Focus on resiliency leaves communities better-prepared
By Marcy Stamper
When people came together to help during the devastating Carlton Complex Fire in July 2014, they were focused on getting food, water and shelter to people who’d lost their homes, not on setting up boards of directors or mapping neighborhoods.
But the Okanogan County Long Term Recovery Group and Methow Valley Long Term Recovery, which sprouted from that initial response, have succeeded in a fundamental part of their mission by building an infrastructure to continue recovery over the long term.
Some of their accomplishments are tangible — building more than 30 homes for uninsured people, or installing a backup generator to maintain communications in a power outage. But other achievements center on disaster preparedness and economic development to make residents and businesses more resilient if there are future disasters.
The Okanogan County Long Term Recovery Group (OCLTRG) provided a retrospective of more than three years of recovery and rebuilding on Friday (Jan. 19).
“We expect that every survivor who meets our criteria and who wanted a home will have been helped by the end of this year,” said Carlene Anders, OCLTRG’s executive director, at the retrospective in Pateros on Friday.
The group expects to finish the last group of homes for people who lost their housing in the 2014 Carlton Complex and 2015 Okanogan Complex fires by the end of this year, between 35 and 37 houses in all. This winter they are working on interiors for three houses, and plan to start the final three or four houses this spring, said reconstruction manager Barry Hansen.
When it started working with fire survivors in 2014, OCLTRG estimated it would be building 42 homes for Carlton Complex survivors alone. That number dropped as people found other ways of recovering or moved out of the area, said Anders. Because disasters can exacerbate health issues, many affected by the fires — particularly older people — had to relocate to be closer to medical services, she said.
OCLTRG is still collecting data on what it has accomplished — in fact, the organization is working on a report for next year that will gather not only the raw numbers in people and dollars, but also the personal stories of fire survivors, volunteers and staff. It will also include practical information about coping with erosion, washed-out roads and insurance issues, said Anders.
OCLTRG staff reported impressive tallies of their accomplishments and shared stories about the day-to-day realities of recovery, from the trucks and tractors that got stuck in the mud at building sites in remote areas to the personal relationships they built with volunteers and fire survivors.
From 2015 to 2017, 1,770 volunteers, the majority from churches or other faith-based groups, contributed more than 123,000 hours to the recovery effort. Some people spent months or years here working on projects, and many teams returned repeatedly to help. They’re still trying to tally all the volunteers from 2014.
Disaster case managers helped 617 people after the Carlton Complex Fire, with all but five cases now wrapped up. The Okanogan Complex Fire produced 797 more cases, 69 still active. Despite its name, the OCLTRG actually helped people in four other counties — Chelan, Douglas, Ferry and Stevens — who were struggling after the 2015 fire season.
To make all that happen, disaster case managers have logged more than 62,000 miles in three years, enough to make two and a half trips around the world.
A group that helps fund unmet needs — everything from utility hook-ups to appliances to a new microscope for a child who lost one in the fire — has met weekly since the fires to evaluate confidential requests for help. They have funded an impressive $1.67 million for 359 people, said Anders.
The recovery has been about building relationships as much as building houses. Two of the group’s disaster-recovery managers described the personal connections they developed with clients as they arranged for practical resources like tools and emotional support like art therapy for kids.
The process is highly individualized and localized. “Our biggest goal is holistic case management,” said Jessica Rounds, the lead of OCLTRG’s disaster case management. “And my clients told me to take care of myself.”
Although OCLTRG has become more efficient in rebuilding, its homes have gotten more expensive as material costs go up, from an average of $62,000 per house three years ago to $80,000 today, even with donated lumber and building materials, said Hansen.
Forging relationships has also made building houses easier, said Hansen. This winter they were confronted with a long wait for roof trusses, which would have left framing exposed to the elements. Hansen was able to get three trusses built in a week from one of his regular suppliers so volunteers could work on interiors over the winter.
“With walls and no roof, it’s like a big swimming pool,” said Hansen, who said they’d painted the floors with exterior paint just in case.
Methow Valley Long Term Recovery (MVLTR), which concentrated on setting up resources in the Methow for the future, not on rebuilding houses, is “easing our way into hibernation,” said president Jason Paulsen.
Paulsen remembers Hank Cramer, a disaster reservist with the state’s Emergency Management Division who coordinated the early recovery efforts, talking to community members while the Carlton Complex Fire was still burning.
“Hank planted the seed for the concept of long-term recovery,” said Paulsen. “He told us to let the experts fight the fire and said we should start thinking about long-term resiliency to prepare for disasters 10 to 15 years in the future.” Cramer provided compelling examples from Hurricane Katrina, comparing the health of communities that had and hadn’t planned for the long term, said Paulsen.
“It was kind of a mind-bending discussion — it wasn’t what I was thinking of,” said Paulsen, who said everyone was focused on immediate needs like bottled water.
Paulsen was so convinced by Cramer’s examples that he set up a meeting between Cramer and a potential donor. “It was very early, in the first week or two, when helicopters were still flying and things were still burning,” he said.
Ultimately the donor gave MVLTR between $200,000 and $250,000, which enabled the group to install a backup generator and radio transmitter at TwispWorks, which will provide power so that KTRT-FM can stay on the air during an emergency. The money also helped fund long-needed fuels reduction on McClure Mountain to protect the valley’s phone, emergency and broadcast communications equipment.
MVLTR funded a housing assessment that led to the creation of the Methow Housing Trust, which has already purchased two plots of land where it intends to build affordable housing. Money from that donor also provided seed money for the first year of operations at the housing trust.
Aero Methow Rescue Service is now hosting the Methow Ready program, another effort that grew out of MVLTR’s work. Methow Ready helps local residents and their neighbors team up to be prepared for an emergency.
MVLTR was also able to contribute almost $100,000 to OCLTRG for housing rebuilds in the Methow Valley, said Paulsen.
Both the Methow and county long-term recovery groups have been sharing their knowledge and expertise with others around the country. Paulsen, who is also the executive director of the Methow Conservancy, said the conservancy has offered its expertise on land restoration to land trusts in other areas hit by wildfire and mudslides. Anders has been to Texas twice to assist with hurricane recovery.
Even as the groups wind down, OCLTRG is working on a neighborhood mapping program, and working with Okanogan County Emergency Management on a network of volunteer organizations, said Anders. MVLTR plans to maintain its basic structure so they can reconvene if needed, said Paulsen.
“To look back on it, it looks so organized, but in the moment it was very organic,” he said.
OCLTRG is working on the Rising from the Ashes recovery reunion, which will bring together clients, volunteers and donors for stories, music, food and celebration in Pateros this July 18 to 22.
They’re also participating in a statewide Love Washington disaster-resiliency event being planned for the summer of 2019, which aims to raise $1 million for an endowment to build a long-term recovery infrastructure with people rowing, cycling or running sections of the Columbia River.
For more information or to be sponsor, contact Michelle Pennoni at firstname.lastname@example.org or (484) 467-0965.