Where is all the help long after the charities are gone?

Over the summer, California was devastated by one of the worst fires in the state’s modern history: The Valley Fire, which consumed tens of thousands of acres and swept through over 1,000 structures, including hundreds of homes. Much of the damage took place in Lake County, an extremely poor region of the state—nearly 25 percent of the population lives at or below the poverty level, and many people are renters, rather than owners. Disturbingly, the fire didn’t seem to capture much media attention outside of California, but it was horrific, and in the state, it was the primary topic of conversation as it exploded within just a few hours in bone dry conditions even as firefighters tried to stop it and communities fled.

In the immediate aftermath of the fire, charitable donations poured in, with some people driving across state lines to volunteer and bring supplies for fire survivors. People flooded sites like the Calistoga Fairgrounds with support for fire evacuees who had lost everything except what they could cram into their vehicles, and charities were on hand with a variety of supplies and services to help people reestablish themselves after the fire. As firefighters got the situation contained, people were allowed back into their neighbourhoods to see what was left, and to begin assessing what they needed to do to rebuild.

Communities like my own raised proposals for mutual aid, banks collected funds in earmarked accounts, restaurants and retail establishments held benefit shopping and dining days, and surrounding communities generally agreed to pitch in and do their part. In the face of the horrific damage, it was hard to imagine not doing something—and charity was an easy and direct way to get people money and goods (though, as always, money is far superior to in-kind donations unless they are specifically requested).

But then a few weeks went by. The fire faded from the news. The flames had stopped, the news crews moved on, there were new things to cover—new disasters and scandals and events. It also drifted from the public mind, even in the case of people who had been firmly committed to charitable assistance and support during the worst days of the fire’s spread—when, it’s true, an influx of support was definitely needed to get over the initial hump of getting out a push of evacuee services, because you cannot build shelters from nothing or feed people without any food.

However, there’s a group of people for whom the fire was still a painful reality: The people rebuilding. The property owners negotiating with insurance companies to get funds so they could clear damaged structures and build new ones, dealing with contractors and related companies backed up with fire damage and new home construction. The renters trying to find out what their renters’ insurance—if they had any, and if you don’t, you should get some—would cover, and how to claim those funds, and also, more pressingly, what to do now that they had no place to live and the housing market was crunched with property owners seeking temporary housing, other renters in need, and many units taken off the market because they’d been destroyed in the fast-moving fire. The people who lost their jobs during or because of the fire.

Some people were forced to relocate permanently, leaving their lives and everything they knew behind, sometimes finding shelter with family members and sometimes striking out on their own in new communities. Others tried to stick it out long after the news crews left and the charitable organisations moved on, trying to support each other within their communities. The Valley Fire recovery mimicked what happened after so many disasters, like Katrina, which led to a dramatic drop in the population of New Orleans even after the floodwaters receded and the city began to rebuild. Like Sandy, where many residents never returned after the storm because there was nothing to return to and they didn’t have what they needed to rebuild lives in their communities.

Organisations like the Red Cross are often flooded with donations and support right after disasters—as for example after the 11 September attacks, when the organisation had to throw out an unspeakable amount of blood because there were too many donors and it didn’t turn people away. But those donations start to trickle up and vanish afterwards, even while those agencies are continuing to work both in the communities that sparked the donations and in other areas.

This is one reason the charity model really doesn’t work. People recovering from disasters need to have support throughout a period that may last for months or years as they rebuild infrastructure and their communities—the town of Middleton, for example, was ravaged by the fire and would need help not with rebuilding a couple of homes, but with renovating extensively and restoring public services, right down to utilities. Getting an influx of support can jumpstart that, but doesn’t help in the long term if it’s not backed up with continuing services.

Eventually the donations dry up, and even the charities leave, satisfied with the notion that they’ve done as much as they can. For some residents, it’s true: They’ve managed to recover enough to handle things on their own. For others, though, it’s not, and they’re left facing a mountain of work with no realistic way of conquering it.

By all means, support communities devastated by disasters. But don’t think that there’s a time limit on the need for support, and that these communities are fully functional and back to normal three months later.

Image: Valley Fire Damage, Matthew Keys, Flickr