"The determination of the neighborhood symbolize the character of the community that it got done." -Gerardo Castillo
SERIES: Role of the Private Sector
When disaster strikes, people thirst for guidance. Where does recovery even begin? This week, Jennifer interviews Gerardo Castillo, the Chief of Staff of AshBritt on the role private contractors play in a disaster. Gerardo describes the process and scope of work they do in helping communities before, during, and after a disaster. Find out some of the misconceptions about disaster response, the difference between disaster contracting and capitalism, and the benefits of training the local workforce. There will come disasters upon disasters. We can't stop them, but we can prepare to overcome them, as a family, as a community, as a nation. Listen in as Gerardo shares the Neighborhood Model for recovery and how it can help your community too!
- 04:20: Facts and Fiction About Disaster Response
- 11:23: The Jurisdiction Question
- 18:23: Setting Up for Long Term Recovery
- 28:35: Building Neighborly Relationships
- 35:54: Help People Come Home
- 41:00: Disaster Capitalism vs Disaster Contracting
- 47:13: Your Role in the Clean-Up Process
- 52:13: The Future of Disasters
- 57:34: An Effective Recovery Model to Help Communities
- 1:03:54: Innovation in Disaster
12:27: "Sometimes even the best of intentions can make some of the decisions that are made play out in an unexpected way." -Jennifer Thompson
35:15: "Do things for people, not to people." -Jennifer Thompson
36:36: "If you can't get it done, don't say you're going to do it." -Jennifer Thompson
38:09: "The determination of the neighborhood symbolize the character of the community that it got done." -Gerardo Castillo
44:10: "Bringing the community along in that recovery effort is a win for everyone." -Gerardo Castillo
46:10: " There are people that come in and seize upon the urgency of folks to rebuild their lives. Unfortunately, a lot of times, they end up making the situation even worse." -Gerardo Castillo
48:32: "Know all the players in the process and do not be afraid to ask questions because if they're a good contractor, they're going to take the time to answer those questions for you." -Gerardo Castillo
50:52: "When you don't know what to expect, it creates a lot of anxiety. Communication is the key. It addresses a lot of issues before they become issues." -Gerardo Castillo
53:02: "You can't ignore these events that are happening. It takes a lot of people making a concerted effort to change the way we're doing things." -Gerardo Castillo
01:06:41: "The goal at the end of the day is to try to help the community be better than when you came in." -Gerardo Castillo
Gerardo Castillo is the Chief Operating Officer and Chief of Staff for AshBritt, a rapid-response recovery and special environmental services contractor. Its mission is to support communities before, during, and after a disaster. They carry out environmental projects and services such as debris removal, management, reduction, processing, recycling, and disposal. They also help in emergency planning, damage mitigation, and risk abatement.
Jennifer Gray Thompson: Welcome to How To Disaster, a podcast to understand how to recover, rebuild and reimagine post disaster. Some of the people who will be listening to this podcast have not experienced a disaster and you're all wondering like, how does that even work? Or how can we even begin to protect our community beforehand? Others are, unfortunately, have just experienced a disaster and have a lot of questions. And that's why we created this podcast because what's really missing in disaster is some kind of roadmap to get to the other side of recovery. We're here to let you know that recovery is possible. There's a lot of pieces and a lot to learn. So today, I've invited Gerardo Castillo to join us. Now, Geraldo works for AshBritt. And AshBritt is a debris removal company. That's what they did here. But really, they are an emergency disaster response and recovery organization. They are sort of like the workforce that shows up to clean it all up and to run logistics. That's just a little bit of what they do. I wanted Gerardo to come to you today to talk about what is the role of the private contractor in a disaster. What is the difference between disaster capitalism and disaster contracting? What are the rules of the game? How does that even work that these people are contractors and didn't show up, and then they scrape your property clean? And how is wildfire different from hurricanes, wind and rain events? One of the real values of AshBritt is they're pre positioned across the country to work with disaster communities, and these contracts are pre positioned for years. So he actually has a lot of knowledge about all things disaster.
I had the pleasure of meeting Gerardo right after our 2017 fires. I had just started this job, I picked up the phone and Geraldo was on the other line. He said, if I gave you a half a million dollars, what would you do with it? And it was easy. I said: "I would rebuild the Coffee Park walls because I knew that was something that the community really wanted. And we won't take an admin fee." Now, I don't recommend that nonprofits forego their admin fee, but we were in the position to do it that year. Now, most foundations, this is from the AshBritt Foundation would say, no, we don't want to do construction. Construction is too risky, takes a really long time to complete. And it just seems like it's full of problems. Since that time, they've actually expanded to go into work in COVID areas and coordinate a lot of the logistics around COVID relief, so I wanted him to come and talk to us about that too. So please welcome Geraldo Castillo to the show, and thank you so much for spending this time with us. Welcome Gerardo, I'm so happy to have you on How To Disaster. I'd like it if you could open up today by telling us a little bit about yourself and what your role is. What is the role of AshBritt in a disaster community?
Gerardo Castillo: Well, thanks for having me. I'm happy to be here to talk a little bit about what we do, the work that we do throughout the country to help communities recover after any natural disaster or emergency. So my name is Gerardo Castillo. I am the Chief of Staff and Chief Operating Officer. And amongst many other hats that I wear here at AshBritt, I'm pretty much involved in everything we do. But AshBritt is a 30 year emergency response and environmental review aviation from we're experts in logistics, anything that has to do with logistics. So in the emergency response realm and spectrum, we do everything that there is to do within that field. So whether it's any natural disaster that happens throughout the country, we're typically there helping communities recover within the natural, within the emergency response spectrum. Whether it's setting up base camps, whether it's helping communities with the debris recovery, whether it's currently during the COVID environment, we typically have a role in assisting communities with a response.
Jennifer Gray Thompson: So that is a very, very big job. I just want to say that first. One of the things I think people would really like to hear is, you have this disaster, and we don't really think about the logistics of a disaster much until it actually happens. And when you and I met, because of the 2017 wildfires in the North Bay of California, near San Francisco, I had never heard of debris removal before because it had never been necessary before. But all of a sudden, all of these people come in and they are activated in order to clean it up, and we always say, you can't get better until you can get clean. But how does that work? How do you know you're going to have that job in your contracts with you? And who do you all answer to? Can you give people an idea of what the landscape of disaster response and cleanup and recovery looks like? Because I think there's a lot of misunderstandings.
Gerardo Castillo: So typically, within any significant event that happens, but an emergency that happens in a community, if the event, whatever that may be, so Northern California using, or the California for example, the wildfires, if it's an event of significance, and that's really the key there because it's not a significant event. Typically, the locals, or the state, or the county can handle the response to the event. Companies like us come in when the event is of a significant event, where resources need to be brought in from throughout the country. And expertise, and the scale of the project is such that no longer can the town, city, county, state can handle the response. And so typically, the way that these responses happen is that there are pre positioned contracts that are set in place.
So we don't just come out of the woodwork and go, Hey, hire us. We can do the work. It happens where there's contracts that are set in place, whether it's at the federal, state, city, county, council level that are in place years before any of it. And that's really to the credit of the various jurisdictions who have the forethought to say, hey, should we have an emergency, let's plan ahead to make sure that we are covered if anything should occur. So these contracts that are in place are competitively procured contracts, and a contractor or contractors are selected. And we're not activated until there's an event that's needed for significance. However, prior to that, in the years, if need be, we go in, we do planning and training with those local jurisdictions or the state jurisdiction to sort of do scenario planning should anything happen. And that's always part of what we do as a value add to the contract. So there may be times where we have contracts throughout the country, and these contracts typically run three to six, seven years in length. We're the contractor for emergency response, we're actually never activated. That's typically the case in most places.
However, if unfortunately there is an event of significance, we are a contractor that many jurisdictions call upon because of our expertise, because we have project managers who are ready to act to be mobilized on a moment's notice, because we do have the resources to be able to mobilize large amounts of equipment and manpower to respond to an event because time is always of the essence. Typically, after a natural disaster, it's the first responders who come in whether it's law enforcement, firefighters, EMTs. But immediately, they're after, typically within 42 to 72 hours. We're there as well to help out with the response. So we're there on the front lines pretty immediately because we know that time is of the essence to open up roads for those EMTs, to just get the network, the infrastructure network to a place where people can either evacuate to either allow local law enforcement, or EMTs, or firefighters to be able to navigate better through the area. And then once we do that and the situation stabilizes the bit, we then come in and start the recovery process.
Jennifer Gray Thompson: And you might be a part of that disaster affected community for a couple of years. I know that there was a decision made, that the cleanup would be run through the Army Corps of Engineers, and subsequent fires, they changed that somewhat, decided they wouldn't run it. Can you talk to us about watching that process, and when a jurisdiction decides what direction they're going to take, you may see the subcommittee that the overall contract for no matter what, but some of those decisions that do affect the cleanup, they seem like they're subject to change. Am I incorrect there?
Gerardo Castillo: There's a lot of subjectivity to sort of the decisions that leadership may make in a particular state or jurisdiction. And there's a lot of things that go into why they make the decisions that they do, funding, availability may be usually is a chief reason why a jurisdiction may decide to go in one course or another. Obviously, politics always come into play with how the response happens for us. We're always on standby, and we're ready to respond if needed. And if not, then that's obviously up to the discretion of each jurisdiction. But typically, there's a lot of things that come into play. But among them, right at the top of the list happens to be budget availability. And to some degree, politics, whether that's at the federal, state or local level.
"Sometimes even the best of intentions can make some of the decisions that are made play out in an unexpected way." -Jennifer Thompson
Jennifer Gray Thompson: I think that actually is one of those things that can work obviously for a recovery and against a recovery. And sometimes, even the best of intentions can make some of the decisions that are made. It really plays out in an unexpected way. For example, here we had a bit of an issue with the requirement to scrape down to a certain degree and tell, from what I understand, there was an acceptable amount of chemicals essentially in the soil. So if you're given directions that you have to scrape all the way down to this one, and you may be like, we think that's too much, but that's what the local jurisdiction has asked you to do. One of the things we saw here is that the blame for that seems to be squarely placed on the contractor. And the whole essence of how it is, that decision or that direction came about seemed to be absent from that part of the discussion where I was like, well, wait a minute. There was a reason why we were asked to do it, like to this degree and reason, and then it was pulled back in. That looks like a political moment to me.
Gerardo Castillo: Typically, what happens is during the work, it's happening so quickly. Again, going back to my point about the mobilization, we get there, the work starts. It's always like, hey, we need to start yesterday. So the push always at the beginning is to get the work started. So typically, in a natural disaster event, you think about the resources of the government or local government. They're being pulled in 10 different directions. And so when we come in, we're following a contract and a scope of work that's already prescribed to us. We're not making it up as we go. It's really a prescribed scope of work that says, here's how you're going to do your work. Here are the phases. Here are the steps that you're going to go. So we're following that. But typically, what happens is, whether it's six months, eight months, a year down the road, two years down the road, no one seems to be falling to the wayside. There is a prescribed scope of work that we're following. And then you just have the, why did you do X, Y and Z? And typically for us, it's all written out to how we should follow scope of work. And we do as we're told by our contract holder.
Jennifer Gray Thompson: I think that that is an important thing to be very clear about. One of the reasons why I've always enjoyed talking to you so much, and we'll go into the hopper Ave walls as well because you have a vast amount of experience and understanding about how it is that recoveries are. I called you after I was in Panama City because I was so surprised that I was there 10 months later, and that was a hurricane Michael, and you guys have been very active there. But I was like, how is this not cleared, and you explain to me about how you'd had a contract for only the public right of way. And that these are done phases and that the next phase actually wasn't contracted to like 18 months post disaster, which was all private. Can you talk about that?
Gerardo Castillo: Yeah. I think that's a very good question, a good point. So going back, again, to what I was talking about, where there's preposition contracts, that these are competitively procured contracts that are in place, where a lot of times, there may not be contracts that are in place for the private property debris removal. So the contract that was in place was for public right of way work. So that's our scope of work that we're staying in with. And then what happens is, whether it's a state, or the county, or a town, they're looking at, okay, how are we going to do the rest of the recovery? How are we going to do the rest of the cleanup? And again, things like, where's the funding going to come from? How are we going to move forward? When you think about a community that's devastated by a disaster, typically, the first thing that happens is their tax base is eroded because folks aren't working, businesses close, schools close. An entire community, to some degree comes to a halt.
So we saw a little bit of that during the pandemic when communities were closing down and people were out of work. So think about that in a sort of an ultra focused area where that happens after a natural disaster, that you're having schools close, you're having small businesses not being able to run, you're having restaurants not open. So it really hurts the economic vibrancy of a community. A lot of times, governments are looking at, okay, we know that other parts of our community need to be cleaned up, but where's the funding going to come from? And typically, sometimes there's a lag time in identifying how that's going to be paid for.
Jennifer Gray Thompson: I think it can be really hard for people to understand how long recovery is, which is one of the reasons why we are specifically designed as a long term recovery organization. Even my own sister, I remember about two years post disaster here and she said: "Why isn't everything already rebuilt?" I was like, wait, even you don't know, and you're my sister, one of my best friends. And so if that's the case, then we need to be more mindful in how we get the message across that it truly is a marathon, which is just a cliche when you first experienced the disaster. But it can be pretty hard for your two or even after your one, and most people have sort of exited the whole space of disaster because the long term pardon is so exhausting.
Gerardo Castillo: Definitely. And fatigue sets in to a certain degree. So using, again, the Santa Rosa example where we worked in 2017, the fires, we're going in and doing the first phase of the debris removal just to clear a private property. However, that's just the first phase of the recovery. Now, the property owner, the former homeowner, how do we rebuild? They're working with their insurance, but what if they're under insured? What if, like a lot of working families, they have bills to pay, they have other financial responsibilities. And so that that recovery, that's all part of the recovery process. Now, families are having to make decisions. Do we rebuild where my former home was? A year, six months has passed by, these families can't stay still, they're having to still go, Okay, how are we going to earn a living? We heard stories from teachers whose homes had burned down, and they were having to drive two hours to go to work. A lot of those things are unsustainable. You're having families that are making decisions to move forward with their lives. And sometimes, those decisions may not be going back to that place where they once were. And so it really shifts the dynamics of a community. It really shifts the recovery effort. It really changes a lot of the fabric of a community. So when you talk about long term recovery, there's a lot that goes into it than just, hey, we're coming in picking up the debris. Now, local governments are setting policy on how to deal with those folks that may not be able to rebuild. I mean, there's a lot that goes into it, as you will know, with that recovery process that takes years, sometimes even decades.
Jennifer Gray Thompson: I'm so glad you included, sometimes even decades. Because one of our goals is to help these fire affected communities recover better, greener, safer, faster. And we do think that by paying it forward some of our lessons and doing some mentorship that we are not getting in anyone else's lanes, we maintain all of our relationships with all the pros like United Policyholders does insurance, if we do not do, we do not physically rebuild either. One of the things that I'd love for you to talk about before we turn to Hopper Ave is one of the big differences that you see between wind and rain events, and these mega wildfires in the cleanup.
Gerardo Castillo: That's a good one here. So in the wildfire events, for example, they're in Northern California, the devastation is just very apparent. And in your face, it's almost like a bomb got dropped, and everything's wiped out. So you go into a neighborhood and you don't even recognize where you're at, because everything's completely demolished. And that happens with some hurricane events. But going back to, let's say, Houston scenario after Hurricane Harvey, there's a lot of flooding that happened there. So there's a lot of flooding, people being rescued from their homes. It takes a while for that flooding to subside, and you still see a structure there. But that structure, for all intents and purposes, are not livable anymore. But at least you still see structures that are in place, and you see landmarks that people can identify in places like Northern California and Santa Rosa, where you had entire neighborhoods wiped out. It's really eerie from the standpoint of neighborhoods are unrecognizable because those landmarks, things are just completely gone.
So the wildfire devastation is pretty apparent and shocking. And it does haunt you. Even for folks like us who come into areas, you go into neighborhoods and you see everything that's just completely devastated. You go in to do the cleanup on someone's private property and you're still finding, whether it's coins, or you're finding family mementos and you think about that this is this. Somebody who lives and you have family, so go and observe, you doing the work. And sometimes in some cases asked you to stop so they can look through some of their personal items. So in that perspective, it's a little more personal, the work that you're doing, because you're coming into contact directly with the people that you're helping. You get to hear their stories. You get to see the pain and anguish, but also the gratitude in their face. So there's a mix of emotions in that work, where in other places, you're necessarily not having that interaction with a homeowner in the way that we did in Northern California.
Jennifer Gray Thompson: Actually, that's a perfect segue into, let's go back to 2017. You are contracted to do our devastating wildfire cleanup. But one of the places that you are immersed in is Santa Rosa, in the neighborhood of Coffee Park, and for those who don't know Coffee Park, it has about 1,400 homes. They were not in a wildland urban interface. In fact, they were so far away from the Louie, that they didn't really even require to do things that a lot of the buildings of the 80's and the 90's. To do things that would keep them more fire safe because they just were not considered a threat, and the fire had to, I took out 6,000 homes in the first night, it went five miles, and it runs through football fields of homes and trees. In seconds, it took the overpass, which I think is so rude because it didn't stop at the 6 lane freeway. And it snaked around through a vacant lot and took out these 1,400 homes. And people had to literally run for their lives, late at night in the middle of the night. It's truly a terrifying experience in addition to being a deadly one in our fires burned for 23 days. So it was very intense. Talk to us about your experience about coming into the Coffee Park neighborhood. The kinds of people that you encounter there.
Gerardo Castillo: So we came in, and Santa Rosa was one of the areas. So we had the Fountaingrove neighborhood that was across the highway. And then we had Coffee Park neighborhoods that are nearby proximity light, but very different in socio economic status. So we had that neighborhood, and we actually opened up an office probably about half a mile from there because we had a lot of homeowners that had questions in that area. So when you think about the folks who lived in this neighborhood, they were police officers, teachers, nurses, just your normal, hard working people that make a community great. I mean, these are the fabrics of communities. And yeah, it was a very sobering experience. Because to this day, I still have relationships with folks in that neighborhood. I still remember people buy addresses, like 3138 Crestview Drive. Still keep in touch with folks like that. We Christmas card on the Christmas card list. So my point with that is that you build relationships with folks in that manner, but the devastation in that neighborhood was great. I remember one of the things about that, there was a school that was there in the Coffee Park area. The school was still pretty much intact, but you think about the kids that went to that school in that neighborhood. What was going to happen to that school? There's no kids in that neighborhood to go to that school, so there's a lot of ripple effects that have happened because of the destruction of that neighborhood. The local businesses that are in the area and sort of, and then just the rebuilding effort. As we all know, the Coffee Park neighborhood is still very much in the middle of being rebuilt. You go there and you still see construction, you see a lot of good progress, but you also still see the recovery process that's happening,
Jennifer Gray Thompson: You'll be happy to know that they are 97% rebuilt.
Gerardo Castillo: That's great.
Jennifer Gray Thompson: But it's also highly unusual. We've definitely had their block captains on the podcast, and then in some of our community to community work that we put on our YouTube page. We really love the Coffee Strong and the neighborhood they created. Something for people to understand is this wasn't necessarily like a super tight neighborhood before, it's 50% renters, 50% homeowners. Like you said, very hard working folks, and didn't necessarily socialize a lot together. And then this devastating wildfire happens. And now, they are all like, you don't have to say another all spooning in the street. They truly showed up for their community and had some really amazing community champions. I remember when I started this job in January of 2018, you called me, and apparently you had been calling around to nonprofits and saying: "If I gave you a half a million dollars, what would you do with it?" And that was literally the question. And when did I get back to you?
Gerardo Castillo: So for us, yeah, I remember that. So we had built such a bond with the community and the people in the community. There were like, we had just a calling to say that we have to do something of significance to give back. And typically, we do this in communities where we work. Not necessarily to this degree of investment back into the community, but this was a little bit different because we had built relationships with a lot of folks in the neighborhood. So yeah, I started just asking people, literally in the neighborhood like, hey, are there like any groups that are right now trying to make a difference? And your organization's name kept popping up and so I think I cold called.
Jennifer Gray Thompson: You totally cold call. It was a cold call. I think you cold call, and then you said: "What would you do?" And I said: "I rebuild the Coffee Park walls." And you were like, Oh, that sounds pretty good. I mean, it was very easy in that sense. It was complete to get it all the way across the finish line, we had to make sure lawyers were involved and everything. But your relationship you already had with Coffee Strong, I suspect is what allowed you to find something that's really quite risky, which is construction. So you've made the decision to agree to fund this half a million dollar construction project. And usually, people don't want to do that. So talk to us about why you made that decision, and how your relationship that you had created with the folks on the ground who lost everything affected your decision to do this.
Gerardo Castillo: The first thing is we didn't want to come in and say, Hey, we want to fund X project. Like, we want to come from a place of, we want the community to identify the project, because then it's a community driven project. So that was, I think from the very beginning to the very end, that was what I had always told you, I said: "Hey, look, you guys identify the project, we want to help out, but we don't want to take the lead in it. We want to be part of it with you and be there alongside you, but we don't want to be the folks that are out front saying, hey, look at us, look what we're doing. This was more about a community driven project, a project that we hoped would have a lasting legacy, not knowing initially what that project would be. There's no more, I don't remember what they are, but there were a number of ideas that were kind of say, well, what about this project? What about that project? And ultimately we said: "Hey, you guys, let us know what you all feel is the priority project."
Jennifer Gray Thompson: And we had one project for you.
Gerardo Castillo: Yes. Yeah. So this project made a lot of sense for a lot of reasons. I hope that ultimately, it does have a legacy there in the neighborhood, that it was something where the community did come together to do something of significance.
"Do things for people, not to people." -Jennifer Thompson
Jennifer Gray Thompson: It was significant. We act, we operate the same as you. We like to do things for people, not to people. So I think that we were very fortunate in that moment to have you at the table, and then we went back to Coffee Strong, to Jeff Okrepkie. And I remember, I couldn't even say his name at that point in my phone to this day. It's Jeff Okrepkie. I was like, are you okay with me? Would you like this? Because I had just learned that this wall that the city was put in by the developer, the city didn't own it. And then the neighborhood thought that the city owned it, but then they realized that they were now responsible for it because it's also a gateway.
Gerardo Castillo: Every time you kept peeling it, there's like another thing that was uncovered about it. Well, the homeowner doesn't actually own the wall. Oh, well, the city. And then all these things kept sort of popping up, and we undiscovered about this project. Now obviously, it being there, the neighborhood being 97% built. The whole time I was just like, the project comes together.
"If you can't get it done, don't say you're going to do it." -Jennifer Thompson
Jennifer Gray Thompson: It was a lot of fun. We had a lot of phone calls. Steve Rahmn, who is now the president of Coffee Strong, was the project manager. One of the things I loved about working with you is, number one, we got it done. I'm here and get stuff done. And if you can't get it done, don't say you're gonna do it. And I felt like we were very committed. You were very committed to finding your way past all the bumps. A lot of people step into the space of getting to the place of guess, and all the way home. Which was not always easy, but you are on board to ensure that the community designed the wall that they wanted, and it saved each of the 42 homeowners about 25,018 to $25,000 each. So our hope was that they would be more incentivized to come back. If they wanted a fire rated wall, and they wanted it to be eight foot, and they chose the product, and they chose that contractor, and then we were like the in between, the money manager, and you would send us crunches of money we would send it out. And it really did require a lot of collaboration and coordination between all of us. But with all the same goal, which was how do we best serve the community so that they can come home?
"The determination of the neighborhood symbolize the character of the community that it got done." -Gerardo Castillo
Gerardo Castillo: Yes, you're absolutely a lot of coordination, a lot of trust that had to happen between the different parties. Quite frankly, in any construction project, there's always a lot of risk because timelines could slip, costs could increase. There's things that you'd miss, don't know at the beginning of projects that you sort of uncover at the project pack. I think it just goes to show the spirit and the determination of the neighborhood like this project symbolized sort of a lot of what the community does, sort of the character of the community that it got done.
Jennifer Gray Thompson: It also speaks to how important it is that communities have to leave their own recoveries. And it's sort of what we've been talking about. But it's a lot of when we go into communities, like in Southern Oregon, the Alameda Fire, our goal is to help the community drive the process in a way that is functional. And when they say that they want everybody at the table, that is actually everybody and not just people who are exactly like you. And they've been really, very open to that process. I'm so glad that you're working up there too. So, yeah, do you want to speak to that at all?
Gerardo Castillo: Yeah. To your point, I think what's important is, obviously, these natural disasters, no one planned them obviously. And a lot of times when they happen, and if they're of large scale like the ones in Northern California or the ones in Oregon, people are turning to look for guidance. Because sometimes, you don't know what you don't know, especially at a local level. The devastation is so significant. It's like, okay, where do you start? Where do you even start? And starting with the cleanup, I think that's where folks like you who help communities recover come in and are able to at least shine the light on a path for communities to go, okay, this is where we start the recovery. So what's happening in Oregon I think is part of that they're looking to the State of California. They're looking to organizations like yourself, to people like you to guide them and provide them with lessons learned as they move in this recovery journey, that's multi year, because it is going to be a long, long journey. And sometimes, the way that you start really lays the foundation for many, many years to come in that recovery process.
Jennifer Gray Thompson: I just really appreciate that. One of the questions that we were, when I was up there in October that I was asked in a community meeting was, how do we guard against disaster capitalism? And I said: "Well, you mitigated, but I don't know if any community ever totally avoids it, especially if there are opportunities and the way through that is community cohesion." As much community cohesion as possible, because then, it's less attractive for somebody to come and invest, and then like pull their money out and leave. I would love it if you would speak to the difference between disaster capitalism and disaster contracting, because they are not the same.
Gerardo Castillo: They're not the same. I go back to sort of a model that I spoke to at the beginning. We're a contractor 30 years, 30 years experience. We respect the communities that we work in, we understand the setbacks that communities take. So when we come in, our main goal is to try to stabilize that community to begin that rebuilding process. We understand those sensitivities better than anybody. So again, going back to the way that we operate within the industry is that there's contracts that are in place well ahead of time. Were there helping local communities with the planning and the training. And so God forbid, if there's ever an event, at least that they're prepared. The other thing I think that sets us apart is that we have resources that we can pull from all over the country. And sometimes, those resources are needed. However, we make every effort, painstaking effort to hire and identify and train the local workforce community to then participate in the recovery efforts of their neighborhood. And that's key for magnitude reasons. It's key. Local communities helping with their own recovery.
"Bringing the community along in that recovery effort is a win for everyone." -Gerardo Castillo
Number one, its key with helping the economic development recovery along with the physical recovery. And sometimes, that's as important, you think about small businesses who are thinking about, how am I going to make my payroll? How am I going to keep people employed who have families to feed? So we go through a process to try to identify folks that we can train and be willing to be part of their recovery. In Santa Rosa, for example, there was a gentleman named Michael Wolff. He was an Iraq Veteran. He had a home remodeling business, and we called him up and said: "Hey, look, we're going to start this project. We want to see if you're interested in helping with the recovery." He said: "I don't even know where to start." And we said: "Don't worry, we'll train you." So we had him, we gave them the specs of what one crew would be, and we trained them through getting his crew together. Slowly, he was a quick learner. By the time you finish here, he has become one of our best contractors. And he was ever so grateful because he was able to keep his team employed. He was able to learn a new skill, he was then able to transition that to help in other places in California that were experiencing disaster. So for us, it's about also bringing the community along in that recovery effort. And I think it's a win, win, win for everyone. It's a win for us because we're not spending on mobilizing costs of bringing equipment across the country. It's a win for, obviously, that small, local contractor that's able to keep their folks employed and learn a new skill. And then obviously, it's a win for the contracting agent, whether it be to the local, whether the state or the federal level because you're being more efficient with your operations.
Jennifer Gray Thompson: Just to sort of clarify even further, the way that we saw disaster capitalism work was that people would rush in after the fact who were not pre positioned, and they would say, well, I'm going to rebuild a whole bunch of your community, and here all of my plans for houses, would you like to see the basement? And we don't have basements for the most part in California. They would sort of not only didn't understand the landscape, but it's almost like a disaster gold rush initially, and then they all rush out. And then some of them who are in there, they underbid other contractors who've been longtime in the community and have a stable, hopefully a stable workforce that you want to keep employed, and even expand to do the rebuild. But we do caution people on really vetting your developers and asking them the tough questions, do they make the kind of homes that you want to see? Do they even bother to do the research to see that, for example, we don't build our homes with basements because I've sat at that meeting with that guy.
"There are people that come in and seize upon the urgency of folks to rebuild their lives. Unfortunately, a lot of times, they end up making the situation even worse." -Gerardo Castillo
Gerardo Castillo: Even just checking their licensing, whether they have a contractor's license. A valid state license to be able to do the work that they're claiming to say they can do. These are people that come in and they know that people are desperate to recover, and they're seizing upon the urgency of folks to want to rebuild their lives. And unfortunately, a lot of times, they end up making the situation even worse. We had to deal with that quite a bit where we would hear from homeowners and they say, this contractor came and did this, or that they cut down trees that necessarily I wanted to keep, or they tear up my driveway or whatever it be. So yeah, those were stories that we heard quite a bit, unfortunately.
Jennifer Gray Thompson: So just a really quick aside, save it for the brand new fires survivor who has just lost their home, and now the EPA has come through and cleared that stuff out. And then the debris removal, people are coming through next, what do you think the informed survivors should know about that process of watching their own land being clear to ensure that it is done according to how it is supposed to be done?
Gerardo Castillo: I think the first thing is really getting educated on what the scope of work is, and what are the phases in their property cleanup. That's the first thing. That way, they know they have a roadmap to how their property is going to be cleaned up.
Jennifer Gray Thompson: And they get that from their public sector representatives, a supervisor, or council person, or a city manager, or CEO.
"Know all the players in the process and do not be afraid to ask questions because if they're a good contractor, they're going to take the time to answer those questions for you." -Gerardo Castillo
Gerardo Castillo: Right. So knowing that the first thing that happens is typical because things could change a little bit. But testing on the front end to make sure they know what's on that lot in terms of contaminants, knowing how deep those contaminants are in the soil. Then the second part is obviously doing the debris cleanup. And in the third phase it is usually doing the post soil analysis to make sure that that property is now ready to be rebuilt. So all those things, and typically in that framework that could be anywhere from three months to six months. And so understanding those different players, because typically, the person doing the front end testing is not the same as the contractor doing the work who's not the same as the post soil testing folks. So knowing all the players in the process, I've been afraid to ask questions about why they're doing what they're doing. Because if they're a good contractor, they're going to take the time to answer those questions for you.
Jennifer Gray Thompson: Is it a good idea for a homeowner to actually be on the site or near the site while the work is going on?
Gerardo Castillo: Well, typically, yes. I remember the first question, yes. But also, when you know that's going to happen between it's going to happen, someone is notifying you. Typically, it's the local government. So trying to get as much information of who's going to be on my property, who's a contractor, right? And typically, if it's a reputable contractor, they usually have a community liaison who's going to be available to answer any questions you may have. Because there are a lot of questions. No one's ever gone through this. People are going through this through the first time, and there's a litany of questions that typically that contractor can answer to ease any act that a homeowner may have. And so there's resources available outside of just your local government. Typically, that contractor has a community liaison person, the project manager for each site typically is instructed to go through the steps to provide that customer service to the property owner. Or at least that's how we do it.
Jennifer Gray Thompson: Right. Well, even if they don't do it that way, ask why not? I think that if before you've been through a disaster, there's a lot of assumptions that this is all like a very neat and orderly process. And then you go through it and you're like, Oh, some parts are neat and orderly, like whatever is pre positioned, but a lot of it isn't. And it's really important that the citizen knows that it's okay to ask the questions like, those are good questions, it's okay to write.
"When you don't know what to expect, it creates a lot of anxiety. Communication is the key. It addresses a lot of issues before they become issues." -Gerardo Castillo
Gerardo Castillo: And I think those are some of the lessons learned as communities go through this. And unfortunately, sometimes I let the lesson happen after, but they can pass on those lessons to other communities. When that work is being done, make sure that there's community liaisons that are educating the community on what's going to happen because that's really the biggest part of when someone just in anything in life. When you don't know what to expect, it creates a lot of anxiety, it creates a lot of unknowns. Communication is key. Setting the expectation on the front end is paramount to that, and it addresses a lot of issues before they become issues.
Jennifer Gray Thompson: I really appreciate that because pretty much our entire business model is not built on that very idea. I would love it if you would talk to us about the future of disaster in your opinion, because we are very concerned about these climate emergencies. And we did not expect that our mega fire would become the norm. But it really has over the past three and a half years, including the campfire in paradise. So this is one of the reasons why we are going to, actually, we have a business plan for moving forward as a 501 as a nonprofit business plan. What you see in terms of excess superstore is a $22 billion over disasters last year, and they counted the NOAA counted all of our wildfires, 10 million acres, $16.5 billion as one of those disasters. So are you concerned, in what areas in particular, and what plans are you making an aspirant in order to prepare to meet the moments?
"You can't ignore these events that are happening. It takes a lot of people making a concerted effort to change the way we're doing things." -Gerardo Castillo
Gerardo Castillo: Yeah, that's a tough question because there's so many facets to it. One of them, whether you believe in climate change or not, there's something that's happening with the dark climate that is imminent. I don't think it's a coincidence that you're having wildfires that are happening at the level that you're having, flooding that's happening that you're having, the hurricane activity that happened. Last hurricane season, it was the most hurricanes that had happened at one point. There's I think four hurricanes out there in the Atlantic. Fortunately, a lot of those didn't come inland. But for example, in that Texas Louisiana border, within a month, two hurricanes hit that area. That Lake Charles area. I think you can ignore these events that are happening. And sometimes it's like, how do you even wrap your hands around? How do we respond to this? I think it takes a lot of people making a concerted effort to change the way we're doing things.
From our perspective, I think we're of the mindset of, we try to provide as much training to local governments on the front end. Because for us, there's only so much capacity. We only have so many people, we can only work so many hours. We don't want to be in a position where we can't provide the services that our customers are asking us to provide. So that's something that we think about quite a bit. But this issue is, I don't have a good answer for you in terms of the big picture of this. I think we're all trying to figure it out. I mean, you hear about some of the policies at the federal level to try to mitigate issues. And unfortunately, there's a different mindset around that. But I do think that you can't deny what's happened in the recent years where there's been natural disaster after natural disaster. That's a fact. So for us, I think it's for us. It's more of trying to be a resource to our clients on the front end before there's even a disaster so they can be as prepared as they can, should they have to deal with one.
Jennifer Gray Thompson: That's really been tested this year, in particular with having a global pandemic which, you don't have to say it, but I will say that I believe is a mismanaged disaster that turned into a catastrophe. And I applaud that you have stepped into the space of logistics to deal with COVID. And how have you taken your skills that you have learned over a number of years. And then of course, you have institutional skills for 30 years to apply to help with this disaster, and with the global pandemic in addressing--
Gerardo Castillo: 2020, obviously 2021, it's been a tough year for many of us. You think about where we were in February of 2020, where we're here in--
Jennifer Gray Thompson: I was in Mexico, so I thought about where I was in February.
Gerardo Castillo: Yeah. I mean, I don't think anyone really realized the magnitude of what we're in for. In February, you're seeing these means about Corona beer and the Coronavirus. And I think people saw it on social media, they're just like, oh, something that's happening in China. And people didn't really understand, and then come early March and you're like, okay, this could get really serious. And then came April and May, and when it is going to end? And then you start seeing what the response that they started in local communities started doing to try to protect their own communities. And I think that what we see in terms of people that are hard working folks who work in the public sector, they already had a lot on their plate to deal with in terms of their workload, and now you're adding on the pandemic. You've seen a lot of fatigue from governments and how they respond to this, which is justifiable. So now, we're in the space of, you saw the spikes over the summer with COVID. We're now getting into the vaccine realm, and governments at every level are looking to companies like us to say, hey, you're logistics experts, can you help us with this? And so the way we look at logistics, it's a complicated puzzle that you're putting together for that particular mission.
And so for the COVID response, it's a combination of both logistics and the medical piece of it. So we've been able to put that puzzle together in a very efficient way to be able to provide solutions to the community. So in the state of Texas where they've had spikes in COVID, we were able to build field hospitals. So in places like Texas that they called upon us to assist in building field hospitals because of the capacity that they're reaching at hospitals in various cities, and we were able to come in and assist them. So that was, again, putting the logistics piece of what we do really, really well, and partnering with a medical partner to be able to now provide the medical solution. I'm proud to say that we've done a fantastic job. I've been working on these projects now for three months, straight 18 hour a day, but it's been a very fulfilling project. One of the things in the state of Texas that's been very progressive, also that they are providing monoclonal antibody therapy to folks. So folks who are over 65, or who are 55 with certain comorbidities can get an IV with drugs that are currently experimental drugs approved by the FDA for an emergency use. And it's been shown through data to help people feel better, should they be positive with COVID within 48, 72 hours. And the whole goal of that is to keep them out of the hospital. And hopefully, at the other day, save their lives.
So we've been at the forefront of doing that, and it's been very fulfilling a lot of hard work, but we're helping communities like in Laredo, Texas. It's a community right there on the Texas Mexico border, helping communities like Lubbock, Texas, or which is in West Texas, to be able to provide these resources to help their communities. And now, we're now transitioning into the vaccine distribution and helping states and cities with their vaccine rollout. One of the things I think I'm very proud of is that we're helping a lot of underserved communities in establishing these resources. So one of the places where we currently have a vaccination center is in the overtown neighborhood in Miami. This is a predominantly historically African American neighborhood that's been underserved. We opened a vaccination center there in the neighborhood, and we've worked with pastors, we've worked with churches, we've worked with nonprofit groups to have them be part of the buy in to make sure that the community is using that center. And it's been fulfilling.
So yesterday, we had Alonzo Mourning, former Miami Heat center. He's a legend within the Miami community. He's the founder of Overtown Youth Center, which is an organization that he's led for almost two decades providing workforce development, providing after school programs, providing scholarships for youth, providing workforce development for that neighborhood. And he championed this vaccine center. And with the state of Florida and the city of Miami, we established it. And now, we're providing a neighborhood hub for vaccinations.
And it's interesting, a lot of places you're hearing about, fights crashing for vaccine registration, we actually almost did it the exact opposite. We said: "Look, if you're anywhere in this neighborhood, just walk up to the site. We want to try to make it as easy as possible, we're registering you, which only takes five to 10 minutes. The vaccine obviously only takes two minutes or so." And then the observation, so the message to the community was, hey, just walk up to the site, ride your bike to the site. And within 30 minutes, we can vaccinate you and you're on their way. And I think this model that we're doing is a model that a lot of communities can use. It's a flexible model. You can set them up, and tear them down relatively quickly, you can really be specific and target specific neighborhoods that have been underserved and haven't had resources like this. And you're tearing down a lot of barriers to folks now being able to get that vaccine. You see a lot of places setting up mega sites, which are great. Mega sites are great, but there's also a lot of folks who aren't going to drive there, can't take transit to get there, can't ride their bikes,because there may not be bike lanes. So this model that we set up has been neat to see how it's benefiting communities, especially communities that have been underserved.
Jennifer Gray Thompson: I'm so glad that we ventured into that space for a variety of reasons. I love when you can put all of your hard work and knowledge into making the world a little bit better, a little more equitable, a little more accessible. And in the case of the pandemic, it's in particular. It's been really heart wrenching to watch the communities who paid the highest price more so than anybody. I noticed too, when I got my first shot about two weeks ago, which I only got because I do this work and because I need to go into other communities. And every single person who is working on our local vaccination site was a person of color, everyone. And of course, I cried like a baby because I'm tired of this pandemic, but also because it just didn't escaped my notice that every person they were giving it to with the exception of three agricultural workers who were less, we're all white and had access and it was a bit of a mega site. And so I love the neighborhood model. I think the neighborhood model is actually really important. And if you do have standing buildings post disaster too, to make sure you're creating trust centers essentially, that's what you were doing. You're leveraging icons that they trust, or people from their community, and you're doing it for them and not to them, which I think should be the center of all work for all people who enter into the field essentially of disaster. So I applaud you for that.
Gerardo Castillo: Thank you. I think there's something that you said that is very important. Those partnerships, these only work by establishing partnerships with established trusted community partners, that they have to trust that you're there to do the right thing before they're gonna tell their community to go there. And so part of that is having them come over and say, look, this is what we're going to do. Part of that is hiring, sometimes nurses from the community that people know. And that's been our model and something that we're very proud of, and we hope to be able to do in other communities.
Jennifer Gray Thompson: Well, I hope that that gets expert in. Because I know that generally, and specifically, Sonoma County's never ever been out of the purple tear. We have never opened up since we closed down. We've never had indoor dining for a year, and it's because for good reason. Higher virus loads are very high and continue to be so. Innovation in the face of disaster is also one of our most favorite things ever, and I just really love that you took that into that space. We did COVID work for about four months. And the reason why is because some local entities were like, we don't know what to do. And you're the only flexible nonprofit that we know that works in the space of disaster. Can you be the coordinator, like the matrix of what is needed and get everybody in their lanes weekly, and then we also noticed right away that there was a need for all the same information to be released in Spanish simultaneously. And so we paid out of our own funds for six to eight weeks to have daily Spanish videos made from a woman Alma Bowen, who runs Nuestra Comunidad, and I knew that she was going to get her. She's a medical translator, was a dispatcher for 17 years so we could trust her to give the right message. But one of the reasons I love working in this field so much, even though some people in my life say my job looks really sad but I'm always like, I didn't start the fire. I'm here to make it better. But whatever reasons, I like it so much because I get to work with people like you who are like, oh, let's solve that.
"The goal at the end of the day is to try to help the community be better than when you came in." -Gerardo Castillo
Gerardo Castillo: That's right. And I think you bring together, working collaboratively, you bring good solutions to the table. And I always say that, trying to be nimble, trying to be flexible, trying to be innovative and thinking outside the box, you're able to bring the solutions to communities that ultimately the goal at the end of the day is to try to help us communities recover. So whether it's after a wildfire, whether it's after Hurricane, whether it's right now during the COVID pandemic, the goal at the end of the day is to try to help the community be better than when you came in.
Jennifer Gray Thompson: Well, I can't think of a better place to stop there and just say that I have really enjoyed working with you over these past few years that I've stayed in contact. And I love that I get to see a picture of your baby when that happens. I appreciate the fact that even though you sit at the top of this pretty big substantial corporate entity, people in our community knew your name and they knew your wife, they knew you. And it did change, it just helps in the recovery so much. It's a vulnerable period for a moment in the history of a community. I just really want to thank you for your contribution to our own recovery and for our ongoing conversation and collaboration.
Gerardo Castillo: Thank you. I appreciate those kind words. And yes, we're part of this massive Corporation. But at the end of the day, we're people with families, and we empathize with the pain, with the joys that our community has. And when we go into a community, whether it's for six months, a year, 18 months, we become part of that community. We go and eat at those restaurants, we stay at the hotels, we go to places that other communities or other community members go through so we become part of those communities for that short period of time and we built lasting relationships with people. So it's always good to know that those relationships that you build with people that you're sustaining over years, that you can keep in touch like I have with you, and we can talk about what we're doing to try to make other communities now better and try to pay it forward. I'm glad we got the chance to talk, and I'm happy to hear all the great work that you're doing. I'm always here as a resource should they be needed. So thank you.
Jennifer Gray Thompson: Thank you.