Organization born out of 2014 fires regroups for the COVID-19 crisis
The Methow Valley has survived catastrophic wildfires and floods in recent years, events that helped bring the community together and provided lessons that are proving valuable today in the face of a new and frightening threat — the coronavirus pandemic.
The Methow Valley Long-Term Recovery (MVLTR) group, formed while fires were still burning in 2014, guided efforts to support the community and lay the foundation for the valley’s long-term recovery after the crisis was over. The group’s goal was to ensure the Methow Valley would be resilient in the face of future disasters.
That disaster is here, and MVLTR has begun meeting again after a two-year hiatus to begin the work of helping the valley recover, even as the immediate public health crisis is still unfolding.
“This makes a wildfire look easy in a lot of ways,” said Jason Paulsen, president of MVLTR. “This is an event we don’t have experience with, not just in our community, but in our country and the world.”
The long-term recovery group had “put ourselves into purposeful dormancy” about two years ago, ready to come together again if needed, said Paulsen, who is executive director of the Methow Conservancy. MVLTR is guided by a board of community leaders representing business and economic interests, social services, emergency medical services, and utilities.
“We’re trying to help people sift through the noise, getting them pointed in the direction to connect through the program that is best for them.”
Don Linnertz, TwispWorks director
As the coronavirus pandemic began moving across the world and an outbreak of COVID-19 (the disease caused by the coronavirus) was reported in the Seattle area, members of MVLTR decided it was time to revive the organization and begin preparing to help the Methow Valley through the coming crisis. The group began meeting via weekly conference calls — to comply with social distancing requirements — about a month ago.
The Methow Valley is fortunate to have a group in place, with members who are intimately familiar with the community and who have experience working together, said Julie Muyllaert, a Winthrop Chamber of Commerce member and an MVLTR board member.
“We didn’t have to start from scratch, we picked up where we left off,” Muyllaert said. “We said, ‘It’s good to talk with you again, sorry for the circumstances. Let’s roll up our sleeves and get to work.’”
Out of dormancy
“We have experience working in uncertain times,” said Paulsen. “We were able to jump out of dormancy and hit the ground running. We have relationships built, the trust and belief that everyone is working for the common good of the community as a whole. Every time I get off one of those calls I tell myself there is no community I’d rather live in, given the thoughtfulness and compassion that our leaders across all sectors in our community are bringing to this event.”
In addition to Paulsen and Muyllaert, the MVLTR board includes Don Linnertz, TwispWorks executive director; Ronda Bradeen of the Carlton Complex Assistance Network; Glenn Schmekel, director of The Cove food bank; Kelly Edwards, interim director of Room One; Cindy Button, director of services for Aero Methow Rescue Service; and David Gottula, general manager of Okanogan County Electric Cooperative.
Paulsen said other community members join the MVTLR board members on calls, including the mayors of Twisp, Winthrop and Pateros, and local school, housing, and emergency preparedness representatives. Staff members for Sen. Patty Murray and Gov. Jay Inslee have also listened in.
MVLTR learned when it was first formed in 2014 that disaster recovery comes in two phases — the response or “relief” phase while the crisis is ongoing, and the long-term recovery after the immediate crisis is over, Paulsen said.
“If this were a wildfire we’d know what our goals would be,” he said. Faced with a completely different kind of crisis, the group is working “to identify needs, and hopefully solutions to needs,” Paulsen said. “We’re still figuring this out in real-time.”
The group is sharing information about what is happening in the initial response to the crisis, and working to identify gaps in meeting the needs of the community. “Our belief is the most important thing we can do is have good communication with … leaders in all different sectors so we understand what we’re learning and can learn together at this phase,” Paulsen said. “One of the most important things right now is the response or relief phase. At the most basic level, it’s human needs such as food security for families.”
The group remains focused, as its name indicates, on the long-term recovery needs of the valley, but what that will require is uncertain, Muyllaert said. “Communities that recover more fully and are more resilient take a longer view,” she said.
“We’re in it for the long haul for our community. I imagine we are going to be meeting for the foreseeable future … when we’ll see which businesses survive and which don’t, and what our unemployment rate looks like in the valley. We don’t know exactly what the landscape will look like,” Muyllaert said.
As a result of lessons learned during the wildfires, programs and partnerships have been established over the past five years that can address both immediate needs and long-term recovery. TwispWorks, for example, has become the hub of support for local businesses, many of which are now shut down and their employees laid off as a result of state orders to “stay home, stay healthy.”
TwispWorks was able to jump immediately into the work of helping local business owners sift through new federal relief programs and changes to unemployment, said Don Linnertz, TwispWorks director. On March 23 TwispWorks staff began calling local businesses directly to hear about their situation and needs.
“We’re taking a casework approach … doing a whole lot of outreach at this point … connecting them to the right resources,” Linnertz said. “The next step will be a sort of needs assessment — identifying the most critical needs and gaps as we head into recovery.”
“People are finding creative ways of connecting … fostering those connections in a world in which you can’t meet face-to-face.”
Grace Butler, Methow Ready preparedness coordinator
Last week, TwispWorks received a $3,000 grant from the Community Foundation of North Central Washington to support outreach to local businesses, sole proprietors, nonprofits, and independent contractors “to initially help connect them with resources and ultimately help them plan for the recovery period ahead,” Linnertz said.
TwispWorks is helping businesses navigate federal disaster assistance programs, in particular, the Economic Injury Disaster Loan program and the new Paycheck Protection Program (PPP). There are also changes to unemployment as a result of recent federal legislation, including extended payout periods and increases in weekly payments, Linnertz said.
To be able to advise local businesses, TwispWorks staff has worked hard to educate themselves on new programs and policies. “We have literally for the last two weeks been on conference calls, webinars, working with the Okanogan County Economic Alliance and the Small Business Administration (SBA) to get answers,” Linnertz said.
“We’re trying to help people sift through the noise, getting them pointed in the direction to connect through the program that is best for them,” Linnertz said. He encouraged business owners not to wait for their phone to ring. They can email BusinessSupport@TwispWorks.org with specific questions about their unique situation.
The problems that businesses face differ based on the type of business, he said. Sole proprietors and people who work in the cash economy are trying to figure out what assistance they can obtain.
Many local businesses are tourism-based, and this time of year tends to be slower than others. But impacts will be felt from cancellation of big events like the annual Zumiez company meeting and the Sunflower Relay. “In the next month or so [the impacts] are going to really ramp up … some businesses haven’t felt it quite yet.”
Some retailers have ordered summer merchandise, and are not sure if they’ll be able to sell their stock. An option for them might be an Economic Injury Disaster Loan made directly through the SBA, Linnertz said.
“We have people well-positioned to take advantage of these programs,” Linnertz said. “I feel very optimistic about our community and our ability to pull together and get through this.”
Last week Linnertz received at least a dozen calls from local businesses and nonprofits that had already been approved through the PPP program, some with the money already in their accounts. “The Employment Security Department has been very proactive and has let us know of changes to their processes and computer software that will make benefits available to self-employed and sole proprietors as early as April 18.”
Room One, the valley’s social services provider, was on the front lines during past crises, and is now working to address vulnerabilities in the community that are exacerbated by the mandatory shutdowns of schools and businesses, and loss of jobs due to COVID-19.
“Many of our community members live paycheck to paycheck,” said Kelly Edwards, interim director of Room One. Even though the governor has ordered a moratorium on evictions related to rent or utilities due to the coronavirus crisis, “it’s still scary to get those bills from utility companies knowing you don’t have money to pay.”
For people in abusive relationships, being confined at home can be a dangerous situation, she said. “‘Stay home, stay healthy’ is not the same experience for everyone,” Edwards said. Shelters are available and follow state coronavirus guidelines, and Room One can offer vouchers at hotels for people at risk, she said.
Room One staff is assisting people who are trying to apply for unemployment benefits. Because nearly 16 million people nationally have applied for unemployment in the past two weeks, the system has been overwhelmed. The state of Washington reported record-high numbers of people applying for unemployment benefits from March 29-April 4, seven times higher than the peak numbers of the 2008/2009 recession.
The federal CARES relief act passed by Congress includes many expansions and exceptions for unemployment benefits, but these had not been programmed into the online application yet, Edwards said. “We saw many community members receive automatic denials,” she said.
The state’s Employment Security Department is asking anyone who falls into those exceptions (such as sole proprietors, self-employed, contractors, and intermittent workers) to wait to apply until mid-April or late April, when the system is expected to be updated. All benefits will be backdated to the date of layoff, Edwards said.
Applicants for public food benefits, available to people with sudden reductions in income, are required to have a phone interview, but the wait time to speak to a representative has been up to eight hours.
“We’re advocating persistence and resilience” for clients trying to get through the difficult process of applying for most forms of assistance, Edwards said. With local branch libraries closed, Room One is providing access to the only public computer available to valley residents who need to fill out online applications. People without their own computer can make an appointment at Room One.
Room One is providing support for groceries, medicine, gas, rent assistance, and utility bills before delayed public benefits kick in, Edwards said. Room One has designated a COVID-19 Emergency Support Fund to help provide “essential bridge support” to community members in need, Edwards said. Donations can be made on the Room One website.
The Community Foundation last week gave Room One an unsolicited $5,000 grant for COVID-19 relief, designated for emergency food and housing. “The award will be incredibly helpful to many in our community as we continue to find ways to bridge support until they are able to work again,” Edwards said.
Client advocates at Room One are doing about 90 percent of their appointments on the phone in compliance with social distancing requirements. New emergency rules are allowing exceptions for some services, like mental health counseling, to be provided over the phone.
After schools and businesses in Washington were ordered closed last month to fight COVID-19, requests for assistance have spiked, Edwards said. Between March 16 and April 10, Room One provided 83 cards for groceries at Hank’s Harvest Foods to community members who lost income; advised or guided more than 60 people seeking unemployment benefits; made 32 referrals to The Cove food bank; saw 14 new clients; contributed to rent and utilities for eight families; gave 10 people use of the computer; and — in collaboration with East 20 Pizza’s donation fund — gave away 36 large pizzas.
Two local organizations that grew directly out of the recovery following the Carlton Complex wildfire disaster — Methow Housing Trust and Methow Ready — are helping the community during the COVID-19 crisis.
The destruction of hundreds of homes in the 2014 wildfires focused attention on the need for more affordable housing in the Methow Valley. MVLTR funded a housing assessment that led to the creation of the Methow Housing Trust, which has constructed nine affordable homes, with eight more under construction.
“Nearly three years after our inception, Methow Housing Trust (MHT) is now coming full circle to assist MVLTR during the COVID-19 crisis,” said Danica Ready, executive director of the housing trust. “MHT was born out of the post-fire efforts of MVLTR, as part of the strategy to create long-term community resiliency through secure housing.”
The housing trust staff will help community members understand and access sources of support for homeowners, including new federal mandates. MHT has developed a housing assistance resource webpage for people impacted by the COVID-19 crisis, Ready said.
Help in COVID-19 relief and recovery
• Methow Ready hosts a webpage dedicated to resources related to COVID-19: http://www.methowready.org/covid-19-resources
• Room One offers help with health insurance, family issues and unemployment: http://www.roomone.org/additional-resources
• Methow Housing Trust has a Housing Assistance page with resources: http://www.methowhousingtrust.org/covid-19-housing-assistance
• Twisp Works is facilitating a broad outreach to support and assist valley businesses: http://www.twispworks.org/twispworks-response-to-covid-19
“The CARES federal aid package provides relief in the form of mortgage forbearance, rental eviction moratorium, and credit protection. We’ve done our best to understand and organize links to these programs and resources for all community members who may struggle to make ends meet in the coming weeks and months,” Ready said.
“We all hope this need is short-lived, but recognize we just don’t know yet,” she said. “We haven’t had anybody call us yet and say ‘I can’t pay my mortgage, what do I do?’”
Methow Ready also grew out of the long-term recovery process following the Carlton Complex, and is working now to help the community during the coronavirus crisis. Methow Ready’s goal is to help the valley prepare for emergencies through neighborhood-based training and community outreach.
Much of Methow Ready’s past work has focused on encouraging people to connect with neighbors (who they may need to rely on during emergencies) and make advance preparations for emergencies, particularly wildfires. Faced with social distancing mandates, community members can still check in with neighbors by phone or email, said Grace Butler, preparedness coordinator for Methow Ready.
“People are finding creative ways of connecting … fostering those connections in a world in which you can’t meet face-to-face,” Butler said.
Methow Ready, which is housed at Aero Methow Rescue Service in Twisp, has taken on the role of providing a clearinghouse for information and community resources related to COVID-19 through its website and social media, including Facebook and Instagram, and through flyers posted in the community.
In conjunction with Aero Methow, Methow Ready is also distributing a report each weekday to community leaders and people working on the response to COVID-19. The report provides a broad range of information ranging from the global situation to local agency resources.
While working to address the current crisis, Butler said she and Methow Ready’s manager, Jennifer Schumacher, are already discussing another possible scenario: “What a wildfire season could look like with the added pressure of COVID-19.”
Paulsen said the Methow Valley will move through the coronavirus crisis with the benefit of a community that already has “the capacity and mindset” to work together during and after a crisis. Already he and other members of the long term recovery group are thinking ahead to improving response to future crises through the development of a community response fund that can be tapped quickly.
“Right now we have every organization turning to the philanthropic community or government resources for help,” Paulsen said. “But if we had $50,000 in the bank … community leaders could turn to that fund and have a process in place for strategically deploying those funds.”
During the first conference call with MVLTR members and community members a month ago, “I was blown away by how every single participant was well into a process of thinking through what is this event, how is it going to impact the sector I’m working in, and what do I have to do to be ready?” Paulsen said.
“Everyone was approaching this with a preparedness mindset that is something we’ve grown since 2014. The advantage of having the long-term recovery organization in place is that we all know each of us individually is going to be stronger when we maintain our strength as an entire community,” Paulsen said.
“I’m not sure all communities have this in their DNA. Our premise in 2014 was, ‘What is it we need to do to be a strong and resilient community 10 to 15 years into the future? What are the gaps we need to fill?’ We got to practice that in 2014, 2015, 2017, and 2018. The muscle memory itself is a capacity and strength. We never could have guessed how important that would be.”