When disaster hits, the initial danger is just the beginning- the beginning of a long process of response, recovery and rebuilding that can take months, and sometimes years, to complete. The Soberanes Fire that hit Monterey County in California on July 22, 2016, is proving to be one of those long, drawn-out disasters.
The Soberanes Fire of 2016
The great Soberanes Fire of 2016 is now out, but its impact lingers on. It was by far the largest and most expensive wildfire in the history of the United States, with a price tag well over $200 million. At the height of the fire’s raging progression, a host of public agencies and non-profit organizations came to the rescue and did what they could to help, but most are now long gone, and the pain lingers on. One still on the job, however, is the aptly-names Recovers.org. This group is an all-volunteer on-line matchmaking engine that connects continuing needs to a growing list of individuals, organizations and companies still willing to lend a helping hand, wherever a new or on-going need can be identified and clarified.
Big Sur's Journey Back from Disaster
All over the Big Sur area, families and individuals are still struggling to put their lives back together in the wake of burnt-out homes, lost livelihoods, and the persistent threat of mudslides from winter rains beating down on deforested hills. The costliest fire in American history continues to exact its human costs.
In the Big Sur area, the fire consumed over 60 homes and outbuildings, and impacted the lives of well over a thousand people in a variety of difficult ways. In another part of Monterey County, extending down Carmel Valley Road, no homes were actually lost, but the fire exacted a significant toll on the people who had to evacuate their homes as the fire drew too close for comfort, on the people who had to flee the area because of the dangers to family health caused by days upon days of dangerously unhealthy air quality levels, on families who lost extensive food stocks to mandatory cutoffs of electricity required by the firefighting efforts, on employees who lost work days and wages as a consequence of the local conditions.
In these two areas, this huge wild fire has caused a host of significant problems: health issues, financial concerns, emotional stress and exhaustion, as well as folks who lack housing, property owners who need to clean up debris, people who have lost wages or even jobs, and whole communities that need to re-establish infrastructure. But the nature of the problems and challenges in each area also diverged in significant ways, and together they tell through a wider lens the story of how communities recover from major disasters.
Recovers.org: A Way to Help
That story can perhaps most easily be understood by sampling the many requests for help support, goods and services that have been filtered through a web “portal” designed to provide a grassroots, rapid response to the needs of individuals, families and groups impacted by the disaster. Many of these needs have been brokered through the Monterey County Recovers website--montereyco.recovers.org—sponsored by the local non-profit all-volunteer organization, Community Emergency Response Volunteers of the Monterey Peninsula, or CERV.
At the helm of the Recovers response team is a remarkably energetic and persistent speech-language pathologist named Sarah Blackstone. Blackstone, a leader in Monterey‘s Community Emergency Response Team (CERT) and an organizer of the non-profit CERV, keeps the Recovers.org engine well-oiled with a quiet determination and a consistently friendly and helpful demeanor.
Blackstone and her cohorts at CERV actually launched Recovers.org two years BEFORE the Soberanes Fire, following CERV’s motto that “you can’t predict, but you can prepare.” With initial funding through the 2014 Monterey Gives annual campaign, the website was already launched, volunteer coordinators were already trained, and a number of cooperating organizations were already on board when the Soberanes Fire broke out. The Recovers team was able to swing into action from Day One, which was one big reason MontereyCo.Recovers.org became a go-to-site for the many who were impacted and the many more whom wanted help.
Montereyco.recovers.org has enabled area communities to engage in an ongoing, collaborative, grassroots effort to match the needs of people impacted by the Soberanes Fire to the volunteers and donors who want to help. To date, montereyco.recovers.org has addressed more than one hundred fifty separate requests from individuals, families, and organizations. In addition, it has enabled local organizations to work together, to get and distribute significant emergency funds to people in immediate need including, for example, the Community Foundation for Monterey County (CFMC), the Monterey County Association of Realtors (MCAR), Pacific Gas and Electric Company, and the Big Sur Wine Festival.
The website has made it easy for local organizations to work together to solve problems. To date, it has amassed a volunteer army of more than 285 individuals who have offered goods and/or services. Also, Recovers.org volunteers from other local organizations have joined together to meet the needs of individuals, families, and communities impacted by the fire. Organizations on the site include the Monterey County Office of Emergency Services, CFMC, Community Property Owner’s Association (CPOA), Lions Club Response Team, Monterey Peninsula Chamber of Commerce, Central Coast Red Cross, Los Padres Forest Association, The SPCA for Monterey County, Shoreline Community Church, Unitarian Universalist Church of the Monterey Peninsula -- Caring Network, Cachagua Bible Church. In addition, the website has enabled hundreds of people to access other local resources and information that can assist during the long recovery process. [For more information, go to montereyco.recovers.org]
The Recovers website went up the day after the fire started, and Big Sur evacuations were already in full swing. In the initial phase, the needs that individuals expressed focused on shelter replacement (for those whose homes were lost), temporary shelter (for those under evacuation orders whose homes were saved), financial assistance to cover immediate losses, lost wages, etc., and a host of individualized needs ranging from a replacement pair of boots to the materials for a replacement tool shed.
About ten Recovers Squad members quickly emerged from multiple communities, got trained up quickly on how to manage the site, and "worked the site" and the phone all day every day early on. In many cases, they went far above and beyond the usual expectations of grassroots volunteers in their efforts to respond quickly and empathically to the variety of needs coming across their computers. Scores of volunteers also jumped in to offer their skills, their willingness to help and items they were ready to donate.
During the first days of the emergency, Recovers Squad members and volunteers were able to respond almost daily to a laundry list of needed items requested from Tim Bills at the Big Sur station and figured out how to get each load delivered to the station. Later on, Hayward Lumber, a local business, stepped up and offered their headquarters as a drop-off point for the daily collection of items and then transported the items to the Big Sur Station.
Meanwhile, as the fire raged on and moved eastward, its harmful effects began to be felt in the small and relatively isolated communities down Carmel Valley Road. Communities like Jamesburg, Cachagua and Tassajara witnessed their air quality plunge into unhealthy and harmful depths, and faced mandatory evacuations of their own. For the folks in these communities, initial needs centered on the evacuation of people whose health conditions, (e. g., asthma, seizures) required temporary relocation or people whose homes were too close to where firefighters were lighting defensive backfires and taking other preventive steps.
In both areas, some families soon found themselves without food for their children or gas for their cars. Recovers was able quickly to find two sources of cash support for those feeling the economic impact. Almost out of the blue, the Monterey County Association of Realtors called and asked how they could help. Told of the need for money for food and gas, they quickly went to work, raised money from members and distributed fourteen gift cards of $200 each to people who Recovers identified as folks whose lives had been impacted economically because of loss of work, housing displacement, health expenses
For the residents of Jamesburg, Cachagua, and Tassajara, way down Carmel Valley Road, cash assistance was available through the many donations made to the Soberanes Fire fund managed by the Community Foundation for Monterey County, but there was a hitch. The foundation was unable to provide cash assistance directly and needed a non-profit entity that could receive a grant and dispense the funds fairly and appropriately, and none was on the horizon. CERV stepped into the breach and agreed to submit proposals specifically for that purpose and to administer the funds through the contacts it had already established with responsible locals involved with the Cachagua Community Emergency Response Team in the area.
Moving rapidly, CERV produced proposals within days, the foundation fast-tracked two grants totaling $30,000, and, in partnership with Cachagua Bible Church and its hard-working (and fast-working) pastor, Orville Myers, CERV was able swiftly to get the funds into the hands of 68 impacted families consisting of 85 children and 128 adults. Adapting an application process already in use by the Community Property Owner’s Association in Big Sur and utilizing local community leaders’ broad knowledge of local people, their problems and their needs, Myers managed to get emergency funds into the hands of people who had lost large stores of refrigerated supplies to the emergency electricity cutoffs experienced by area residents, individuals who had racked up big motel bills in escaping from the dangerous smoke-filled air, families whose wage earners had lost days and even weeks of earning to the consequences of the fire, immigrant families whose incomes had been disrupted by events associated with the fire, and a number of others whose lives have been disrupted by the fire and its many unanticipated by-products.
Meanwhile, back in Big Sur, another unexpected by-product of the Soberanes Fire was rearing its ugly head. The fire and its multiple consequences had impacted access to potable water, creating an immediate drinking water shortage and an even more serious possible impending crisis. If the mudslides likely to occur on the treeless lands during the winter rainy season materialize, an even bigger water shortage looms large in the coming months. When the request for supplemental water landed on Recovers’ door, CERV sprang into action. Within days, 36 cases of bottled water contributed by various individuals and 30 cases donated by City of Seaside employees found their way to the Big Sur fire station. Shortly thereafter, the Defense Language Institute came through with another 57 cases. And, dwarfing them all, on September 16, Nestlé Water NA. delivered some twenty pallets, consisting of over 1500 cases, to Fire Chief Cheryl Goetz in Big Sur, working with the CPOA.
Monterey County’s rapid response to the water needs in Big Sur exemplifies the ways in which the Recovers website can mobilize grassroots community support from individuals, organizations and businesses for a host of needs, big and small, frequently in a matter of hours. The stories mentioned above represent just a small sampling of the wide variety of requests that have come through the Recovers web site, which have been matched by an equally wide variety of responses.
Some other stories that perhaps illustrate earlier aspects of the surprising power of the Recovers.org include:
- The Monterey Aquarium's almost instant offer to let anyone impacted by the fire, and any firefighters with time off, to take a break and come (for free) to the aquarium.
- A family heavily impacted by the health threats caused to an asthmatic baby and Dad by the heavy smoke in Carmel Valley and in need of a host of supports, including a place to stay, an air purifier, funds for gas and food, children’s clothing, etc., whose multiple and ongoing needs have been met by an outpouring of generosity from multiple individuals and organizations.
- Manager Willy Nelson at Hayward Lumber, who has provided a staging area in Pacific Grove for collected goods on their way to Big Sur (including water) from individuals, has helped out a family who are already rebuilding their home with materials for their tool shed and continues to demonstrate how local businesses can make a huge difference with the resources at their disposal.
- A middle school in Salinas that held a fund raising dance to raise money for the tools carpenters and landscapers lost in the fire and who can’t earn a living without the necessary tools.
In the weeks and months that followed, needs changed and support grew. In the immediate aftermath, a size 10 ½ boot, temporary housing, or roofing materials for a tool shed might pop up. In the long-term aftermath, the focus changed to things like tools and generators and the means to put things back together again. Throughout, Recovers has been there.
Water had filled an important short term need as autumn loomed, along with fears of rain that could cause harmful mud-slides on the now barren hills that dot Big Sur. But as summer turned to fall, and now winter rears its even rainier head, the longer-term recovery needs of the community have taken center stage.
To help people rebuild and get back on their feet, Recovers found itself in need of tools, lots of tools. For some Palo Colorado residents – those who worked in construction or landscaping, for example, the tools they had lost were a means to their livelihood. Others needed tools to rebuild structures many had built with their own hands before – homes, toolsheds, barns, etc.
Once again, the word went out on the Recovers website, and once again, the growing network of responders came through. Within weeks, Recovers produced over $15,0000 worth of tools in the form of gift cards, money, and donated tools.
The tools people needed ranged from the typical to the obscure, and the money donations helped provide the needed flexibility. Recovers had grown in scope and stature to the point where significant donations came in without a direct ask - $5,000 earmarked for tools from Pacific Gas and Electric, and another $5,000 for the same purpose from the Big Sur Wine Festival.
Sometimes the process worked in reverse. When Blackstone got a request for a generator from a couple who needed to rebuild their home, she put out the word through the Recovers network. Back came a generator from an unexpected source, but back also came a request for another generator. In the end - Recovers found three generators for three different families.
It is difficult to tally up the total value of goods, services, and cash money that Recovers provided in 2016 because, although a great deal came through cash donations, a significant amount came in the form of goods and services. But it is probably safe to say that the total exceeds $70,000 in cash to individuals, over $11,000 worth of water delivered through the Mid Coast Fire Station and CPOA, perhaps $15,000 worth of tools, as well as temporary housing for people, gift cards at Safeway, almost 200 aquarium tickets, etc., etc. As 2016 winds down, it would probably be safe to say that a total of more than $75,000 worth of very targeted gifts have already filtered through MontereyCo.Recovers.org.
But perhaps an equally significant outcome has been the creation of a valuable engine for providing support for community recovery in future emergencies. An entire community now knows about, and has confidence in, its ability to mount a rapid, grassroots, finely targeted response to the individual needs of impacted individuals, whatever the nature of the emergency and the resultant needs it creates. With the ongoing support of CERV volunteers who have deep roots in the community, Recovers.org is proving to be a truly amazing tool, with the power to garner support from scores of individuals, institutions and agencies (Fire Departments, Red Cross, County Office of Emergency Services, SPCA, etc., etc.) The Little Engine that Could has become a viable and valuable ongoing resource
These stories, and the many others that still occur on a regular basis, each in its way unique, and they often require unique responses. Recovers continues to get requests and offers to donate through the web site.
The Recovers website has made it easy for local organizations to work together to solve problems. To date, a volunteer army of more than 260 people have offered goods and services. Recovers volunteers from local organizations work to meet the needs of individuals, families, and communities impacted by the fire. In addition, the website has enabled hundreds of people to access local resources and information that can assist during the inevitably long recovery process. [For more information, please go to MontereyCo.Recovers.org or call Recovers at 831-649-3050].
What is Recovers.org?
Founded in 2011 by two sisters after a severe tornado struck their town in Massachussetts Recovers is a web-based platform that empowers local organizations to make their communities more resilient. Recovers.org offers a solution that empowers local organizations to manage spontaneous volunteers, donations, and requests so communities can recover significantly faster. Designed as an online information h ub and tool kit, the site helps communities prepare together, mitigate risk, and match local needs with local resources.
Recovers.org is currently utilized as a portal in186 communities across 17 countries as shown on map at https://recovers.org/communities map.
Chris Kuryak, COO of Recovers.org, writes,
“The Monterey County Community Resilience site MontereyCo.Recovers.org is one of the very few communities that launched a Recover’s site BEFORE a disaster occurred. CERV’s leadership in this preparedness effort also involved community leaders from Fire Departments and Offices of Emergency Services. We assisted in training a small cadre of volunteers to respond to and meet the needs of residents.
MontereyCo.Recovers.org organizations and volunteers have been able to assist in building post-disaster capacity much more quickly than other Recovers communities around the world.”