Fire Insurance And Disaster Recovery: Rebuilding And Restoration Coverage – Rethinking disaster recovery after a California town is leveled by wildfire. The 2018 Campfire destroyed 90% of the town of Paradise, California, killing 85 people. Should the federal government step in to rebuild communities at high risk for future disasters?
When the Campfire tore through the Northern California town of Paradise on November 8, destroying nearly 19,000 structures and claiming 85 lives, Chris Beaudis narrowly escaped. He drove out of the Sierra foothills in his Ford Bronco with only his pit bull. He lost everything and has no insurance.
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“It’s been very stressful at times,” he says. “You think it’s the end of the world, especially when everything you have is gone.”
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All the Beaudis have for now is a 300 square foot FEMA camper. It’s wedged into a corner of the Yuba City fairgrounds, in the valley about 50 miles south of what’s left of Paradise. His is one of about 7,200 Camp Fire survivor households that are dependent on direct federal assistance, according to FEMA.
Chris Beaudis had been living in his Ford Bronco with his pit bull, Wall-E, after the campfire destroyed his home last November. In late March, he moved into a FEMA trailer (right) in Yuba City, California. Meredith Rizzo/hide caption
Chris Beaudis had been living in his Ford Bronco with his pit bull, Wall-E, after the campfire destroyed his home last November. In late March, he moved into a FEMA trailer (right) camped in Yuba City, California.
“Thank God I was finally able to get on the help list and get help,” says Beaudis. “Since then, it’s just been the biggest stress reliever of my life.”
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With nowhere else to go, Beaudis will likely stay in this trailer for another year before he can rebuild.
But the aid list that Beaudis was able to come up with is emblematic of a larger problem in the way we respond to natural disasters: Disaster strikes, emergency aid is deployed, checks are cut, communities are rebuilt—even in high-risk places. Many say that reactive response needs to change.
The Camp Fire was the most destructive wildfire in California history. The fire leveled homes in the Ridgewood Mobile Home Park (top and bottom right), leaving debris as seen in these photos taken six months later. The Safeway at Old Town Plaza in Paradise (bottom left) was destroyed. Meredith Rizzo/hide caption
The Camp Fire was the most destructive wildfire in California history. The fire leveled homes in the Ridgewood Mobile Home Park (top and bottom right), leaving debris as seen in these photos taken six months later. The Safeway at Old Town Plaza in Paradise (bottom left) was destroyed.
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So far, the federal government—through FEMA—has disbursed more than $85 million in emergency aid to survivors. An additional $370 million in loans have been distributed by the Small Business Administration.
One estimate puts the campfire as the costliest disaster in the world in 2018, with more than $16 billion in losses.
As disasters like wildfires, floods and hurricanes increase in size, severity and frequency, experts who study our response to them warn that events like the campfire should be a wake-up call. One of the early lessons from Paradise is that we must radically revise how we prepare for and respond to disasters in the age of climate change, they say.
“We’ve been very reactionary,” says Josh Sawislak, an Obama administration climate resilience adviser. “The problem is we’ve been getting away with it for a while.”
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A crew removes hazardous material from a property that burned in the fire. Household products such as cleaning agents, paints or batteries must be handled specially and disposed of after a fire, according to the EPA. Meredith Rizzo/hide caption
A crew removes hazardous material from a property that burned in the fire. Household products such as cleaning agents, paints or batteries must be handled specially and disposed of after a fire, according to the EPA.
FEMA will typically respond to a disaster, arrive immediately on the ground, and then spend the next 18 months or so cleaning up, helping communities, and making the recovery process as easy as possible for disaster victims looking to rebuild.
In Paradise, that mission began with cleaning up the rubble from destroyed homes, shopping malls, gas stations and the burnt-out frames of cars that were picked up and hauled away.
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Debris removal alone is estimated to cost upwards of $1.7 billion, again mostly paid for by federal taxpayers.
“The sooner we clear the debris, the sooner the rebuilding can begin,” said Bob Fenton, FEMA’s Region 9 administrator, who is overseeing wildfire recovery in California.
Clean up the rubble and rebuild — that’s been the mindset of disaster recovery in the U.S. for decades, according to experts like Sawislak, who has worked in disaster relief and now studies the industry. We wait until something happens and then come in and fix it. This model is outdated and broken, says Sawislak.
“We’re spending more and more money, and it’s going to get worse,” he says. “Climate change is going to force our hand to be smarter about how we do this.”
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Sawislak says it’s standard operating procedure to cut checks after a disaster declaration. Just last week, the Senate passed a $19.1 billion disaster relief package to help farmers and communities recover from floods, hurricanes and wildfires. But every year, the United States seems to experience its biggest hurricane, deadliest flood, and most catastrophic wildfires—like the Camp Fire—burning into entire cities built in and around overgrown, dry forests.
Behavioral scientist Kathleen Tierney says one lesson from Paradise is that staying on the current course will bankrupt the federal Treasury.
“We may be able to slow the losses, but we cannot stop them,” she says. “This is the inheritance; this is the bill that has come.”
Tierney spent his career advising communities after disasters as former director of the Disaster Research Center at the University of Delaware and the Natural Hazards Center at the University of Colorado. She says it’s a basic human instinct to want to rebuild, to return to normal after a traumatic event, even if it’s going home to an area we know is risky.
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We’ve done a lot of work over the years to help people respond or rebuild. But how do we get them to plan better, prepare better and mitigate against future disasters?
“The tendency that many people have is to say, “We’ve had our disaster. We’re not going to have a new one, all we have to do is go back,” she says.
Fenton, the FEMA administrator, has given this much thought, especially after Paradise. During the Obama administration, he chaired a committee to overhaul the way communities plan for disasters. He has tried to move the needle towards persuading communities and states to do more before the inevitable disasters strike.
“We’ve done a lot of work over the years to help people respond or rebuild,” says Fenton. “But how do we get them to plan better, prepare better and mitigate against future disasters?”
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(Left) One home that survived the fire and one home (right) at Ridgewood Mobile Home Park in Paradise that did not. Meredith Rizzo/hide caption
(Left) One home that survived the fire and one home (right) at Ridgewood Mobile Home Park in Paradise that did not.
Overturning this system is not an easy task; it’s the clumsy federal budgeting process, political divisiveness and human nature, among others.
Yet, last fall, in the midst of a record fire season in California, Congress passed the Disaster Recovery Reform Act. It’s part of a sweeping set of disaster spending reforms that would, among other things, allow FEMA to send a portion of its disaster relief budget to states to use for pre-disaster mitigation.
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Sawislak, who also served on the Hurricane Sandy task force, says it’s a start to avoiding huge rebuilding costs in the future.
“But I don’t think it goes far enough,” he says. “We should be spending billions to protect our infrastructure and communities, not millions or even hundreds of millions.”
Vickie Brock (left) and Peggy Hunnings (center) serve lunch to people at Magalia Pines Baptist Church just outside of Paradise. Since the fire, the church has helped distribute free food and water. Meredith Rizzo/hide caption
Vickie Brock (left) and Peggy Hunnings (center) serve lunch to people at Magalia Pines Baptist Church just outside of Paradise. Since the fire, the church has helped distribute free food and water.
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Damian Cuypers hands out free water to residents at Magalia Pines Baptist Church just outside Paradise. Private citizens and groups have volunteered and provided food and water since the fire. Meredith Rizzo/hide caption
Damian Cuypers hands out free water to residents at Magalia Pines Baptist Church just outside Paradise. Private citizens and groups have been volunteering and delivering food and water ever since
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