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Housing Crisis Concerns Grow As Camp Fire Continues To Burn

Nov 15, 2018
Originally published on November 16, 2018 11:15 am
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ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:

At least 56 people are confirmed to have died in the Camp Fire in Northern California. Tens of thousands of people have been displaced, and there's growing concern about where they will live long term. Many are now in official evacuation centers set up in fairgrounds and churches near the city of Chico. NPR's Eric Westervelt reports from an unofficial evacuation center located in a Walmart parking lot.

ERIC WESTERVELT, BYLINE: In the sprawling parking lot of Chico's Walmart there are hot meals, portable toilets and a growing makeshift tent village. Donations of clothes and food have poured in.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: Thank you, guys.

WESTERVELT: Brian Smith fled his home in Magalia near Paradise. He's been here ever since. He's sitting in a camping chair eating a warm lunch - turkey, mashed potatoes, stuffing and gravy.

BRIAN SMITH: The line of cars of people donating stuff is incredible. I just walked through the line a few minutes ago and thanked every one of them. I have seen more generosity in the last three days in this Walmart parking lot here in Chico, Calif., than I've seen in my entire 57 years of life.

WESTERVELT: Mike Berry is camped out here, too. He fled his trailer home in Paradise in an old unregistered tool truck in his yard he was using for storage. He had to outfit the vehicle with a working battery as the flames approached. The house painter spent the first few nights huddled under his painting tarps before arriving here and getting donations.

MIKE BERRY: It's very comfortable now that we have a sleeping bag and blankets. You know, you're welcome to go in.

WESTERVELT: Can I take a look?

BERRY: Yeah.

WESTERVELT: Like his new neighbor Berry, Brian Smith knows full well that sleeping in a Walmart parking lot is not a long-term solution. But right now he just doesn't see any other workable options.

SMITH: 'Cause no matter where you go, there's not enough room for 50,000 people at shelters. So anywhere you go, it's going to be the same thing - tents and people making donations and feeding you. Other than that, there's nothing more sustainable.

WESTERVELT: Some officials in Butte County share Smith's concern. Rebuilding for those insured and financially able will take years. More than 7,600 homes, fully 10 percent of Butte county's housing stock, got wiped out by the fire. And today there just aren't enough available apartments or homes for the displaced to move into.

ED MAYER: We really have no capacity to absorb a disaster like this.

WESTERVELT: That's Ed Mayer, executive director of Butte county's housing authority. The agency helps low- and moderate- income residents find affordable or subsidized housing. Mayer doesn't like to be the bearer of bad news, especially amid optimistic calls by Paradise's mayor and others to rebuild. But the fact is, he says, even before the fire there was a near-zero housing vacancy rate in the county, and the region was already reeling from a housing affordability and availability crisis. He predicts a tough slog finding permanent homes for thousands of fire victims.

MAYER: We have a displaced population that's vulnerable and low-income, and I don't know where they're going to go.

WESTERVELT: FEMA, the Federal Emergency Management Agency, is setting up shop here within days. They'll offer people relocation assistance and other support services. Mark Ghilarducci, director of California's Office of Emergency Services, says the state will work closely with FEMA on housing options, including maybe eventually getting people into interim housing.

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MARK GHILARDUCCI: The possibility of bringing in some sort of a travel trailer or some sort of a mobile home of some sort to be able to house folks - that takes a little bit more time. The first thing people need to do is register with FEMA.

WESTERVELT: And that will be for temporary help. Long term, Ed Mayer warns, there is no housing cavalry on its way.

MAYER: I don't see a scenario where we're going to be able to produce thousands of units of housing within a year or two in order to replace the housing that was lost. So we're looking at these households having to go elsewhere. And quite frankly, they're not going to find satisfaction in-state.

WESTERVELT: So you're saying thousands of displaced persons may have to leave the state.

MAYER: That's correct. It's not realistic to think that they're going to be resettled here in this community.

WESTERVELT: Back at the Walmart tent village, painter Mike Berry says his destroyed home was not protected. And like many staying here, Berry doesn't have much to fall back on.

BERRY: We had no insurance on the house 'cause it was just a trailer, and it was just too old. You know, we're going to be rebuilding with whatever - you know, whatever we can get now.

WESTERVELT: Berry says he may end up living out of his old tool truck for many weeks to come. Eric Westervelt, NPR News, Chico, Calif.

(SOUNDBITE OF RATATAT'S "EVEREST") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.