MENDOCINO Co., 6/18/23 — Residents of Mendocino County are no strangers to emergencies and disasters — in the last year alone, the county has seen wildfires, flooding, drought, atmospheric rivers and snow storms, often accompanied by prolonged highway closures and power outages.
Since our first week in operation at The Mendocino Voice in 2016, we’ve worked to provide our readers with information before, during, and after emergencies. We often talk with our neighbors, public officials and community organizations about how we can help make our communities more resilient. In order to get a better understanding of what information our readers need, we launched a survey in early May on disaster readiness and recovery. We are sharing the results here to inform our community’s understanding about how to prepare for disasters and coordinate with one another.
We may think of the impact of wildfires most often, given that Mendocino County has seen two of the five largest wildfires in state history in the last five years, and the fourth deadliest in the last five years as well. It’s undeniable that climate change is increasing the scale and severity of extreme weather here, and everywhere. Yet amid these changing seasons and conditions, the challenges and circumstances facing residents in a variety of emergency situations are often similar. Out of the 230 people who responded, more than a third had evacuated their homes. Respondents to our survey wrote about unreliable access to timely and accurate information, affordable resources, limited roads and transportation particularly in small communities, and the need for hyper-local community organizing for neighbors to help neighbors when the next emergency arises.
In addition to sharing these results, we’ve included quotes with some of the responses we’ve received. We’ve also put together a list of emergency resources at the bottom of this article, and are planning a series of stories in the coming months to cover the issues raised in greater detail. If you are interested in seeing the survey’s complete results or supporting this project, please contact us at [email protected]. To make sure you’re continuing to see our coverage, sign up for our newsletter, and you can also support our work here.
“Preparing is the biggest issue. We have some things in place but not all. We have spoken to neighbors and encouraged them to prepare. It is challenging.”
“When you live paycheck to paycheck financially how do you possibly prepare?”
Our survey and responses: We launched this survey with the goal to get a better picture of what our readers want to know before, during, and after an emergency, so we can continue to provide useful coverage during fire season and beyond. We published it on our website (LINK), shared it on Facebook and Twitter, and sent it out to our email newsletter lists.
The survey was open from May 3 – 27, and we received 230 overall responses overall. Based on reported zip codes, the respondents live all across Mendocino County; zip codes reflect a slight inland bias, with the highest volume of respondents from the Ukiah and Willits areas.
The majority (68.3%) of respondents described themselves as homeowners or living on property they owned in some other way, 11.7% as renting a house, 9.1% as residents of a manufactured or mobile home, and 5.2% as renting an apartment.
“I’m in a studio apartment so I can’t “harden” my building, and I don’t drive so evacuation if needed is gonna be a challenge. Knowing what my best options and practices should be would give me some peace of mind.”
“Could an expert check our house for fire and earthquake vulnerabilities?”
“House insurance increased from $1700/year to $6800/year- now our company has dropped us and only the inadequate state insurance will cover us.”
“We have lots of houses in the area that are not fire safe. When we get a fire we are going to have a huge homeless problem. There are lots of folks who don’t know how to make their houses fire safe or don’t have the $’s to do what’s needed.”
How prepared are our readers for emergencies, and what kinds of emergencies are people most concerned about?
Out of 230 respondents, 34.3% had previously evacuated their homes, 64.3% have never evacuated, and a few respondents were unsure.
The majority of respondents have made some preparations for an emergency: 81% are signed up for Nixle or other emergency notifications; 72.2% have three or more days of food, water, and emergency supplies; 52.6% have an emergency kit or go-bag; 66.1% have taken steps to clear defensible space around their homes and 44.8% have an evacuation plan. However, respondents noted that Nixle is sometimes not reliable, and that they would like more information about what to put in a go-bag, as well as information about available evacuation routes and designated shelters, particularly in more rural or remote areas. Several noted that they have not made preparations.
Some respondents said they have sought out Community Emergency Response Team (CERT) or ham radio training. Others set up additional resources such as solar panels, generators or other backup power systems, water sources for fire crews, and had prepared with reflective road numbers at property entrances to guide emergency vehicles, paper maps in case of power outages, and backup binders for important papers in case of evacuation.
“If a major quake hits and the coastal bridges are down, power is out meaning water, and sewer are out. No access to gas or food. No internet, cell service, or bank access. We can’t stay here long and we can’t easily get out. What’s the next move? How long can we sit and wait in the dark without water? Can we access the old logging roads?”
“There are countless trees about to fall over power lines that are regularly ignored by owners of overhead power lines.”
“I live alone, and I am hard of hearing. How can I be sure I hear an alarm, especially at night?”
“I live on a rural, heavily forested ridge line with a three mile dirt road to my house and property with only one way in or out. Wind gusts are an everyday occurrence up here, even in the hottest and driest days of summer. My questions are: How would we evacuate if the road is cut off due to wildfire? How do we prepare for such an occurrence?”
“How do I get on a list to let authorities know I need help to evacuate?”
What type(s) of disasters most concern you at your Mendocino County home or in your community as a whole?
The top concerns for the survey respondents matched those that most frequently occur across Mendocino County: wildfires (85.2%), power outages (55.7%), and earthquakes (46.1%); 42% of respondents are also concerned about winter storms, drought and wind events, followed by heat waves, flooding, and tsunamis.
A few respondents reported worrying about air quality due to wildfires, and other emergencies such as landslides or events that might impact road access and communications overall. Readers also noted that many of these occurrences are interconnected — for example, a power outage during heat waves and winter storms exacerbates the emergency and can also make communications difficult.
“Anything that causes road closures / since we could not access town services, supplies, healthcare.”
“air quality, especially during fires”
“Lack of communication / cell phone and landline outages”
“lack of water, issue with dead end roads”
“My biggest concerns are wildfires the number one concern flooding the number two concern and one of the most major concerns is power outages. PG&E has trouble sometimes keeping the utilities on. For seniors air conditioning and extreme heat is absolutely important and keeping the electricity on for refrigeration.”
What impacts have you experienced from a disaster, and what were the most common issues you and your communities faced in the months afterwards?
The majority of respondents have experienced power outages (79%), 59% experienced limited road access or other infrastructure problems, 46.7% dealt with debris or other environmental clean-up, and 40% had their homes or property damaged.
Additionally, 27.1% of people had difficulty accessing food, medical care or other essential needs, 22.4% had difficulty getting information about disaster recovery resources; 23.8% struggled to access FEMA funds, insurance or other financial resources; and 18% had difficulty accessing mental health resources. Several people mentioned difficulty finding hotels taking FEMA vouchers, price gouging, and housing challenges after disasters, as well as difficulty with stress, PTSD, loss of income, physical and medical challenges, difficulty and combined effects such as loss of food and lack of information during power outages.
“Unable to get my child to school, no way to access the Internet or make phone calls.”
“Snowed in for 23 days last winter. We ran low on food and firewood”
“Trees down blocking exit roads”
“Redwood Valley fire survivor. Total loss plus many injuries – ongoing physical health & mental health issues related to the fire”
“Stress. I have rescue cats and worry about if I have to evacuate. So many, I can only open the doors and “Go with God”.”
“The problem in Laytonville is inability to communicate if power and cell towers are down, which they seem to be so often. Water is an immediate concern. The county could prioritize water deliveries to people without power, as pressure pumps will not work, so there is no running water. This has sometimes gone on for days, and the supermarket is out of gallons of water in a flash. If roads are also blocked, it’s a disaster within days.”
How do you access information during an emergency, and what information would be most helpful for you to know prior to a disaster?
The vast majority (79.1%) of respondents report receiving information from emergency notifications, such as Nixle, although several commented that emergency notifications were often unreliable, contained technical language, or contained links that were difficult to access, especially during outages. Additionally, 67.4% said they received information from local news sources such as The Mendocino Voice or Ukiah Daily Journal; followed by social media including Facebook or Twitter (62.6%); by AM/FM radio (52.1%); and 47% said word of mouth, such as a community group, friends and family.
In the comments, respondents noted they also get information from ham radio, email listservs, the Watch Duty mobile app, and other sources such as Sherwood Firewise. Several people emphasized the need for a centralized place where they can check for reliable information during emergencies, as well as the need for air raid sirens or other types of alerts that could be relied on during power outages and other emergencies.
The main questions our respondents had were about how to respond during an emergency, including where they might go for shelter and how to identify available evacuation routes, a particular concern given the difficulty in accessing reliable information in rural parts of the county during fast-changing situations. Some of these challenges are compounded for people without cars, people with pets, and people with limited mobility, in addition to other evacuation complications.
Respondents expressed interest in learning low-cost and affordable ways to prepare their homes for an emergency, how to create go-bags on a budget, evacuation transportation options, insurance information, and a centralized place for weather forecasts. Survey respondents also want to learn about neighborhood organizing for emergencies, such as creating Firewise groups (ex: Sherwood Firewise), and also where to find current emergency information specific to their neighborhood.
“We need a local emergency shelter with basic emergency supplies”
“How to know what road and which direction to turn during evacuations. There are limited roads in our county and sometimes, you only have two choices, turn north or south, turn east or west or just east. If there is a wildfire and you hear the evacuation sirens and get onto the coast highway, then what? Did I turn the wrong way? Where is the fire located and heading to? What happens if we see the flames and the cars are backed up on the roadway?”
“Do not tie important information only to social media accounts, Co. Nixle/ Alerts should not refer to internet for more info- especially when internet is down!”
“Information for those of us who do not have cars and how to evacuate without a car and with pets”
“Mental health support to deal with feelings of fear and automatic triggers after wildfire evacuations, close calls, and worse”
“More detailed (common language, local landmark) information about the movement of fires and firefighting efforts”
If authorities announced a mandatory evacuation in your community due to an emergency or disaster (ex: wildfires or floods), would anything prevent you from evacuating?
Of the 230 respondents, 63% reported nothing would prevent them from evacuating during an emergency. For those who may experience a challenge or complications evacuating, 32.3% responded that it is likely due to not being aware of evacuation orders. Additionally, 25.7% of respondents are worried about leaving pets or livestock, while others are concerned about leaving their property (23.9%). Additional reasons for hesitance about evacuating include lack of transportation, health issues, concern for other family or household members, financial challenges, limited evacuation routes, and having no place to go. These additional reasons were a recurring issue for many respondents who shared comments in the survey, especially in combination with concerns about reliable access to communication during emergencies that could impede their ability to know which roads are open, where shelters are located, or if there is assistance to help with evacuations.
“Need to stay and help others”
“What routes would I take and where to go since all the motel rooms are booked and I am alone, elderly, handicapped and have a dog.
“Road access out if everyone is evacuating”
What is the single most urgent need that needs to be addressed in your community when it comes to disaster recovery? Do you have additional ideas about how to prepare your community in the future?
Most respondents highlighted similar issues regarding emergency preparedness in their communities, including the need for clearly designated evacuation plans, routes, and shelters, and housing for the displaced, especially for low-income individuals and those with livestock or pets.
Many people want to establish better ways for neighborhoods and local communities to coordinate during an emergency, such as emergency sirens and improved access to supplies including water, backup power sources, gasoline, and food, especially when road access is limited or smaller communities may become isolated. Others suggested education resources, such as a centralized place for official information, Community Emergency Response Team (CERT) and/or ham radio training, and how to clear downed trees or other potential environmental hazards on private property.
Many respondents also suggested the need for more inclusive and creative community mutual aid plans, with specific plans for those with limited mobility or resources, as well as one that includes travelers or tourists who might be stranded during emergencies, or that individual communities could implement without assistance from county or state agencies.
“We have lots of different preparation and aid organizations but they all do a little part of the bigger picture. Our community needs a single place- physical or virtual to go to get the information they need to prepare and recover from events. Often the help exists for folks but they don’t know it is out there or how to access it.”
“Every location should have emergency access to 2 ways out.”
“The need for mini-community self survival plans.”
“Alternate housing for displaced people, access to food during power outages”
“Lack of cell service, which is always a problem here. But when the power is out and we have no wifi, cell service suddenly becomes very important. The coast has almost no coverage at all.”
“Proper infrastructure in place in town. Generators, emergency supplies etc. when the roads in and out are closed”
“Housing for residents whose homes have burned or become unlivable.”
“How to help people who do not have a car get evacuated with their family, pets and belongings and where they can stay at?”
“Alerts… information for people that do not have a smart phone or social media”
“Assistance with retrofitting for wildfire safety”
“Build-out of power redundancy on the whole north coast”
“Could there be buses that will go and pick up all folks who do not have cars and help them evacuate to a safe place? Maybe we could use the school buses or MTA or Senior buses to help folks without cars to evacuate. Maybe there could be a running list of all folks who need to be picked up by buses and in an emergency those buses would go to those residences and pick them up.”
“1. Our community needs local CERT Training; 2. While our school was designated in the past as a Red Cross shelter, we have zero supplies. We need blankets, cots, and basic supplies; 3. The Leggett community, located along the thoroughfare of Highways 101 and 1, had a hundred or more stranded travelers for days, with no place to house them in the most recent wind and snow storm; 4. We need power at that location during an outage. 5. We need an all terrain vehicle to be able to navigate snow and to transport supplies.”
Here’s a list of some of our current emergency resources:
- Our resource guide for wildfire information & links that everyone in “Mendo needs to know”
- Winter weather info for Mendocino County and beyond: storms, flooding, power outages, road closures & essential resources
- Mendocino Voice articles related to wildfire safety
- Story: When help can’t come for days, Mendocino County ‘islands’ must build self-sufficiency
- Mendocino Voice videos featuring Cal Fire’s Public Information officer Tricia Austin discussing defensible space and fire preparedness
- Mendocino Voice article on how to build your own cheap air purifier
- Mendocino Voice 2018 article with tips about how to stay safe when the air quality is poor (note: N95 masks are not currently available for pick up)
- Mendocino Voice 2018 article about how to safely clean up wildfire ash
- Mendocino Voice 2019 article about food safety after a power outage
- Mendocino Voice 2022 article about how to sign up for PG&E planned shutoff alerts
- Mendocino Voice power outages and PG&E coverage
- Mendocino Voice 2023 article about tsunami warnings
- Mendocino Voice 2018 article covering resources for families and for helping children cope with the stress and trauma of disasters
- Mendocino Voice 2018 article about how to cope with disaster from the Adventist Health Howard Hospital chaplain
- Mendocino Voice 2020 article with tips for healing emotional trauma after a natural disaster