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There’s not enough money to rebuild from the Marshall Fire

The remains of a car in a neighborhood in Superior a few days after the Marshall Fire that started on December 30, 2021.
Alexis Kenyon
The remains of a car in a neighborhood in Superior a few days after the Marshall Fire that started on December 30, 2021.

In the aftermath of the Marshall Fire, an outpouring of donations flooded to victims who lost everything to the largest wildfire in Colorado history.

The Community Foundation, a Boulder nonprofit, took up the reins for collecting these donations which amounted to about $43 million.

It is more than many communities get after a natural disaster, but only about 2 percent of the Marshall Fire’s destruction.

Alexis Kenyon spoke with Boulder Reporting Lab’s Tim Drugan about his recent investigation into how the Community Foundation decided to distribute the funding.

Alexis Kenyon:  So you started your article with stories from two women, both who lost their homes in the Marshall Fire , one is getting funding from the Boulder Community Foundation to rebuild and the other is not.

So for listeners who haven't read your article, tell us about these stories and why you wanted to start there.

Tim Drugan: I think that those two stories are a good indication of the backbone of this issue.

There are some people that have gotten an immense amount of help from the Community Foundation in their rebuilding efforts, but then there's another subset of people unable or unwilling to build where their homes burned.

In Susan Windisch's case, she bought the house a long time ago, I don't think they had updated the insurance for many years, and so the house had gained value and the amount that their insurance was going to cover had remained the same.

So when it came to rebuilding, there would've been a large gap between what insurance covered and what it would've cost to get their home back up.

But as you said, I think one struggle that the Community Foundation has faced, or one challenge that has been brought by community members who are frustrated, is there are not enough funds, even with the $43 million that they raised, and so there are hard choices that they've had to make.

And one of those hard choices is setting aside a huge portion to help those who are rebuilding on their original lots, and that leaves out people that are not rebuilding.

Alexis Kenyon: So in your reporting, you look at how the scarcity makes seemingly innocuous recovery efforts substantially more complicated, especially when it comes to equity.

Tell us more about that.

Tim Drugan: Yeah, I think that responding to disasters always has equity implications.

So disasters have a tendency to make poor people poorer, because if you're living that close to the edge already, you really need more money.

And I think that the Community Foundation has tried to address that, but when you're looking at people who are rebuilding getting a much larger chunk of money, there are some inequities there that I think are difficult for some people to swallow, especially when they're struggling to make ends meet.

And they're thinking "I have this medical bill that isn't related to the fire but I lost all this in the fire and these people who are rebuilding are getting a chunk of change that would be very helpful to me and I don't have access to that."

So I think that it's, yeah, I think it's a very difficult situation for those trying to administer the funds and those receiving the funds.

I don't envy anybody involved on either side.

Alexis Kenyon: I mean, you report that people are upset, and they're upset that some people are getting lots of money to rebuild their homes while others are still homeless.

There's a number of BVSD students who are still homeless after losing their homes to the Marshall Fire and others are struggling to buy food or pay medical bills.

And I wonder, do you think the Community Foundation should have done things or could have done things differently, and do you think they hold any responsibility for these ongoing inequities?

Tim Drugan: This story would've been a lot easier and maybe more fun to write if there was an evil group, if there was an enemy, if there was a bad guy.

But in my reporting, there aren't any conniving men twirling their moustaches behind the scenes.

It's just a situation of people who are managing the funds that were provided by the community, I think are doing the best that they can.

And I spoke to Sally Ray from the Center for Disaster Philanthropy, and she was complimentary in a lot of respects for how the Community Foundation (responded.)

Sally Ray did say was that it's important to make sure you're connected to the community before disasters hit, and in Boulder, she seemed to suggest that maybe working more with nonprofits that are connected to vulnerable populations and ensuring that those relationships are there beforehand.

Maybe that's one piece that could have been done differently, but again it returns to this issue of, what do you do when you have not sufficient funds to respond to this sort of disaster?

And obviously helping children get a stable place to live should be a top priority.

And I don't know why that's the case, and everybody is hurting.

There are renters that are hurting.

At a recent town hall, there was a woman who was almost crying, basically saying that, you know, she and her husband are both retired.

They thought they were gonna be in their house that burned for the rest of their lives, and now they're trying to figure out how on earth they're gonna rebuild without the money to rebuild.

And so to them that feels like the end of the world to a renter who loses everything.

Yeah. It's a heartbreaking situation.

And the thing that scares me looking forward if we're going to be seeing more of these disasters, is Boulder County is a very wealthy community, and if you have a higher concentration of wealth, and the community is outpouring that wealth to help their neighbors, you're going to have a greater chance of bouncing back.

But if a wildfire rips into a less affluent community, I think there's a future that we're at a real risk of seeing communities wiped away because there's just not going to be money to respond and if these disasters become more frequent there's a real risk of humanity falling into a scarcity mindset of "we're going to look out for our community and everybody else should do the same."

So what happens when somewhere that isn't as affluent as Boulder gets hit?

I don't know. I have a pretty good guess, but it's pretty depressing to think about.

Alexis Kenyon: Is there anything else that you want to add that I didn't ask you about?

Tim Drugan: I think the takeaway that I had from a lot of conversations with people in charge of these funds was the best thing that we can do to get ahead of disasters is invest in community first.

So it's kind of like when you are looking at wildfire preparation, it's much more cost efficient to do mitigation beforehand.

It's more cost efficient to put your money into forest thinning projects and into prescribed burning, even though it's an upfront cost and it might be more difficult to stomach because there's not a fire burning right now and why are we spending this money?

But in the long haul, that sort of preparation is going to prevent a catastrophic fire.

I think the same is true for community relationships and building trust and investing in nonprofit organizations that are investing in communities now, being aware of inequities in our communities now, especially in Boulder, where we are highly at risk for floods, we're at high risk for wildfire, we are going to have more disasters.

So when disasters do strike, we have a pulse on who's in need, who's vulnerable, because we don't want to be in a situation where certain community members are forced out by these disasters and only the affluent are left.

Especially in Boulder, where we are highly at risk for floods, we're at high risk for wildfire.

We are going to have more disasters, and the question is not whether we're going to be able to stop those, but how we're going to respond to them in the future that brings everybody closer to a greater wellbeing.

Alexis Kenyon: Tim, thank you so much for talking with me and for your reporting. I appreciate it.

Tim Drugan: Thank you so much for having me. It's been great.

This story was shared via Rocky Mountain Community Radio, a network of public media stations in Colorado, Wyoming, Utah and New Mexico including Aspen Public Radio.

Alexis Kenyon is a news reporter at KGNU radio in Boulder.