I’m living and working in Sacramento, California, although my home is in Baton Rouge. My residence these last few months has been a Marriott, filled with conventioneers, meeting attendees, tourists, FEMA employees and survivors.
These are the survivors of the Camp Fire, the disaster in northern California (it started on “Camp” Road). I’m deployed as a FEMA reservist, a historic preservation specialist. Doing my part, I say.
The fire struck on Nov. 8, 2018, early in the morning and roared through the towns of Concow, Paradise and Magalia for 17 days. Paradise had 27,000 residents, many retirees. The death count is 85 people, and most were in their 60s, 70s, 80s and a few 90 years-plus.
The conflagration took one football field each second. I’m familiar with this way to measure since Louisiana loses one football field an hour of coastal land. Both land facts are so hard to conceive.
The ferocious inferno burned 150,000 acres and reduced nearly 19,000 buildings to toxic ash. The loss is estimated at $16.5 billion. Debris removal alone will cost up to $3 billion.
Days later, there were wildfires in Los Angeles and Ventura counties to the south. Californians now don’t believe in fire season, like Louisianians no longer believing in the 100-year or 500-year flood. Wildfires are happening anytime and every year. One of my bosses doesn’t like to tell new acquaintances what she does. She hides her official badge and doesn’t wear FEMA logo shirts. Probably the result of too much accosting and many accusatory fingers pointed at her over the years.
FEMA, that fun acronym. Remember during Katrina we all laughed and said, “Fix Everything My Ass.” There were several other derogatory interpretations of F-E-M-A I recall.
But today on the hotel elevator a woman asked if I’d enjoyed my conference. “Well actually, I’m with FEMA.” I’ve decided to speak up for my agency. To my surprise, Juliana Leroy, of Windsor, California, began thanking me profusely. “And please tell everyone how much I appreciate what you do.”
Her father lost everything in Paradise. His home essentially melted. He lost everything at 74 years old. She says he doesn’t say he’s homeless, just houseless. That infamous morning, he got in his car to escape. Drove some. Then was directed to abandon his car and start walking. Then only told again to get back in the car and drive again. But he made it out alive carrying nothing. Juliana lives near Sonoma and experienced fires there also in 2018. She praised FEMA as an organization, and, remarkably, its organization. “My Dad went to a DRC (Disaster Recovery Center) and he got everything in one spot. Copies of his social security card and birth certificate. He registered for grants, applied for an SBA loan. He got hugs.” He now lives in a house in Chico. One disaster survivor surviving OK. Juliana gave me a hug, too.
There’s an astonishing satellite image of the fire on day two, Nov. 9. It’s shocking what the inferno looks like from outer space — a gigantic, blazing torch spread over the flat-top buttes, mountain valleys and green hilly ridges. It was hell on earth. Paradise was lost.
FEMA Director Brock Long retired this month. He led the 20,000 FEMA employees through the triple tragedies of Harvey, Irma and Maria in June 2017. In farewell comments, he stated that we need to tell people what they need to know about our work. “Defend our work. Don’t confront, but don’t be afraid to correct.”
I’m going to see this disaster through. But when I depart Sacramento for Baton Rouge, I’m going to be wearing a FEMA hat and will have more anecdotes to tell. Proud to be part of a transformative outfit that is the sum of all its parts. And by the way, Katrina is still on the books and being worked on by FEMA after 14 years.
Postscript: There are over 50 FEMA disasters across the United States and its territories.
— Bennett, executive director emerita for the Foundation for Historical Louisiana, lives in Baton Rouge