California’s climate refugees

November 28, 2018

Nicole Colson reports on the crisis facing evacuees from California’s Camp Fire.

HUNDREDS OF people, left with nothing, wracked by illness and threatened with further displacement as they try to rebuild their lives.

This could easily describe the refugees from Central America who have traveled for weeks in the migrant caravan and are now — after facing violence and incredible hardship — attempting to find refuge in the U.S.

But it’s also a description of the hundreds of survivors of Northern California’s Camp Fire.

Of course, those displaced by the massive fire — the most destructive in the state’s history, which claimed at least 88 lives, with 203 still missing as this article was being written — are receiving aid and assistance, including from the U.S. government, while those in the migrant caravan are on the receiving end of volleys of tear gas.

Fire evacuees live in temporary shelters by a Walmart in Chico, California
Fire evacuees live in temporary shelters by a Walmart in Chico, California

Still, the poor handling of the evacuation and the lack of services for so many desperate people — in an area where a catastrophic fire, driven by drought and climate change, was not only possible, but predictable — is a stark reminder of the failings of the capitalist system, even in the fifth-largest economy in the world.

IN THE days following the outbreak of the fire, evacuees, many of them poor and working class, attempted in desperation to find housing in a region of California already hard hit by a housing crisis.

Butte County, where the now-incinerated city of Paradise was located, had already declared a crisis because of a lack of space in the county’s homeless shelters — and Chico, the biggest city in the county, followed suit in early October.

Butte County had a pre-fire housing vacancy rate of just 2 percent. With 13,500 homes destroyed in the fire, that rate has essentially fallen to zero — as every available home, apartment, hotel room, RV and other housing option has been exhausted, not just in and around the county, but far beyond.

All short-term housing options are overwhelmed, and officials have offered no timetable for when residents will be allowed back to their homes — for those lucky enough to have a home still standing.

Butte County housing authority official Ed Mayer told the Sacramento Bee soon after the fire that the county has the capacity to place 800 to 1,000 households in permanent housing — but that will barely scratch the surface of the 13,000 evacuees in Butte County who have formally applied for Federal Emergency Management Agency relief.

One man named Victor Marino told NBC News that he had been living in a tent behind a church in the nearby town of Oroville since the RV park in Magalia, where he lived and worked as a handyman and manager, had burned down.

Many others were doing the same. If they couldn’t find space in crowded temporary shelters in Oroville, Chico, Yuba City or elsewhere, some chose to shelter in their cars (if they still had them) or pitch tents in the parking lots of churches or even retailers like a Walmart store in Chico, despite temperatures dropping into the 40s at night.

“There’s this huge push to collect all these donations and supplies for the people who were evacuated and lost their homes, but we already had a large refugee community in Chico — around 1,500 to 2,000 people who live in public spaces,” Erik Apland, a Chico member of the Democratic Socialists of America (DSA), told Splinter News. “The people who were already homeless, they’re still in the same parks where they normally sleep, but it got way colder, and the air quality became horrible.”

Marino told NBC that FEMA informed him on November 21 that he would be given $847 for a month of housing assistance. With the vacancy rate at zero and reports of price-gouging in the already expensive housing market, that didn’t seem likely to cover the cost.

And to top it off, Marino, like many others in the heavily working-class communities that bore the brunt of the devastation, doesn’t have a bank account. So FEMA is sending the money to his mailing address — at the trailer park he had to flee. “I’m very grateful for the money they’re going to help me with, but I’m going to have to jump through hoops all over again,” he told NBC.

Now, without a home or a job to go back to, thousands of people like Marino are left to wonder where to turn for help.

DESPITE MILLIONS of dollars raised by the Red Cross and other charities, and despite the presence of FEMA, many survivors are struggling to get the resources they need for basic necessities, especially housing.

Ron Zimmer, pastor of Chico’s East Avenue Church, which is sheltering survivors, told NBC: “There are so many people in the same boat. The lines are so long, it takes most of a day just to register with FEMA, and nobody knows exactly what FEMA is supposed to do for them.”

FEMA is now telling survivors to look farther afield for housing in Sacramento and elsewhere, as the government agency struggles to bring in some pre-fab housing and trailers to the area.

But Sacramento is 90 miles away — and it has its own housing shortage. Many of those who are displaced also lost their vehicles, a basic necessity in these communities which are geographically spread out and typically lack decent public transit.

Still others are wary of FEMA trailers — remembering how those displaced by Hurricane Katrina were put in trailers containing toxic levels of formaldehyde that sickened some.

Without money, transportation or guaranteed housing, it’s no wonder that many victims would rather stay. Others are still looking for lost relatives and friends. And many simply are loathe to leave a place that is their home, regardless of whether they have a home to go back to.

For so many working-class and poor people already living on the precarious edge of the state’s housing crisis, this disaster will likely push them over the edge into homelessness.

It bears asking: Why is it that the U.S. government can deploy nearly 6,000 troops to the U.S.-Mexico border at a cost of some $200,000,000 to “protect” the country from desperate, impoverished migrants, but can’t find more to meet the immediate housing needs of thousands of people displaced by a natural disaster?

Both ends of this cruel contrast are a sickening symptom of a system in which profit is placed above human need.

“SICK” IS an appropriate word to use regarding the California climate refugees.

In some of the shelters, evacuees have been hit with an outbreak of norovirus. At least 120 people were taken to the hospital from shelters over several days earlier this month as the virus swept through the evacuee population.

That’s not to mention those made ill in the short term, and possibly long term, as a result of poor air quality in the area and beyond, down to the Bay Area, which spiked to levels the government classifies as “hazardous.”

While thousands of masks had been distributed by local governments in some cities, the demand far exceeded the supply in some instances, leaving vulnerable populations, especially the fire refugees and homeless not sleeping in indoor shelters, at greater risk.

And then there are those who were forced to stay — the region’s farmworkers.

In Southern California, as the Woolsey fire raged, displacing residents in Ventura and other areas, some 36,000 farmworkers largely remained and “worked outside picking strawberries and other produce amid the dangerous air from the wildfires. Many of those workers have limited access to proper protection or medical care,” reported NPR.

The farmworkers were trapped in a different way — forced to stay because their families depend on their meager income.

“Those agencies that are here to protect farmworkers, they need to go to the farm area to see and to talk to those workers,” Juvenal Solano, a former strawberry picker and community organizer with The Mixteco/Indígena Community Organizing Project, told NPR. “When something like the wildfires happen...those agencies are not there to see what the workers need.”

Days of rain helped firefighters to fully contain the Camp Fire as this article was being written. But in Butte County, they also brought fears of mudslides and flooding, and the knowledge that these would hamper efforts to recover the remains of the dead.

The rains also caused more misery for those sheltering in tents, leading city officials and Walmart to encourage people to leave the parking lot by offering free bus rides to shelters, along with gift cards and food. Yet some evacuees preferred sleeping in tents while exposed to the elements, rather than staying in overcrowded shelters where outbreaks of illness have been concentrated.

AMID ALL this, one experience from other not-so-natural disasters stands out: In contrast to the slow and inadequate response of government officials, ordinary people have stepped up, organizing shelters, collecting donations and distributing aid to those in need.

Brigitte Randall, a 28-year-old nurse, lost her home in Paradise, but she went on to organize medical care at the shelter at Chico’s East Avenue Church. “I got to be a nurse at the beginning,” she told Redding Record Searchlight. “But then, somehow, I got put in charge of everything. I don’t know how that happened.”

Before she, her sister and her mother — also nurses — arrived, there was no medical presence at the shelter. The Record Searchlight reported that when the Randalls:

looked to county and state officials to help, they found the responses frustratingly slow. So they took it upon themselves to start treating patients and recruiting other volunteers to tend to the sick, pregnant and elderly.

One week later, that model of leadership had trickled down throughout the church. Without outside direction, house cleaners came to clean, a motorcycle club came to provide security, and a group of strangers came to realize the community’s strength lay less in its institutions and more in its people.

With agencies like FEMA and charities like the Red Cross proving to be slow and ineffectual, despite their access to massive amounts of money and power, ordinary people and activists stepped into the void. DSA chapters in Chico, Sacramento and other cities were working together with groups like North Valley Mutual Aid — and thinking about the long-term implications of the fires, according to Sophie Weiner, writing at Splinter News:

This includes addressing California’s pre-existing housing crisis with strategies like a proposed rent strike, and organizing against the region’s dominant energy utility, PG&E. That last one could be especially important. PG&E’s downed line may have caused the fire, and it has been repeatedly protected from accountability by state government; even now, lawmakers are scrambling to bail it out and shield it from any potential liabilities it may incur as a result of the disaster.

The looming climate catastrophe guarantees that fires like the Camp Fire will happen again. That means our struggle must not only confront climate change, but find ways to demand aid for the victims — and make those at the top pay for the calamity they’ve caused and lives they’ve destroyed.

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