WILLITS, CA, 2/18/23 — Steffanie Darr and her son have finally settled in at a mobile home park in Lake County, following the two-day evacuation January 25-26 from Creekside Cabins & RV Resort after a culvert that provided the only access to the property was washed out just before the New Year. It was a long road to the Darrs’ new home; Theirs was the last trailer to be towed out, they spent the night on the side of Highway 101, and they were then towed to a mobile home park in Willits rather than the space they’d secured in Lake County.
Then, when Darr’s son — who is also her In Home Supportive Services (IHSS) provider, as she is oxygen-dependent — was arrested and held for a few days on an outstanding warrant, she was trapped in the driver’s seat for three days with their dog. She was grateful that Adult and Aging Services helped her connect with Hidden Valley, the towing company that brought the trio to their new home, but the days of immobility and uncertainty took a toll.
“There was no dignity,” she told The Mendocino Voice, adding, “But I’m wanting to be a survivor, and not a victim. That’s how we think.”
In the weeks since leaving Creekside, Darr has continued to feel overwhelmed — and lonely — following the speedy separation from her home of years. They had to leave behind her son’s truck and quad, and she said some of their former neighbors plan to give up pets in the effort to pursue permanent housing. As tow-truck haulers rushed around with a jotted-down list of people ready to be hauled out in the 48 hours they had to move, the chaos led to her feeling “forgotten” when their trailer was towed the next day, outside the original evacuation window.
Residents were evacuated by temporary bridge in a $250,000 project funded by the county, after — according to a representative from the bridge contractor — Creekside landlord Teresa Thurman “ghosted” on a plan for permanent culvert repair. The county has announced plans to litigate against Thurman, whom CalTrans has maintained was responsible for the fix because the road provided access to her private property rather than public benefit.
Amid the back-and-forth, Darr feels that the needs of those whose lives were most impacted became secondary.
“it should have been about us, and nothing more,” she said. “It shouldn’t have been money at all.”
An estimated 10 households evacuated from Creekside are now staying at Mendocino Redwoods RV Resort, a Willits campground. While they were originally told they could stay just 30 days at the park on vouchers from Social Services, United Disaster Relief of Northern California founder Danilla Sands told The Voice that the deadline to move out has now been extended to March 24.
“At that point they will need a long-term plan or a secondary plan,” she explained. “For some of them, it’s renting another trailer spot locally or afar, or just completely picking up and moving in with friends and family out of the area.”
Social Services planned to work with residents in that intervening time to help them secure permanent housing. Department representatives did not return The Voice’s requests for comment by the time of publication, but Sands provided some insight into how her nonprofit has collaborated with county staff and other organizations to aid her 61 clients from Creekside in the past few weeks.
“One of our volunteers, Dana, she’s out [at Mendocino Redwoods] today, because there are a couple people who weren’t able to come in all the way [to the center],” she said Thursday. “So she’s handing out some more gift cards to them and getting them fully registered. … We’re just inputting data, inputting who’s able to help out, and working with our partners. We advocate for all being on the same page: What can you do? What can we do? What can we do together?”
Mendocino County’s shortage of available apartments and rentals — much less affordable ones — makes finding housing for these displaced families especially challenging. But because Creekside served as a long-term home for many residents, Sands explained, some are not even in the position to move their trailer to another park.
“It’s still a confusing state for them, because a lot of their trailers are outdated and won’t qualify for some parks,” she explained. “So those that want to just move straight over to another trailer park might not be able to do that. Some are looking at other options, like [staying on] friends’ properties.”
Sands estimates that three or four households she works with wanted to remove their trailers from Creekside but were unable to because of problems with the vehicle, the complexity of transporting with a popout, or another factor. Darr knows a young family whose trailer wasn’t moved out of the park in time, leaving them to start over without many of their possessions.
“It still breaks my heart,” she said. “That trailer they had was their beginning.”
One resident, Terry Boudreau, was hospitalized before the evacuation began, so his home and belongings remain inaccessible behind the washed-out culvert.
“It’s all behind that barricade, and no one’s taking any responsibility,” he told The Voice.
Boudreau has the bone disease osteomyelitis, which led to surgery to remove both his legs below the knees. He was airlifted from Creekside in January, and is now residing temporarily at a Fort Bragg nursing home.
“I had to crawl right next to that big hole to get to the helicopter that took me here,” he said, though he added with characteristic enthusiasm that it was a “great helicopter ride.”
He is frustrated, and has been journaling to gather his thoughts and feelings of anger following the park’s closure. Though he cannot drive, he hopes a family member may give him a ride to the Ukiah courthouse as he wants to look at property records, in case they offer legal solutions to help those like him who have been “detached” from their homes because they cannot access the park. He especially wants to see questions of liability for repairing the culvert resolved, saying, “Everybody’s pointing at everybody else.”
Many Creekside residents are also waiting to find out if they’ve been approved for individualized assistance from the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA), after Mendocino County qualified for that assistance to homeowners, renters, and business owners last week.
Patrick Boland, a representative for FEMA, told The Voice that he is hopeful at least some Creekside residents will receive financial help from the agency. While “there’s no easy answer” to how an individual case will fare, he said, “that’s the kind of thing that housing assistance is meant for.”
Sands’ organization wrote up narratives for Creekside residents to use in their FEMA applications, which document key details and damages at the park and provide a timeline of the disaster. While she says FEMA’s protocol can be “very strict,” she hopes aiding residents with these forms will help give them a good shot.
UDRNC was able to provide Creekside residents with food and needed supplies during the weeks that they were unable to leave the park by car. For Sands, being “boots on the ground” since that time has made it easier to help out during this stage of recovery.
“We build that relationship with them,” she explained. “We truly, truly, truly want to see them recover.”
Darr hopes the struggles she and other residents endured can inform disaster response in the future — particularly when it comes to low-income communities, older adults, and people with disabilities.
“It took a long time, but I don’t hold grudges,” she said. “I don’t blame anybody. My biggest thing is, I hope people learn from it. If somebody can get something out of it, then it was worth our suffering. Because we were going to survive it, one way or another.”
Note: Kate Fishman covers the environment & natural resources for The Mendocino Voice in partnership with a Report For America. Her position is funded by the Community Foundation of Mendocino, Report for America, & our readers. You can support Fishman’s work with a tax-deductible donation here or by emailing [email protected]. Contact her at KFishman@mendovoice.com or at (707) 234-7735. The Voice maintains editorial control and independence.