MENDOCINO Co, CA, 5/31/23 — Tonie Traina Berry still remembers the rampant wildfires of 2008. She and other Leggett residents had to evacuate as highways closed around the small northern community; they banded together to prepare food, and keep elderly people or people with pets who hadn’t been able to leave from growing hungry. Then, as lightning struck throughout the state and firefighters were tied up elsewhere, some Leggett residents headed to the front lines.
“After the fifth day, it was coming down the ridge toward our community,” she recalled. “And we didn’t have any help.”
Traina Berry admires how the small community she calls home pulls together to aid neighbors. But this year, after winter storms left an estimated 100 out-of-town motorists stranded for days, downed trees cut off vehicle access for many residents, and her landline was inoperable for nearly three months, she has grown increasingly concerned that leaping into action in the moment won’t be enough.
Although she’s never applied for grants before, she hopes to secure Community Emergency Response Training (CERT) and ham radio training for Leggett residents, and to get funds for a generator to operate the community’s school as a shelter when power is out.
“Hopefully we can become more organized and able to respond with appropriate priorities, through training,” she said. But she also worries that the financial struggles of many in the area, and the age of their small population, makes it hard to muster the energy and manpower needed.
This month the Mendocino Voice surveyed 230 residents around the county about their disaster readiness and recovery experiences, their hopes and anxieties for the future, and the impacts they’ve felt living in such a disaster-prone zone where a changing climate is only intensifying weather emergencies. You can read our story on the full results here.
Whether inland or on the coast, the county’s far-flung nature colored many responses. Across wildfires, earthquakes, tsunamis, and snow, people in our county wonder how long emergency responders would take to get to them. Those on rural roads with limited access worry about whether they’d be able to leave in an evacuation. And in places with poor cell service or broadband, will they even know an evacuation is occurring?
“All the roads in Albion are dead ends and don’t circle back to Hwy 1 or other local roads,” one respondent on the coast wrote. “We can get caught, like they did in Paradise.”
A lack of supplies can also be a pressing concern when a community is cut off from outside aid.
“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,” a North County respondent wrote.
Another person who feared losing power with nowhere else to go asked, “How long can we sit and wait in the dark without water?”
According to Mendocino County’s Disaster Recovery Field Operations Coordinator Travis Killmer, everyone in the county should have supplies in their house and resources in their immediate neighborhood to last at least three days.
“We’re trying to push that, if we know that there’s going to be bad weather and you’re choosing to stay at your home in an area where you might get cut off, you need to be prepared to sustain on your own for a while,” he told The Voice.
The county’s road to securing winter storm aid
Killmer, whose work in the county’s division of Prevention, Recovery, Resiliency, and Mitigation (PRRM) has primarily focused on wildfire response and recovery in recent years, was inundated in 2023 after our region’s mild fire year. Throughout the winter’s atmospheric river storms and low-elevation snow, he and Xuyen Mallela, principal administrative analyst, were the primary points of contact for the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA). These two staffers — and sometimes, two other staff people from the county’s Office of Emergency Services (OES) — drove representatives from FEMA and the Small Business Administration (SBA) hours around the county, heading south along the coast to Point Arena and Gualala in the first round of storms and way north to Whale Gulch, Leggett, and Laytonville in the second.
“We get too good at disaster recovery,” Mallela said. “For example, in this disaster, we sent out a survey so people could self-report damage. And that survey tremendously helped us to identify, for example, how many people are insured? It helps us create that narrative to bring in federal assistance. We never did that before, so we are learning as we go. Each disaster we’ve had has been unprecedented.”
With unprecedented disaster comes sometimes shaky ground in distributing aid.
Months after the storms that swept through Mendocino’s North County and well after Preliminary Damage Assessments (PDAs) conducted in early April, PRRM staff had still not heard from FEMA about whether impacted residents in those second storms could qualify for individual assistance. Just as many people’s property had been destroyed or damaged in the second storm as in the first, but FEMA indicated to Killmer that their thresholds for aid had shifted.
What’s more, in far northern areas of the county, state and federal representatives had been unable to access some 17 homes that reported damage — in some cases, because snow was still on the ground. Many of these homes are remote or down long driveways; some are off-grid and don’t rely on public utilities. Frustrated that the process had stalled, Killmer wrote to Congressman Jared Huffman via his local field representative.
“During the same winter season, Mendocino County faced two major storm systems that impacted separate geographies within our County, causing broadly similar levels of damage, but only one has been deemed worthy of inclusion in a major disaster declaration,” Killmer wrote. “That strikes me as deeply inequitable. The residents impacted … in northern Mendocino County are among the most disadvantaged and economically distressed in the State of California and they deserve the same level of assistance from FEMA that their neighbors in other parts of Mendocino County received.”
Within days, Mendocino County was added to the major disaster declaration and granted individual assistance. (More info on disaster recovery centers and mobile registration intake centers for those impacted by the second round of storms is available here).
Understanding this context is critical — in part, because many residents in outlying areas of the county felt they’d been sent up a certain creek without a paddle during the winter storms.
Learning as individuals, a community, and a county
When California Highway Patrol (CHP) closed Highway 101 at the border with Humboldt County one late night in February, dozens of northbound drivers were stranded in the small community of Laytonville.
“They don’t tell us in advance, necessarily,” Killmer said of the CHP, which is a state agency. “Sometimes they will give the Sheriff an indication, but not always. If they want to close the road, they’ll close the road.”
As snow accumulated, Director of Laytonville Healthy Start Family Resource Center Jayma Shields Spence wanted to open a locked trailer of county supplies left on the property to help with emergency shelter, as she tried to house people who had nowhere to go. Communicating with county officials by phone, she wasn’t given the go-ahead that night, and so made do with what she had on hand before she eventually received a combination for the trailer the next day. It proved to be incorrect.
“If we want something done in Laytonville, we do it ourselves,” she told The Voice at the time.
For Megan Barber Allende, president and CEO of the nonprofit Community Foundation of Mendocino County, this exact scenario has been her fear since the foundation began its “nonstop” response to disastrous wildfires back in 2017.
“The first thing that went through my head at that time was, ‘What if this had happened in Laytonville?’” she said. “There aren’t the local resources needed to support one of those big CalFire responses.”
A version of her fears came true this winter. In the subsequent months, the Community Foundation — an organization established in 1993 that helps support other organizations countywide by distributing funds and providing leadership — has organized dialogues in more remote communities like Laytonville to bring together county officials with local leaders. They recently moderated a conversation at Laytonville’s Harwood Hall, which Barber Allende said emphasized how totally people could be cut off: “I think we’ve all gotten a little reliant thinking that cell phones are going to work, or we will be able to drive to those who are in need of our help.” This isn’t just about road closures; extended power outages can also render gas pumps inoperable.
For several years, the Community Foundation has supported the coalition Volunteer Organizations Active in a Disaster (VOAD) — but many of these efforts are based in the more populous Ukiah area, Barber Allende explained. The winter’s events have shifted their focus to Community Organizations Active in a Disaster (COAD), designed to bolster self-sufficient local responses.
The Community Foundation has already held COAD meetings in Anderson Valley, Laytonville, and with the Round Valley Indian Tribes; more meetings in June and July are scheduled with community leaders in Point Arena, Willits, and Caspar.
“What do individuals need to start learning?” Barber Allende said, outlining questions that can be addressed at these meetings — though she emphasized that her team takes a “convener” role, not setting agendas. “What do these community organizations, who support the individual, need to do to be prepared? [We’re also] really having the local people sit together and start strategizing what their plan is, what they’re going to do, and who’s going to do what. And lastly, what’s the Foundation’s role? Since we deal with monetary donations regarding natural disasters, who are we going to engage with to be able to get resources to the community?”
Having built prior relationships with leaders was invaluable this winter, allowing the Foundation to offer aid when many on the South Coast went without power for a week or longer in January, Barber Allende said. She hopes these meetings will further strengthen those roots.
The Community Foundation’s Community Resiliency and Preparedness Fund will open for new applications in August, awarding grants up to $7,500. Projects like Traina Berry’s proposed generator installation in Leggett could be supported by the fund. The Foundation also offers technical assistance for those unfamiliar with grant application processes.
Danilla Sands, who runs the nonprofit United Disaster Relief of Northern California (UDRNC) and works closely with the Community Foundation and VOAD (including in response to the crisis at Creekside Cabins & RV Resort this winter), feels that many of the most critical preparations for disasters are somewhat universal — like readying your home, packing a go bag, formulating a plan, and striving for clear communication.
“These things will stay consistent,” Sands said. “And the biggest one we’ve learned — even working with professionals, the county and the city and the fire and rescue and everybody else — is don’t be reliant on outside resources.”
Knowledge is power: mapping community resources on the coast
When Mendocino Coast Clinics family physician Dr. Jennifer Kreger watched patients come into the Emergency Room during a five-day power outage years ago, needing a way to run medically necessary CPAP machines, suffering from the cold, or simply looking to charge their phones, she began to think critically about what coastal communities needed in a disaster. One of the primary issues, she realized, was that many people didn’t know what help might be available to them in their own communities.
Looking at a map of bicycle trails in the county that her husband, a mountain biker, used recreationally, she began imagining disaster preparedness possibilities. She met the map’s creator, Rick Hemmings, at Catch-A-Canoe, his rental company on Big River. Asked whether he might be interested in expanding the map, he agreed. He told Kreger that he’d already been talking with colleagues about ferrying people across the river in the business’ kayaks and outrigger canoes in the event that the Highway 1 bridge crossing over to Mendocino ever failed.
“Eighteen of the 25 significant bridges shown on our maps are over 50 years old, and 12 of these are rated in fair condition,” Hemmings wrote to The Voice. “The bridges we take for granted are used a surprising amount. Last measured in 2009, the Noyo Bridge had average daily traffic of 23,950 vehicles! Ten Mile Bridge averaged 1500 vehicles a day, while Gualala Bridge saw 4200.”
Understanding that infrastructure is the guiding principle of Hubs & Routes, a readiness organization Kreger and Hemmings co-founded. They view the coastal communities’ many crossings over water as creating “islands” that would need to be self-sufficient if people could no longer cross in tsunamis or earthquakes, or during fires that could close down the highway inland or up and down the coast.
By July, they hope to share printed (and mostly dual language) copies of Mendocino Coast Preparedness Maps they’ve created, which can be purchased with some also available free of charge. Printing these maps was funded in part by a grant from the Community Foundation. (Those interested can donate to make a map free for someone else by texting “DONATEHR” to (707) 210-1990).
The maps feature alternate vehicle routes, go-around hiking trails, and paths out of local tsunami hazard zones. Some of this information is not available anywhere else — and could be invaluable during long outages.
After working out some issues of nonprofit liability, Hubs & Routes is also now encouraging people to sign up as Public or Private Hubs. Public hubs are visible on the online map, and can list offerings like electricity or long-term shelter. Many of the existing hubs are concentrated between Albion and Fort Bragg; Kreger hopes to see more South Coast hubs soon.
Private hubs have the option to be viewable by emergency responders like the Sheriff’s Office, or only by designated public health leaders on each “island.” In the event of an emergency, if a leader sees that you have canned goods on your farm or can offer a generator, they can reach out and ask for your help. Video trainings for disaster response are also available on the site; Kreger is currently conducting a large group training for Mendocino Coast Clinics.
Some questions on the website emphasize climate readiness, asking about whether homes grow native plants and promoting soil health. Acknowledging human-caused climate change informs Kreger’s ethos, but she emphasizes that people don’t have to agree with everything on the site to participate.
“We’re all coasties. We can get together over common sense things like growing our own food, so we will have some when the trucks cannot roll in,” she said. “I wanted to bring people together.”
Since COVID-19, Hubs & Routes has resumed hosting community gathering and training days, where residents can find their “island” on a map, play conversation and movement games, and learn about the website’s readiness offerings. The gatherings also feature a “frustration station” for people to express fear and anger around disaster by stamping on a mat or throwing cotton balls at a target.
“When we can’t get our coffee, or our Prozac, or whatever you want to order from Amazon …. that’s when we’re tempted to do whatever comes to mind, some of which we might regret later,” Kreger said. “We might take it out on each other, and then not have each other’s backs as much. We realize, ‘Oh, we could have been collaborating for our survival, but instead, we’re blaming each other for not being able to keep it together.’ It’s promoting looking for something harmless as a way to take out your frustration.”
Looking to the future
County officials and nonprofits alike have seen heightened weather extremes, and especially this winter’s storms, as a stark reminder to expect the unexpected.
PRRM had received a Prepare California Jumpstart grant to hold several townhall-style listening sessions focused on disaster response around the large county back in 2022. Killmer originally planned the meetings for March and April; they will have to be rescheduled for later this year. He looks forward to hearing from different neighborhoods inland and on the coast about how the county can help local communities understand what they should be prepared for in a disaster and develop the resources to be safe.
The nonprofit Community Foundation’s meetings are reaching toward a similar goal of understanding. Organizational leaders who might like to contribute can contact [email protected] to learn meeting details for hybrid or in-person attendance.
Local communities can also pursue CERT trainings for themselves and others in their neighborhood to develop a team of local responders.
“When catastrophe occurs or is likely to occur, that’s when we band together at the last minute,” Traina Berry reflected. “And we need to do better than that.”
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.