When you lose everything, you’re on your own

From all accounts, it appears that there are people working for FEMA and the Department of Homeland Security who still cash government paychecks, which is a scandal waiting to happen in the wake of the deadly California wildfires that have burned entire cities to the ground leaving people homeless with nowhere to go.

It’s the sort of thing for which the Federal Emergency Management Agency was created, although it’s not the most nimble federal agency, even by federal agency standards.

That’s why a FEMA spokesman’s response to the question of what he’d tell people who are sleeping in a Walmart parking lot rings so hollow.

“I would tell them that our heart goes out to them,” FEMA External Affairs Officer Brad Pierce tells a local TV station.

Now, authorities are planning to roust the former homeowners from the parking lot in Chico, Calif., where about 100 of them have set up camp, trying to figure out what to do now that they’ve lost everything.

“They’re taking everything on Sunday — the bathrooms, the lights, everything. I don’t know what we are going to do,” Carol Whiteburn, one of the evacuees said.

The Red Cross has told organizers of the camp to shut everything down.

FEMA’s office in the area isn’t even set up yet.

The Red Cross says the homeless can go to shelters it’s set up, but there are norovirus outbreaks in four of them and things are getting worse inside them.

So while the camp has stopped accepting donations and told everyone their deadline, what happens to the evacuees in the camp is a looming uncertainty.

“We have weather coming. It’s going to rain. What happens when it rains on all this stuff, or the flood zone where these people — their tents are camped out over here?” asked Balsamo. “We’re going to have a major crisis on our hands for the community here of Chico if these people have to go hit the streets.”

There are people who are in their 80s in the camp sleeping in their cars. A woman with a three-year-old and a three-week-old was sleeping in a tent in the cold.

“I’m so confused,” newly homeless Daniel Hansen tells the Sacramento Bee. “I don’t know what to do. I don’t know where to go.”

Volunteers have been showing up at the camp on their own, bringing sleeping bags and food. It’s better than nothing.

“I think the people need someone to listen, someone to talk to about what they’ve been through. They need emotional support. And they could use help from services like FEMA,” Mary Cerullo, who has been delivering food, tells the San Jose Mercury News.

As of this morning, 63 are dead in the fire; more than 600 are missing.

Related: St. Paul encampment closed, some decide to avoid the newly opened winter shelter (MPR News)

  • Brian Simon

    You’d think FEMA would have a plan in place, given that these fires are happening on a pretty regular basis. After the katrina debacle, don’t they have housing units & other supplies staged out East, ready to be moved to where they’re needed on relatively short notice? Perhaps it will take a tragedy like this to get such a system in place out west too.

    • Rob

      In an empire that’s not in decline – and in which life isn’t cheap – your observations and questions would be eminently reasonable.

    • There has never been an administration so incompetent and incapable of managing as the current one. Understaffed and bereft of competent leadership, federal staff at the operational level must be pretty discouraged. With all of the restructuring of incident command systems and communication following 9/11, you might think that the United States is well-prepared to deal with such emergencies. It isn’t. We aren’t. And even more worrying, the emergence of homeless camps across the country lifts the veil on an attitude of acceptance of what we have become – a nation in decline.

      • The Resistance

        I’m trying to get people to stop calling them homeless camps and start calling them Trumpvilles. It’s not catching on.

        • Brian Simon

          Wait until the bear market.

        • Rob

          I’m almost with ya – Trumptowns is catchier.

          • jon

            I like the alliteration.
            Trump Tower Tent Towns.


          • Fan of alliteration here too, but that’s just too much of a mouthful.

          • I was thinking “Trumpvilles”, but “Trumptowns” works too.

      • jon

        This is now the legacy of the GOP.

        A generation has grown up with respectable response to disasters under democratic presidents (they are still disasters, make no mistake, but it’s not fouled up by the response) and little to no actual response and management under republicans (Bush bungled katrina, Trump bungled puerto rico, and now CA, and arguable bush bungled post 9/11 efforts for first responders)

        I wonder if there is a viable strategy to shift some more disaster prone areas (tornado alley, gulf and southern east coast) to blue on the map by campaigning on this.

        • kevins

          Notice that so few people revert to the “It’s God’s Will (because the sinners deserve what befalls them)” rationalization during Republican Administrations. The religious right has to put up with a chronic liar and adulterer, and can’t find a convenient excuse to limit relief funds because the bad things are happening on their guy’s watch.

          • jon

            I rarely hear “It’s God’s Will (because the sinners deserve what befalls them)”

            What I hear is “God is punishing the US for gays by sending hurricanes to the bible belt!”
            Because god while omnipotent and all knowing, can’t manage to hit a target the size of California and frequently ends up hitting the “true believers” instead…
            It’s like the story of Sodom and Gomorrah, where god sent angels to find righteous folks in Sodom and finding only one (with out looking particularly hard) he destroyed the city of Gomorrah… which was actually an evangelical stronghold at the time. Of course the biblical retelling covers for gods bad aim suggesting that the two cities were basically the same, and that he eventually got Sodom as well…

    • The Resistance

      Or maybe it’ll take a tragedy like Puerto Rico? We don’t live in a country that learns from lessons. We’re double downers.

      One of the problems with an administration that is constantly throwing out shiny objects of chaos for us to marvel over is that while we were all slack jawed over Melania’s pith helmet, policy happens. In this case, $10 million was taken from FEMA’s budget to fund ICE.

      No one noticed. No one cared. No one wrote their congressperson. We did this.

      • QuietBlue

        Puerto Rico? Why would people care about what happens in another country? (/s)

  • Jim in RF

    Large organizations can have issues. My previous employer was a 40-50 person market research company, where everyone was in charge of client retention and fixing coffee machines and controlling costs. There was no place for a low performer to hide. I now work for one of the biggest banks in the history of the universe and see how bureaucracies can work against themselves if not managed well.

    Also, completely unrelated, the Strib uses this week to take its comment system down for rehab and SOUHAN WRITES SOMETHING I AGREE WITH and I can’t demonstrate it in my one comment per month manner. Of course with how he seems to go with however the wind is blowing he’ll probably write the opposite on Sunday. Let’s hope they troll-proof it.

  • The Resistance

    In a unrelated story, government was recently found drowned in a bathtub.

    Foul play is suspected.

  • NG

    Honest to goodness American Refugees. Has anyone contacted refugee resettlement agencies yet. I’m not opposed to resettling refugees from other parts of the world, and that apparatus can be used for the internally displaced environmental refugees the US has.

    • king harvest

      If you call them refugees, someone will just build a wall to keep them out (in?).

    • Sybil Twilight

      I would imagine most of them don’t want to be resettled into another part of the country, or maybe even elsewhere in California. They have jobs, schools and families in the area and simply want to rebuild.

      • NG

        Definitely a possibility. But, you also have people saying “I have nothing left.” The whole town burnt down. There might be a school, but no homes and no way to provide homes, short of a refugee camp where the town once stood.
        There are people without insurance. And, even for those with insurance, it will take time to rebuild. There are, some what less than (I think), 27000 people who have suddenly become homeless.

        These aren’t the chronically homeless like in the St. Paul encampment. So, a different situation. Given not very much time, these people who have lost EVERYTHING, can become the chronically homeless.

      • NG

        A couple other thoughts… So, let’s say people don’t want to leave. You have a population that may work together and do something great, or possible digress in to anarchy. Worse case scenario: someone turns it in to a “Reality” TV show about recovering a town.

        • This is what I’ve been thinking about in the back of my mind on this, too. Civil disorder is what happens in things like this and I think the time between that occurring and the point where people lose everything is measured in days.

  • QuietBlue

    I can definitely see the California secession movement exploiting this. And TBH, they would have a point.

  • Laurie K.

    Walmart has an opportunity here to be the hero – I would think that all they would have to do is say that everyone is welcome to stay in their parking lot. It would definitely change my opinion of the franchise if they did.

    • king harvest

      Unfortunately, if the city wants the tents gone, they are going away. Walmart really doesn’t have a choice.

      • Laurie K.

        From the story above – it is not the city shutting it down – “[t]he Red Cross has told organizers of the camp to shut everything down.”

        • king harvest

          Does the Red Cross actually have that power? It must involve a civil authority, imo.

          • Laurie K.

            I imagine that they don’t actually have the power to physically remove people, but they do have power over whether they provide any resources to the people camping there.

          • king harvest

            That makes sense. Thus the removal of bathrooms and lighting.

  • king harvest

    Tent living is hard living, especially if you are new to it. Unfortunately, many will get used to it.