frank Mansell, is a FEMA Public Affairs Specialist at the Disaster Recovery Center, a multi-agency clearing house for evacuees. He said there are a number of solutions officials could use for housing, including travel trailers, hotel rooms or apartments.
"The housing stock is varied and the individual needs are varied so we try to match individuals up with what’s gonna be best for them,” Mansell said.
Mansell said eventually evacuees will be allowed to move back to their own properties, possibly in a FEMA provided travel trailer or prefabricated home, but each lot must be cleared of potential toxins like asbestos, heavy metals and other hazards first. Mansell was unable to give a timeline of when any of this would occur, and reluctant to offer even a ballpark estimate.
He said cleanup lasted for months after the Tubbs Fire that devastated parts of Napa, Sonoma and Lake counties last October.
“January and February we were still cleaning up debris where people could not get in to build yet,” Mansell said.
When destruction is on such a massive scale, other issues crop up, he said.
“We are talking about a disaster where you’ve got 16,000 structures that have to be rebuilt and you’re gonna need materials for houses,” he said. “The other thing is, is when you bring in builders to rebuild everything all of those contractors they have to find a place to stay, so now you’ve got a workforce that has to be brought in and you’ve got people in transitional housing that they must live in. It’s one of those things where it’s challenging.”
For now, FEMA is creating an inventory of available housing units and spaces in RV parks from Sacramento to Redding. Mansell said officials are trying to relocate people to dwellings within a reasonable distance.
“It’s ideal that we get them back to as close to home as possible because that boosts the economy and a lot of this is interdependent once you get the economy, the local economy going then people will start to return,” Mansell said.
Beyond insurance and direct FEMA cash, the U.S. Small Business Administration, or SBA, offers a range of low interest loans – both to businesses and to individual disaster survivors. An SBA representative said persons denied such loans are referred back to FEMA, which may award additional direct aid. Mansell said the first step is to get into the system so officials can see what can be done.
"We will go to the ends of the earth to get everybody what they’re eligible for,” he said. “We get no commission for cutting people off. There’s a law in the books on how to handle disasters and we do that.”
Beyond that, Mansell said, private charities, non-profit and religion-affiliated groups may also help.