Meet a champion for recovery of North Bay homes, jobs, community after the fires
October's wildfire fires did not take Jennifer Gray Thompson's home, nor did it cause her to “run for my life barefoot on fire-covered roads.” But it altered her life, she says.
Working for Sonoma County Supervisor Susan Gorin (who did lose her home) at the time, Thompson said, “I learned I could work for 18 hours, sleep for four hours, and be with my family for two hours - and do this for nine days straight without cracking wide open.”
Her role now is to be deeply embedded in the recovery of the area from the fires. She is executive director of the Rebuild Northbay Foundation. She calls the group, the “Third Responder, meaning we are designed to be most active six months to 10 years post-disaster.”
Its role is to “rebuild better, safer, greener, faster.” It is founded by Darius Anderson, CEO of Kenwood Investments and managing partner in Sonoma Media Investments, which owns the Index-Tribune, the Argus Courier, Press Democrat and the North Bay Business Journal. The organization has an honorary board of directors, led by Congressman Mike Thompson, supported by Lt. Gov. Gavin Newsom, Rep. Jared Huffman, and with invitations to elected officials from four county region to join.
It is not only in the process of creating an advisory board with representative leaders from several sectors, across the region but a website called “Rebuild Northbay Connect.” Envisioned as a resource for the rebuilding efforts. it could be a mechanism to survey and gather data about the rebuild or pool resources to get discounts on rebuilding supplies, she suggests.
“We want to begin always with the question that was so effective during the actual fires: ‘What do you need and how can we help?' when approaching the rebuild.”
North Bay Business Journal asked Thompson about the organization's role in coordinating the rebuild.
Many people might think that the task is only to rebuild the lost homes and businesses. Are they correct?
THOMPSON: They are not wrong, but not quite correct either. There has to be vision here. We had issues with housing stock, both rental and ownership, prior to the fires. We had issues with people leaving the area because it is so expensive and yet other areas, like Lake County, have challenges with maintaining skilled populations due to stalled economic development compounded by fire events over the past few years.
The task is actually to not only address the immediate rebuild but also address our preexisting conditions. And to do so in a way that allows us to restore our region, but more importantly, to leap ahead into a new regional reality where we've taken a tragic event and turned it into a revolution of spirit and resilient community design.
We need to think about the interim period between rebuilding and rebuilt. What do we want our region to look like in 10 years? How will we support our business owners and our workforce? How will our housing stock be regarded?
We have the opportunity to ascend to a model for post-disaster rebuild and re-envisioning; we have the threat of being a cautionary tale. At Rebuild Northbay Foundation, we are committed to not only being a model, but also then to share our experience and lessons with other communities affected by disasters and hopefully, enable them to address the challenges with greater success.
I know we have benefited here from the extensive education provided by other disaster communities as well as organizations dedicated to studying disaster management and providing philanthropy. We realize these are lofty goals, but we know this place, these people, are worth it. And we learned from others, like in Joplin, Missouri, that lofty goals produce amazing results.
How would you describe the rebuilding effort so far?
THOMPSON: For many who lost homes and businesses, it has been frustrating, emotional, and overwhelming. In truth, we are at the beginning and not all of the lots have been cleared, many have chosen to walk away and not rebuild. One thing to always bear in mind is these people did not set out to become homebuilders and again, many have traumatic experiences to heal from concurrently.
However, there has been a lot to recommend thus far. Builders are attending meetings to share concerns and resources, to ask questions of elected and public officials. I believe the public sector is listening to the concerns and adapting by changing policies, reducing fees, and increasing capacity wherever possible.
The 90 percent reimbursement from the federal government is a huge step forward in our recovery process as it will allow local and state entities to better address the rebuild needs without having to underwrite massive costs and face revenue shortfalls due to decreased tax base at the same time.