A conference Thursday morning dedicated to recovery from October’s North Bay wildfires drew a crowd of more than 400 people to the Hyatt Regency in Santa Rosa.
The event brought former FEMA director James Lee Witt as its keynote speaker. Witt, who directed FEMA from 1993 to 2001, will serve as executive director of Rebuild North Bay, an organization created to summon as many resources as possible to speed fire recovery.
“I’ve been to a lot of disasters,” Witt said, “really, really bad. Stay focused. Do what’s right. This disaster is about people.”
Witt obtained a toll-free phone number for people to use in getting federal help to rebuild: 1-888-431-2337. The number goes through Clearpoint, a nonprofit agency that offers counseling on credit, budgeting, housing and bankruptcy.
“We are going to need every funding stream available,” Witt said. “After this frustration stage, anger does come,” such as for homeowners who learn that their fire insurance covers only a small portion of the cost of rebuilding. "Give them hope.”
Witt suggested that climate change may result in natural disasters of increasing scale, such as the recent hurricanes and fires. “These events are much stronger, more intense, much more devastating,” he said. “Keep that in mind as you rebuild. Build back smart. Make sure you build in resiliency” and fire-resistance to avoid a damage-repair cycle.
Mike McGuire and Bill Dodd, California state senators, also spoke, along with Shirlee Zane and Belia Ramos, chairwomen of the boards of supervisors in Sonoma and Napa counties. Each promised to speed the process of getting lots cleared, permits granted and new homes constructed or to press for more state or federal relief for the fire-stricken area. They also noted the outpouring of help from the community and urged that non-profit groups, facing requests for more resources, need to be supported as well.
“This disaster has touched everyone in this county,” Senator McGuire said. “We will come back, like Sonoma County always has.” Cleanup is the most pressing urgent task, he said, as well as moving victims from hotels to temporary housing.
“This is home for all of us,” McGuire said, his voice cracking. “We have challenges ahead. We are going to do this. Neighbors need to help neighbors.”
“Most properties have had environmental cleanup,” Senator Dodd said, noting that the community needs to guard against erosion and further damage from winter rains.
Sonoma County Supervisor Zane addressed emotional and mental-health aspects of the disaster. “We have gone through a profound loss,” Zane said. “We as a community need to wrap our arms around and take care of each other,” she said.
Zane also noted that the county needs to streamline the process for victims to obtain building permits. “We’re not talking two years,” she said. “We are talking two months or less.”
Napa County Supervisor Ramos also expressed concern about the emotional impact of the fires. “The build process cannot begin” until sites are cleared, she said. “That debris is important to remove for our emotional” recovery, she said.
The event was sponsored by DP&F law firm, Exchange Bank, American AgCredit, Ghilotti Construction, Kaiser Permanente, Midstate Construction, Newmark Knight Frank, Western Health Advantage, SOMO Living, Sonoma County Airport, Sotheby’s International Realty Wine Country, Tri Counties Bank and Wells Fargo Bank. North Bay Business Journal, part of Sonoma Media Investments, hosted the conference.