Why California’s disaster response won’t be powered by the government

A puzzled smile spread across Jeremy Lamberson’s face as he studied the deep concern on mine.

Outside, snow was falling in thick, wet clumps, quickly accumulating in the Main Street Automotive parking lot in Placerville, nestled in the northern Sierra foothills about an hour from Lake Tahoe.

I wanted to know if Lamberson was worried that the 9 – or was it the 10? – an atmospheric river moving through California this year would drop enough rain to melt the massive snowpack a few miles away and cause catastrophic flooding.

After all, just a few weeks ago, another atmospheric river turned the normally calm Hangtown Creek into a raging river, eroding the foundations of his business. Some would have seen this as a disaster. But rather than turn to the government when needed, Lamberson turned to a friend. The two “former miners” brought in an excavator and spent a week shoring up the squat one-story building with cement blocks.

So more rain? Snow? Another flood? He would understand.

“People,” Lamberson told me, “are too used to the government doing everything for them.”

Normally, this is the kind of conservative commentary I would let in one liberal ear and out the other. But not this time. Not after more than two months of “unprecedented” rain and snowstorms that crippled the state’s aging infrastructure and overwhelmed the ability of government agencies to respond to the many people in need in a timely manner.

Now, I can’t help but wonder if there’s some disturbing kernel of truth in Lamberson’s comment. Because if we’ve all learned anything this year, it’s that first aiders can’t be everywhere to help everyone at once.

Governor Gavin Newsom pauses while speaking to reporters Wednesday beside a flooded field in Pajaro.

(Wally Skalij/Los Angeles Times)

As I write this, it’s sunny and clear in Los Angeles, but more than 40 of 58 counties remain under a state of emergency. It’s only March, but Governor Gavin Newsom has already requested — and received — not one, but two emergency presidential declarations authorizing federal aid for disaster response.

Cities from the Central Coast to the Central Valley have been under water for the past week, and from the Northern California Mountains to the Southern California Mountains, other cities are buried in snow. The death toll is rising, as is the toll on our already limited housing stock. And more rain is forecast for early next week.

We had more deaths in the January storms than in the past two wildfire seasons combined,” said Brian Ferguson, deputy director of crisis communications for the California Governor’s Office of Emergency Services. “And so a wildfire tends to spread, maybe affect one or two counties. It’s horrible. But thunderstorms. … It’s like two-thirds of the state.

As climate change promises to produce even more of these destructive effects whipping weather in the years to come, something has to change.

For starters, residents of wealthier communities who have long relied on immediate government assistance will likely need to become more self-sufficient when it comes to preparing for and dealing with the initial onslaught of disaster.

“The government won’t be able to access every door in a major disaster,” Ferguson warned. “You also need people on the ground to help each other.”

At the same time, the government will need to change the way it helps poorer rural communities, especially vulnerable communities of color, where residents have learned through years of experience not to expect much. aid to prevent or mitigate disasters.

“These storms are getting more and more severe,” said Justin Knighten, a former Cal OES and now director of external affairs for the Federal Emergency Management Agency. “They are becoming more frequent because of climate change. And so it is even more urgent that we reflect the communities we are trying to engage. Its a question of life or death. »

To understand the magnitude of the challenge ahead, one need only consider what has already happened.

When heavy snow blanketed mountain communities in San Bernardino County last month, stranding dozens of people for more than a week, it was locals who stepped up to help their neighbors. They made sure everyone had enough to eat. They even cleared the roofs of houses and businesses.

“We are mobilizing very well with things like this,” told my Times colleagues Summer Lin and Nathan Solis Adam Atchison, a pastor at Sandals Church in Riverside who has helped deliver supplies to residents of the mountain. “When there is a tangible need, we tend to show up in force.”

Meanwhile, county officials admitted they were unprepared for back-to-back blizzards because they didn’t request the proper snow removal equipment in time – and at least 13 people died.

“I have people who call me crying because they are so exhausted and terrified that they cannot save the lives of their neighbors because they have been digging for days and days to reach people,” Crestline resident Kristy Baltezore told The Times.

Likewise, when a long-vulnerable levee failed in Monterey County this month, flooding the small farmworker town of Pajaro, residents of nearby Watsonville were the ones to pool their money for containers of chicken soup, tacos and hot chocolate to hand out.

“We ran out of food and I felt so bad because people were always showing up with their kids,” Jessica Sanchez told my Times colleague Ruben Vives.

This is not how disaster response is supposed to work. And elected officials in San Bernardino and Monterey counties agreed they should be doing more to help those hurting on the ground.

This is especially true in Pajaro, where many displaced residents are immigrants and have told reporters they don’t know where to look for government assistance — for food, water, clean clothes, and much less financial assistance for rent. Some also speak indigenous languages ​​and were unable to communicate with English- and Spanish-speaking rescuers.

Similar stories emerged from other flooded farming towns on the Central Coast and in the Central Valley.

Tom Davis rests while shoveling snow in the San Bernardino Mountain community of Crestline.

Tom Davis rests while shoveling snow after successive storms cripple the community of Crestline in the San Bernardino Mountains.

(Brian van der Brug/Los Angeles Times)

California, at least, has the potential to do better, thanks to a little-known initiative within Cal OES called Listos California.

Created shortly after the horrific camp fire in Paradise in 2018, the effort was seen as a way to avoid a repeat of what happened there, when dozens of vulnerable elderly people died because that they did not evacuate in time.

Much of the focus was on changing the way government communicates with the public. Not just sending text messages ordering evacuations, for example, but explaining in advance, in a culturally competent way, why it is important to evacuate when a government order is issued.

“We really looked at the fact that emergency management, or emergency preparedness, was still the language of institutions and wasn’t really the language of real people,” said Knighten, who helped found Listos in California.

Then the COVID-19 pandemic happened and with it came another kind of disaster. Knighten left to join FEMA, and the initiative evolved into a series of partnerships with nonprofits across the state — first to promote vaccines and now to build community resilience to disasters. fueled by the climate through public education.

More recently, these partnerships have been exploited in flooded agricultural worker towns, including Planada in Merced County. Rather than indiscriminately sending displaced residents to emergency shelters where Department of Homeland Security vans might be parked outside, the state tapped a local nonprofit to allay fears regarding immigration status checks.

“It activates people who, in many cases, are already in communities doing this work … uses them to help keep people safe when disaster strikes,” said Ferguson, who now helps run Listos California.

Yet for all partnerships, a big part of the Listos California initiative is still about self-reliance. Not so much knowing how to operate an excavator like Lamberson, but having an earthquake kit ready, signing up for evacuation alerts, and knowing the hazards of where you live. (Don’t even get me started on all the city dwellers who moved to mountain towns during the pandemic and are now trying to drive their Teslas through the snow.)

It’s also about residents helping other residents and about communities better prepared for the next disaster than the last.

In the mountains of San Bernardino County, for example, many were unprepared for the amount of snow that was falling, armed only with the shovels and snow blowers that had worked so well in the past. Preparing for the future might look a little different.

“The government cannot do it alone,” Knighten said. “The infrastructure can be in place, first responders ready to respond, emergency management working from the bottom up, from the local county all the way up to FEMA. But what is also true is that if our communities relied on that alone, it is dangerous.

Los Angeles Times

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