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What happens after the fire


I want to stay on that last point that we heard from Greg about the plans to rebuild those communities that were lost building back after a mega-fire is a huge undertaking, and it's one that Jennifer Gray Thompson has personal experience with. She's CEO of the nonprofit After the Fire USA. Jennifer survived the devastating North Bay fires that swept through California's Sonoma County in 2017. And since then, she's been working with communities impacted by wildfires all over the country. When I spoke with her earlier this week, she told me how the rebuilding process can vary from place to place.

JENNIFER GRAY THOMPSON: The standard playbook, you know, for some parts is the same. Like, every community is eligible for a lot of federal funding. But actually accessing that funding if you have low capacity, like a community of maybe 15,000 people - that county, they have a much harder time accessing the federal funds that they are eligible for. A place like Sonoma County is much wealthier. Our yearly budget is over $2 billion, and we have 500,000 people. We were pretty much rebuilt in under five years. In contrast, when you have some low-capacity areas but with a very passionate community, like Paradise, they'll be about 25% rebuilt in five years. And it's not because we are smarter than them at all - a wonderful community. It's because of access to funding. And then also, what really plays into it is the land value piece as well.

HUANG: So who is in charge of organizing and actually doing the rebuilding? Whose job is that?

GRAY THOMPSON: So it's always the community. Every single rebuild has to begin with the community and FEMA and all these federal agencies and the VOAD. They really try to get people sort of going and, you know, provide some immediate services. And then communities turn around in a couple of months, and they're basically in this by themselves with just the federal government and perhaps some philanthropy in order to do long-term recovery. Long-term recovery in mega fires is very - in all disasters, actually, is very, very limited. It's not a place where people are going, you know, three years later to donate. Most of the money for recovery comes in in the first 6 to 8 weeks. A lot of that will determine how the local economy and recovery will go from there. You know, the center of it is always the community affected.

HUANG: So explain that for me one more time. So it sounds like you're saying that the - there's a flood of money that comes in from the federal government, from donors, from people who are aware of the wildfire or the natural disaster situation. And that all comes in in the first two months, and then that's the pot of money that communities usually try to rebuild with.

GRAY THOMPSON: Yes. The vast majority of the money comes in in the first two months. A place like Maui, where people have, you know, a memory there and attachment to it, those places do get far more donations. And so in some ways, they are much better set up for their recovery. But it really depends on how those are deployed. Other places I've seen, like in Hurricane Michael in Panama City, they only got about a million dollars in donations. So we see huge variations. We expect Maui to probably be in the 2 to $300 million of philanthropic dollars on the ground.

HUANG: And that's money that people who see the wildfires are donating to the cause. It's separate from money from the federal government, for instance, or private insurance money.

GRAY THOMPSON: Exactly. It's very separate. You know, it's really a huge concern of ours. When we see this fire, especially in Maui, one of the things you run into is when you have multigenerational housing, some of it with no mortgages attached, we often also see no insurance, especially because so many of those neighborhoods, even though the land value is very high, the population was a lot of working-class people. So we are very concerned about what was their level of insurance.

But we are heartened by the amount of donations that have been coming in to the local community. It's very important that we donate locally because that will determine who controls the money. Moving forward, will also help in the recovery. It's good to donate to some national organizations. I'm not discounting them, but it's really important that we prioritize the community so that they have control as they are the ones to actually do the heavy lift of community recovery.

HUANG: So when you look at Lahaina today, how long do you think it might realistically take for people to start living there again?

GRAY THOMPSON: I think you'll see some people living there again in about. At 14 months. I think that the debris removal process - which is very intensive, but now there's a lot more practice at it - will take about 7 to 8 months. Once that is done, then you'll start to see some people, you know, coming back, either in trailers. It depends on certain things that happen. In a mega-fire, a lot of times, the infrastructure under the earth is damaged, including the water system. So we have to see how that plays out as well.

I do expect to see quite a bit of rebuilding between year two and year three. I would predict pretty safely that Maui will be rebuilt, including the business area, in about five years, six years at most because of the high land values, the community cohesion, the amount of donations that will be offered, that are already coming in and the love for the community from everybody, including the entire state of Hawaii and how they're all leaning in.

HUANG: Given that, you know, you said your earliest thinking of someone returning to live in Lahaina would be 14 months - I mean, over a year is a long time to be without a home. Do you find that many people just leave the community altogether instead of staying to rebuild?

GRAY THOMPSON: Sometimes, people are just too traumatized, and they just can't. They can't live in the same place. They can't go through that on any level ever again. But most of the community does lean in to rebuild. I am heartened at all of the donations going in locally. I'm hoping that some of those are deployed to really help people who lived there before rebuild back. But not only that - really importantly, they need to think about, how are they going to rebuild back not the same way that they burned down, which means climate-resilient housing? That's a point of equity. It tends to cost a little bit more on the front side. But they can rebuild back their housing stock for the next 100 years by using existing materials and technology.

HUANG: Jennifer, based on what you've seen with other communities that rebuild, what does a rebuilt community look like? Does it resemble the community that was there before? Does it look drastically different?

GRAY THOMPSON: So one of the hardest things we have to tell communities is that the day before the fire is gone. What everything looked like is gone. And your internal life, what it looked like is gone. That's what we're called After the Fire - because when people talk about it, they put everything in terms of before the fire and after the fire. It will not look the same. Will the heart be the same? Yes, probably even stronger, the collective heart of the community. The one thing we see in every single mega fire, no matter if it's a frontier suburban community, rural community - does not matter - is what people want to get back is their connection to each other.

HUANG: That's Jennifer Gray Thompson, the CEO of After the Fire USA. Jennifer, thanks for speaking with us.

GRAY THOMPSON: Thank you so much for having me. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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