“In the end, only the community can rebuild itself,” Hank Blackwell said to me last Saturday. He should know. He’s worked in disaster recovery in many places, in many ways.
Hank was a provider on Saturday, Feb. 25, at the Community Wildfire Recovery, Planning and Mitigation Fair held at Luna Community College. We struck up a conversation, both discussing past experiences we had in fire fighting and search and rescue. He had added a depth of knowledge to the discussion because of widespread experience working with various organizations over the years in disaster response. I listened and was gratified to hear reinforcement of something I was already growing to believe for myself.
Folks, for the most part, we’re on our own to decide the destiny of our battered and burned communities. We’ll determine our own future. Like a paramedic or even doctors, outside help can stop the bleeding and treat the wounds, but we have to find the determination, courage, and strength to heal.
I’m not saying that we shouldn’t stand for ourselves to obtain assistance both public and nonprofit. Like victims of a horrific accident or event, in those dire moments anyone needs the help of agencies designed to respond, those with people experienced and trained in how to deal with circumstances we hope never to see. We do need to stand up for ourselves to ensure we get that help, just as a patient can demand attention from a negligent doctor.
For example, FEMA has already lost the trust of so many. I’ve heard multiple horror stories, and I hope in future editorials that some will give me permission to share those stories. I do know that I can speak for myself. Both personally and in groups where I have been asked to participate, I have witnessed an attitude of active obstinance. Instead of seeking ways in which to help individuals and families, I’ve seen FEMA actively look for excuses not to help. There will be more to come on that, especially as they finally release revised guidelines for administration of funds allocated by the Legislature. These funds are dedicated to “make whole” the people and communities devastated by fires admittedly caused by incompetence on the part of National Forestry. FEMA is accountable to us in administering those funds. Hopefully, attitudes will improve and struggling people will finally get long overdue “first aid” from the devastation caused by totally avoidable fires.
I could, and actual will in due time, address the many ways I’ve seen our people and communities failed by a disaster response system severely broken at almost every level. There are exceptions—also to be addressed at a later date—of the effective and heroic efforts of those who “stepped up to the plate” to do what was needed when it was needed.
Today, I want to throw out a few rich seeds of hope. Hank was right. In the end, only the community can rebuild itself. I see that it has already started. One need only look at the history of this area to know the resiliency of its people. The series of Community Wildfire Recovery, Planning and Mitigation Fairs held recently are a fine example. Local people, largely coordinated by leaders in environmental and forestry programs, coordinated those events. The fairs helped fire and flood victims learn of resources as they deal with present needs and look to the future for opportunities to build and recover. For example, I see real possibilities from the demonstration on a portable kiln system that can convert burned or partially burned trees into a carbon material that, when combined with soil nutrients, can expedite regeneration of fire damaged soil.
Local people stepped up to the plate from day one when fires first overran populated areas. I volunteered at the shelter in the middle school the first few days, and I saw how locals dug deep to give the items needed by those now homeless. I saw locals who stepped into chaos and created order in organizing those materials, an effort that would eventually evolve into Neighbors Helping Neighbors, a program which, in my opinion, has done and continues to do more for fire and flood victims than any other individual program. I’m proud to know Janna Lopez and Bob DeVries who head that effort.
For the past few years, I’ve been working with Collaborative Visions in Mora, an organization which identifies needs and opportunities in the community and either initiates or helps facilitate efforts to address those needs and opportunities. I have been pleased to participate in a series of coordination and planning efforts aided by Collaborative Visions and facilitated by the Rural Community Assistance Corporation (RCAC). Yes, the efforts build on earlier planning, but so much is developing to look to a future as the community rebuilds from disaster, striving to create an even better quality of life for Mora County residents in a way that allows the people to maintain their own rich cultural integrity.
I don’t know details yet, but I was extremely pleased to see Miguel Angel and Georgina Ortega coordinating a petition program intended to stress FEMA’s accountability to the people as it administers fire and flood rehabilitation funds.
I must confess, I was not optimistic about the local Long Term Recovery Group’s (LTRG) ability to expand beyond FEMA oversight and become effective in coordinating philanthropic efforts to serve the community. During my short tenure on the committee, I expressed strong views about shifting to a primary focus on helping rather than excessive concern about whether people could justify both need and effective use of that help. That concern has eased substantially with the recent transparency from the organization’s fiscal sponsor, the Las Vegas New Mexico Community Foundation.
These are just examples. I’m basically saying that our community is already starting to prove its resilience. Perhaps the greatest challenge is coordination of the many creative and strong efforts to not only ensure survival during difficult times, but to become an example of resilience for other communities.
I know it’s not easy right now. Too many people are struggling. I’m one of the lucky ones with insurance and yet, today was a frightening day as the RV where I’m sheltered rocked and rolled in winds up to 70 mph. I miss the steady strength of my sturdy log cabin. Sometimes I cry in the night remembering the pictures and mementos of my life which were lost in the fire, or I long to strum the guitar that was my comfort. I do understand.
I offer to my brothers and sisters of the disaster these seeds of hope. Our friends, our neighbors, our communities care. What’s more, together we’ll make sure FEMA does right by us, especially if we can stick together, speaking with a shared voice. We may be bloodied, but we’re not bowed, and we’re not going to be.
Kayt Peck has been an author for 30 years and has written six novels.
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