Chris Coursey has been living in Santa Rosa for the better part of four decades and serving on its City Council for four years. His two-year term as mayor ends in December.
But the last seven months have been a whirlwind for the former Press Democrat columnist, dealing with a natural disaster of relatively massive proportions. For a city of roughly 170,000, it lost the majority of the nearly 5,300 Sonoma County homes burned during the firestorm touched off Oct. 8.
Faced with rebuilding the Coffey Park and Fountaingrove neighborhoods, the City Council and Sonoma County Board of Supervisors moved through parallel recovery plans that included streamlining the application process for fire victims, creating contract departments to handle them.
Coursey is set to be part of a panel of public officials from Napa and Sonoma counties at North Bay Business Journal’s Construction Industry Conference on May 31, talking about the challenges and solutions they’ve encountered in responding to the fire recovery and the pre-existing shortage of housing. It’s estimated that Sonoma County alone is 30,000 dwellings short of what’s needed.
He talked with the Journal about how the city is handing demand to rebuild the lost homes while prioritizing construction of new ones.
How does the North Bay’s progress with the wildfire recovery compare to other disaster areas?
It’s hard to compare it other disaster areas, because what I’ve heard from other disaster areas has been (after) years down the road. We’re just little over seven months down the road. I don’t have that same data point on other disaster areas.
Speaking about our own recovery efforts in the city of Santa Rosa, I would say that it’s not fast enough. I say that, not because I think we could be going faster, given the circumstances, but for the people who have lost their homes, it’s never going to be fast enough.
Does the pace of applications indicate the urgency of the victims?
We’re seven months into this and only 10 percent of the folks have even put in an application for a permit to rebuild. That is highly attributable to the 80 percent of the people who have lost their homes but haven’t settled with their insurance companies yet. You can’t know what you’re going to rebuild if you don’t know how much money you are going to have in your hand. The insurance issue, I believe, is the biggest issue we face in getting the rebuild started.
Is there anything the city even can do with the insurance issue?
The insurance industry is regulated by the state of California. But I have been working with partners in the Legislature in Sacramento. I’ve testified on several insurance bills two or three weeks ago in the state Senate on behalf of bills put forward by Sens. (Mike) McGuire and (Bill) Dodd.
Every time I talk to an insurance person I make the point to ask, “When are you going to get insurance claims settled, so we can get recovery going?”
What is the feedback you get in talking to the insurance carriers on the need to get these claims settled?
I’ve not spoken to CEOs of insurance companies. I’ve talked to agents, and they understand this is a problem.
Insurance Commissioner Dave Jones has been very helpful in this. Early on, he was urging insurance companies to pay on the contents claims quickly. Some did, and some didn’t.