SANTA ROSA, Calif. — The number of Americans registered for federal disaster aid jumped tenfold this year, costing billions of dollars in additional emergency funding as the nation nears the end of a historically calamitous year.
More than 4.7 million Americans — or about 1.4 percent of the population — have registered so far this year for disaster aid from the Federal Emergency Management Agency. In 2016, 480,000 sought aid, and fewer than 180,000 people registered for disaster assistance in each of the three previous years.
Three hurricanes — Harvey, Irma and Maria — collectively affected an area with about 8 percent of the U.S. population. The hurricanes were followed by wildfires that killed 43 people and destroyed more than 7,000 homes here in wine country.
The series of record-setting disasters — combined with other storms, floods, mudslides and blazes that struck communities across the United States this year — have taxed emergency resources and left residents struggling to rebuild their lives long after the floods have receded and the flames have stopped burning.
The fallout will cost taxpayers tens of billions of dollars, much of it approved by Congress in supplemental spending bills. The White House on Friday asked Congress for an extra $44 billion in disaster relief; FEMA would get the majority of that, and much of the rest would be for a community block grant program.
FEMA has enlisted private phone-bank companies and employees from other federal agencies, including the IRS, to add 3,000 staffers to process disaster claims.
In light of this challenging year of catastrophes, federal emergency officials are calling on Americans to improve their disaster preparedness.
“You have to know the hazards and vulnerabilities, and how to be prepared, based on where you work and where you live and where you visit,” FEMA Administrator William B. “Brock” Long said in an interview with The Washington Post.
FEMA has been using satellite imagery and other kinds of remote sensing, along with flooding data and housing records, to help calculate the cost of the damage suffered by disaster survivors. But a dismaying development has slowed these efforts: Identity thieves are filing fraudulent claims.
Hackers have used the names of real victims to divert aid to bogus bank accounts. They struck first in California — filing thousands of fraudulent claims — and the scam spread to other disaster areas, FEMA Region IX Director Bob Fenton told The Post. He said that the agency’s inspector general is investigating the fraud and that the legitimate survivors will still get their financial assistance. But thieves already have siphoned away some of the money.
“There is funding that has gone out fraudulently to individuals who have committed this,” Fenton said.
Here in wine country, a massive effort is underway to deal with the destruction of entire neighborhoods. Under California law, it is not enough to clear the slab that remains of a home. The entire foundation must be ripped up, Fenton said.
“There’s no house here that’s rebuildable. They’re destroyed. The temperatures were in excess of 1,300 degrees,” he said.
Entire streets look as if they were hit with incendiary bombs. Not much is left but chimneys sticking up like fingers in the wind.
“There are moments I feel recovered. But most of the time I still feel shaky,” said Manuel Flores, standing in front of the ruins of his home in Coffey Park several weeks after the fire.
Billboards and handmade signs offer encouragement with messages such as “Love Is Thicker Than Smoke.” The wineries have tried to lure tourists back for fall festivals, assuring them that most of the region was untouched by the fires.
One day recently, Dave Frost, 58, visited his home — what was left of it — off Mark West Springs Road to look for heirloom silver that had belonged to his grandparents.
“I think this may be it,” he said, holding an elongated, twisted and melted blob that might once have been a clutch of silver utensils.
His insurance company will pay off his mortgage, he said. But there are things he will never recover. Before the fire, he had been curating family photos, digitizing them and had wisely backed them up on a second computer, but he had not saved them to the cloud, and now all the photos were gone, immolated — because hardly anyone imagines a single point of failure of this magnitude.
Everyone knows a house can catch on fire. No one expects this, though — nothing left.
“It’s just stuff. But a lot of years of stuff. You can’t go out and buy photos from 10 and 15 years ago when my kids were growing up.”
A few blocks away, Carole Flaherty, 71, was coping with the post-wildfire stress by drawing a picture of the ruins of a fast-food restaurant on the west side of the 101 Freeway. She says her artwork helps her heal from the trauma.
“I think it was a Taco Bell,” she said of the charred, collapsed structure in front of her.
Actually, it was a McDonald’s.
As the government processes claims and helps people rebuild, FEMA officials say the disasters of 2017 should prod everyone to improve their readiness for a bad day. But they know that many people assume that certain hazards do not apply to them.
Long, the FEMA head, has called for a “culture of preparedness” and says Americans are nowhere close to achieving that.
“We have to overcome a lot of myths,” he said, and cited the widespread belief that only structures in a flood plain are vulnerable to a flood.
Natural disasters can affect anyone. Here in Santa Rosa, the neighborhood of Coffey Park is nowhere near the wooded, tinder-filled high country where the Tubbs Fire exploded on the night of Oct. 8. But when the wildfire reached the city’s outskirts, it jumped the 101 Freeway and incinerated block after block of homes where residents did not imagine they faced a wildfire danger.
Long and other emergency managers talk often of resilience — having contingency plans for when existing systems break down. In Puerto Rico, for example, Hurricane Maria knocked out communications across the island. That set off widespread panic and severely hampered the distribution of emergency supplies. The information blackout was excruciating for family members living off the island, who did not know whether their loved ones had survived.
Such a communications breakdown could happen in any big American city in a natural disaster or terrorist attack, Long said.
That is especially important for families that include children or the elderly. The majority of people killed in the Northern California wildfires last month were elderly. In Florida, 14 elderly people died in a rehabilitation center that lost its air conditioning in a power failure caused by Hurricane Irma in September.
“How will you communicate with your child or with the child-care provider when you’re miles away at work and not able to get out of an urban area?” Long said. “We have to start training citizens to ask these questions, and not only with assisted-living facilities, but also schools and day-care providers, and their own workplace.”
Long has urged people to create their own rainy day fund, and he says “asset poverty” remains one of the greatest impediments to true preparedness. A huge percentage of Americans cannot put their hands on $500 in an emergency.
Recovery is even more challenging for undocumented immigrants. That is the case of Charlie and Cristalyn Robles, Santa Rosa residents who found themselves with no house, car or work after the wildfires. They had only the clothes they wore as they fled the fire — heroically saving four elderly people who were in their care.
The Robleses came from the Philippines and found work as the live-in caretakers of elderly, non-ambulatory people in a home on the north side of town. Their household included their son, Yeohan, 7, and Cristalyn’s mother, Alicia Tanael, 65.
When the fire came on suddenly in the middle of the night, propelled by ferocious winds, each member of the Robles family took responsibility for one of the four elderly people staying that night in the home. Even Yeohan took charge of a wheelchair, pushing it down the street and away from the thickening smoke.
“I can’t see! I can’t breathe!” Yeohan shouted.
“You’re a brave boy. Just go ahead,” his mother said.
With the assistance of strangers, the Robleses managed to get all four of the people to a hospital. That did not end the drama: The hospital had to be evacuated, and Charlie Robles had to carry one of his charges down the stairs. The family ended up in an emergency shelter at the fairgrounds.
Everyone was safe, but the group home was destroyed. The Robleses were out of work, because the people in their care were scattered to other locations. Tanael is a legal resident and has been eligible for food stamps from a federal disaster assistance program.
Weeks after the fire, they told their story in the home of a relative, where they were camping in the living room. And wondering what is next.