On Wednesday, crowds of displaced California residents arrived at the Merced Disaster Recovery Center, located on the Merced County fairgrounds. Rick Martinez, the executive director of the California Fire Foundation, was there to welcome them and offer immediate relief. He watched as a long line formed.
“When the dust settles, the wind stops blowing, waters recede, fires quit burning, communities in crisis look a lot alike,” Martinez said.
The series of atmospheric river storms that pelted California and caused flooding and mudslides in recent weeks has led to at least 20 related deaths and damages are expected to exceed $1 billion. President Joe Biden authorized California’s disaster declaration on Jan. 14, activating federal authorities like the Federal Emergency Management Agency to assist the response and recovery efforts.
Last week, the Internal Revenue Service announced the postponement of certain tax filing and payment deadlines for those who live or operate a business in a disaster area. And the U.S. Department of Agriculture is offering disaster assistance programs to aid California farmers dealing with crop, land, infrastructure and livestock losses.
Local, state and national organizations are also on the ground to support Californians coping with the aftermath in real time.
Martinez’s nonprofit, which is aimed at supporting the families of fallen firefighters, among others, has pledged $1 million from their disaster relief fund to help residents combat the effects of the winter storms. “If that doesn’t hit the mark, we will continue to look for funding to provide more support,” said Martinez, a retired fire service member of 35 years from the Sacramento area.
Their Supplying Aid to Victims of Emergency, or SAVE, program shares immediate relief aid with survivors of natural disasters, such as evacuees from the Central Valley, which frequently faces flooding year-round. SAVE gives out a $250 gift card per family to purchase necessities such as food, clothing, gas, medicine or a short hotel stay. Currently, 114 fire departments are outfitted with SAVE cards, which are on their trucks to dispense while responding in the field.
“While we recognize that $250 is not going to rebuild their lives, it’s a staple for them to get started,” said Martinez, adding that they had heard from several victims who had lost everything right before school restarted after the winter holidays. “They’re grateful to have the opportunity to get some clothes.”
“The people in this line have been in this situation for weeks now, not hours or days,” Martinez said. “They are not close to the light at the end of the tunnel yet, so I think it’s incumbent upon all of us to do what we can to support them.”
“Handling a widespread storm-flood is sort of new for my region,” said Stephen Walsh, who serves as communications director for California’s Gold Country region at the American Red Cross. “Our primary response is wildfires and home fires, so this is unusual.”
More than 600 trained Red Cross disaster volunteers are scattered across the state, conducting damage assessments and providing evacuees with emergency totes containing shovels, tarps and gloves to help with cleanup, especially at flooded residences.
“They will go neighborhood by neighborhood and help identify homes that are partially damaged [or] a complete loss,” Walsh said, “so we can hopefully help the homeowner gain access to financial assistance based on the status of their home.”
“It’s really forced us to go back and look at our disaster preparation to ensure that we’re able to respond to communities that might be cut off by a storm,” said Erik Talkin, CEO of Foodbank of Santa Barbara County.
According to his organization, three households living in Los Padres National Forest have been unable to evacuate because roads are washed out, prompting the local food bank to coordinate helicopter drops earlier this week.
The food bank also aided twelve families in the small, Central Coast city of Guadalupe who lost their homes after a levee broke, according to Judith Smith-Meyer at the Foodbank of Santa Barbara County.
While the need at the food bank hasn’t been overwhelming yet, Smith-Meyer said their organization has tended to see sudden spikes a week or so after natural disasters occur. In Santa Barbara County, well-known for being home to film and TV stars and other celebrities, wealth inequality is a major issue. For landscape, agriculture, construction and tourism workers, natural disasters may cause prolonged loss of wages and unemployment until the conditions subside and recovery efforts are complete.
“Indeed, there are plenty of billionaires here, but there’s a lot of pockets of significant poverty in the county,” Talkin said. “We really have to look at ways of addressing long-term damages.”
Sarah True, CEO of the Community Foundation Santa Cruz County, oversees a disaster fund designed to address wage loss, among other short and long-term services. She said her foundation has allocated at least $300,000 to send to strategic local partners, which can redirect assistance for those who are missing paychecks or facing housing insecurity.
“Agricultural workers are displaced from work because the fields are all flooded. Real people are losing wages and jobs,” True said. “We want to make sure that people who have lost their jobs get immediate assistance for wage replacement while they wait for employment.”
In Santa Barbara County, Thomas Tighe, the CEO of Direct Relief, one of the world’s largest nonprofit donors of medications and health supplies, said he is thankful that the latest natural disaster to hit California hasn’t strained medical resources.
Instead, his organization has been able to shift its priorities, including financing the purchase of a $350,000 high-water rescue vehicle, which will serve in the Santa Barbara, San Luis Obispo and Ventura tri-county area, as well as directly funding local cleanup and recovery operations, including the Santa Barbara Bucket Brigade. A group of community members, the brigade initially mobilized in 2018 to clear debris from the Montecito mudslides that killed 23 residents.
The storms brought back personal memories for Tighe, who lost his Montecito home in the mudslides. Now, exactly five years later, the region and its residents are facing life-disrupting disaster again. To him, it’s another signal that climate change is here. “We have some kind of real-world examples of what those extremes of climate change mean for us,” Tighe said.
Here are some ways to help
How to avoid charity scams
- Determine whether the organization, nonprofit or group has a proven track record of delivering aid to those in need.
- Identify local initiatives and efforts that are based in the areas most affected by the natural disaster.
- Beware of phone calls and emails soliciting donations.
- Avoid unfamiliar agencies and websites. There is a history of scammers creating websites that look like donation pages after major tragedies.
Visit our sponsors
Wise (formerly TransferWise) is the cheaper, easier way to send money abroad. It helps people move money quickly and easily between bank accounts in different countries. Convert 60+ currencies with ridiculously low fees - on average 7x cheaper than a bank. No hidden fees, no markup on the exchange rate, ever.