Column: Government can’t save us. Why disaster response increasingly will be people-powered
A bemused smile spread across Jeremy Lamberson’s face as he studied the deep concern on mine.
Outside, the snow was falling in thick wet clumps, piling up fast in the parking lot of Main Street Automotive in Placerville, nestled in the foothills of the northern Sierra about an hour from Lake Tahoe.
I wanted to know if Lamberson was worried that the ninth — or was it the 10th? — atmospheric river moving into California this year would drop enough rain to melt the massive snowpack a few miles away and cause catastrophic flooding.
After all, it was just weeks ago that another atmospheric river turned the normally placid Hangtown Creek into a raging river, eroding the foundation of his business. Some people would have seen this as a disaster. But rather than turn to government in his time of need, Lamberson turned to a friend. The two “gold miners from way back” 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’d figure it out.
“People,” Lamberson told me, “are too used to having government do everything for them.”
Normally, this is the kind of conservative comment I would let go in one liberal ear and out the other. But not this time. Not after more than two months of “unprecedented” rainstorms and snowstorms have crippled the state’s aging infrastructure and overwhelmed government agencies’ ability to respond to the many people in need in a timely manner.
Now, I can’t help but wonder if there is a troubling kernel of truth to Lamberson’s comment. Because if we’ve all learned anything this year, it’s that emergency workers can’t be everywhere to help everyone all at once.
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 Gov. Gavin Newsom has already asked for — and received — not one, but two presidential emergency declarations authorizing federal assistance for disaster response.
Towns from the Central Coast to the Central Valley have been under water in the last week, and from the mountains of Northern California to the mountains of Southern California, more towns are buried in snow. The death toll is rising, as is the toll on our already limited housing stock. And more rain is in the forecast for early next week.
“We had more people die in the storms in January than the last two wildfire seasons put together,” said Brian Ferguson, deputy director of crisis communication for the California Governor’s Office of Emergency Services. “And so a wildfire tends to come through, maybe impact one or two counties. It’s horrific. But the storms. … That’s like two-thirds of the state.”
With climate change promising to deliver even more of this destructive weather whiplash in the years to come, something must change.
For starters, residents of wealthier communities who have long relied on immediate assistance from government will probably have to become more self-reliant when it comes to preparing for and dealing with the initial onslaught of a disaster.
“The government will not be able to get to every single door in a significant disaster,” Ferguson warned. “It also has to be people on the ground helping each other.”
At the same time, government will have to change how it helps poorer rural communities, especially vulnerable communities of color, where residents have learned through years of experience not to expect a whole lot of help in preventing or mitigating disasters.
“These storms are getting more severe,” said Justin Knighten, formerly of Cal OES and now director of external affairs for the Federal Emergency Management Agency. “They’re becoming more frequent because of climate change. And so it’s even more urgent that we reflect the communities that we’re trying to engage. It is a matter of life or death.”
To understand the scope of the challenge ahead, just consider what has already been happening.
When deep snow blanketed the mountain communities of San Bernardino County last month, stranding dozens for more than a week, residents were the ones who stepped up to help their neighbors. They made sure everyone had enough to eat. They even cleared the snow from roofs of homes and businesses.
“We rally really well with things like this,” Adam Atchison, a pastor for Sandals Church in Riverside who helped deliver supplies to mountain residents, told my Times colleagues Summer Lin and Nathan Solis. “When there’s a tangible need, we tend to show up in force.”
Meanwhile, county officials acknowledged they were unprepared for the back-to-back blizzards because they hadn’t requested the proper snow removal equipment in time — and at least 13 people have died.
“I have people calling me crying because they’re so exhausted and they’re terrified that they’re not going to be able to save their neighbors’ lives because they’ve been digging for days and days to get to people,” Crestline resident Kristy Baltezore told The Times.
Similarly, when a long-vulnerable levee failed in Monterey County this month, flooding the small farmworker town of Pajaro, residents of neighboring Watsonville were the ones who pooled their money for containers of chicken soup, tacos and hot chocolate to hand out.
“We ran out of food, and I felt so terrible because people were still showing up with their children,” Jessica Sanchez told my Times colleague Ruben Vives.
This is not how disaster response is supposed to work. And elected officials in both San Bernardino and Monterey counties have acknowledged they should be doing more to help those suffering on the ground.
That is particularly true in Pajaro, where many displaced residents are immigrants and have told reporters that they don’t know where to seek government help — for food, for water, for clean clothing, much less for financial assistance for rent. Some also speak Indigenous languages and haven’t been able to communicate with English- and Spanish-speaking disaster relief workers.
Similar stories have emerged from other flooded farm towns on the Central Coast and in the Central Valley.
California, at least, has the potential to do better, thanks to a little known initiative within Cal OES called Listos California.
Created not long after the horrific Camp fire in Paradise in 2018, the effort was envisioned as a way to avoid repeating what had happened there, when dozens of vulnerable older adults died because they didn’t evacuate in time.
Much of the focus was on changing how government communicates with the public. Not just shooting out a text messages ordering evacuations, for example, but explaining ahead of time, in a culturally competent way, why it’s 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 California.
Then the COVID-19 pandemic happened and, with it, came a different kind of disaster. Knighten left to join FEMA, and the initiative evolved into a series of partnerships with nonprofits all over the state — first to promote vaccines and now to build community resilience to climate-fueled disasters through public education.
More recently, those partnerships have been tapped in flooded farmworker towns, including Planada in Merced County. Rather than blindly send displaced residents to emergency shelters where Department of Homeland Security vans might be parked outside, the state brought in a local nonprofit to allay any fears about checks on immigration status.
“It’s activating those people who in many cases are already in the communities doing this work … using them to help keep people safe in disasters,” said Ferguson, who now helps run Listos California.
Still, for all of the partnerships, a big part of the Listos California initiative is still about self-reliance. Not so much knowing how to use an excavator like Lamberson but having an earthquake kit ready to go, signing up for evacuation alerts and knowing the dangers of where you live. (Don’t even get me started on all the city folks who moved into mountain towns during the pandemic and are now trying to drive their Teslas in the snow.)
It’s also about residents helping other residents, and about communities being more prepared for the next disaster than the last one.
In the mountains of San Bernardino County, for example, many weren’t ready for the amount of snow that fell, armed only with the shovels and snow blowers that had worked so well in the past. Preparation for the future might look a bit different.
“Government can’t do it alone,” Knighten said. “The infrastructure can be in place, the first responders ready to go, 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 solely on that, that’s dangerous.”
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