"How to Disaster: Recover. Rebuild. Reimagine" is a podcast that focuses on the stories of individuals that have encountered a disaster. Most notably the 2017 wildfire disaster in counties north of San Francisco. On the evening of October 8, 2017, eleven fires erupted across four counties: Lake, Sonoma, Napa, and Mendocino. These fires were "mega fires" and over the next 23 days, they grew, merged, and destroyed over 9,000 structures and over 6,000 homes and took 43 lives. The scale and scope of the disaster were unprecedented. The community was left stunned yet determined to overcome and to do it together.
Since 2017, wildfire disasters have continued, year in and year out. Our new reality is shared across the state of California and recently, the entire American West. The question of "How to Disaster" has become an urgent question for those who were recently devastated and those who wish to build resiliency into their communities.
The podcast has been titled to direct our messaging as we examine each facet of disaster with subject matter experts, including official and emergent leaders.
During times of crisis, answering our basic questions come paramount - where, what, when, why, and most important - how. That's where the action occurs. This is where the "How" meets the Humans who have had to navigate the destruction and create an ecosystem of recovery and resiliency.
These stages of a disaster will allow us to dive into each sector, and to bring in experts from the field, local governmental leaders, and citizen community voices that have lived through disaster.
"Recover. Rebuild. Reimagine": Three words chosen for their importance in a disaster:
- Recover, for the time after a disaster for communities to come together;
- Rebuild, for the efforts to build back stronger and prepared;
- Reimagine: to talk about what is possible if we let go of the idea we can return to the day before the disaster, but instead look forward with hope, vision, and determination.
In this Era of Megafires and other climate related disasters, it is imperative we share our lessons learned and hold humanity at the center of leadership.
This podcast is one way for audiences and listeners all around the world to partake in the important discussions regarding how we care for each other, our communities, and the environment in times of emergency.
How To Disaster is on all major podcast platforms and YouTube.
Meet Your Host!
Jennifer Gray Thompson is a lifelong resident of Sonoma Valley in Northern California's wine country. She attended Santa Rosa Junior College and graduated from Dominican University with dual degrees in English and History, and earned a master's degree in Public Administration from the University of Southern California's Price School of Public Policy. After the devastating fires of October 2017, she accepted her current position as Executive Director of Rebuild Northbay Foundation (RNBF), a long-term post-disaster organization dedicated to helping our region rebuild better, greener, safer, and faster. In this capacity, Jennifer has traveled across the country to share the innovative model of RNBF with colleagues and newly disaster-affected communities. Jennifer resides in Sonoma Valley with her husband, Douglas, children, and two rescue dogs.
Jennifer Gray Thompson: My name is Jennifer Gray Thompson, I'm the Executive Director of ReBuild North Bay Foundation. This podcast is specifically designed to bring you people who have been through what maybe you have just gone through, or that you are concerned about.
Now, imagine that you are waking up in the middle of the night and you smell smoke. And at first you think, oh, it's just a house fire or it's something nearby. And then you look out your window and you see an orange glow coming towards you. You can call 911. And if it was 2017, then we didn't know that fire could behave like it says now. And so a lot of people who call 911 imagine that you were told, don't worry about it. It's 20 miles away. Well, what we learned on October 8, 2017, 20 miles can be traversed in five hours by a mega wildfire, which is what we experienced now. That's exactly what happened, and that is why we had thousands of people who ran for their lives. And not all of them made it. 43 people died in our mega wildfire of 2017. It burned for 23 days and ultimately took out over 9,000 structures, and it was then a sort of new understanding of disaster and wildfire was born. Since then, we have had record years of wildfires across the American West. We're now sitting here in 2020, and our wildfire season is almost over, and it is the middle of December. Our wildfire seasons last longer and are more destructive than we've ever seen before in recorded human history, and that is why I am sitting here with you. Because the chances that your community is going to experience an unprecedented wildfire if you live anywhere in a wildfire zone is pretty high. And the question becomes, what do we do as a community to prepare? And if it happens, what do we do after? Now, before I experienced the disaster, I honestly thought that the calvary would just show up and they would tell me what to do.
Now, I live in a little area called Sonoma Valley, we were surrounded by wildfire for two weeks. What that meant was that we were cut off from essential services at the county. We had police and fire, but we didn't have a lot of other things like food systems, shelters. And we had shelters, but we didn't have showers, things like that. In the first couple of days, we just started putting together systems like, okay, we have to take care of this valley of 40,000 people, how are we going to do it? And the assumption was, that we could do this for a couple of days, and then the professionals would come in and actually teach us how to do it and tell us where to be. And what we quickly learned is that's actually not the way that it goes at all. The way that it goes is that you find out very quickly that in fact, you are the calvary. And this podcast is meant to not only teach you and talk to you about that time, but also, how do you help your community for the next three 5, 10, 20 years. The reality of disaster is this, and recovery. Recovery is very long. What happens is that during your disaster, you will have CNN on your doorstep, you will have the news outlets, you will have attention, if you're fortunate. We were fortunate. And then they go away, and then what you're left with is inches of ash destruction and a lot of questions about, how do we even do this? I know that's what happened here, and I know that it was an incredibly scary and vulnerable experience.
But we had this other thing, which is that while disaster is the most physically terrifying thing you ever go through, people show up for each other. They just do. We're sort of taught that in the midst of a disaster, people turn on each other and they hoard resources. They're not going to help you, but that's just not how it goes. People turn towards each other, they do not turn away. This podcast is meant to help you, show you the people who turn towards each other, who stood up for their communities, who continue to do so, three years post disaster long after the attention has gone. They're still in the fight, they are still helping their community, they're still leading their community, they're still advocating for their community. But how did we even do that? One of the goals of ReBuild North Bay Foundation is specifically to help our four counties of Lake Mendocino, Napa and Sonoma. But another goal that emerged with a campfire in Paradise was that we have an obligation to actually go and help our neighbors. So we're here to help the neighbors that we can't physically reach.
When the campfire happened in November of 2018, we were breaking ground on a project for coffee park walls. And we looked up into the hills and we saw a huge plume of smoke. Now, Paradise was about three hours north of here. So that gives you an idea of how big that plume had to be in order to reach us here. But we didn't know that at that time, you had 27,000 people running for their lives and they would lose 85 of those lives. But we knew that we didn't want any other community to ever have to begin at the beginning of recovery so we saw that fire and then the Woolsey Fire in Malibu broke out the same day. Within 12 days, we were on the ground in Paradise meeting with their public sector leaders and with somebody named Charles Brooks who became one of the leaders up there. He now has Rebuild Paradise Foundation. What we're advocating here is how to do this on your own, how to do this in partnership with your public sector, with your private sectors, with your nonprofit organizations, but how to create essentially an ecosystem of care. Now, we are not prescriptive, we are completely adaptive. Your recovery is going to be as different as your disaster. It may be that you had a mega wildfire in your area, but it may be that you have a different terrain, or your super rural, or your suburban, or you are urban. So we will bring you people who have dealt with various scenarios with the hope that you can take what they have done and adapt it to your own disaster recovery. We're not here to tell you that we have all the answers or that this is going to be easy, none of those things are true. What we do have is some tools, we have some strategies and we have some really incredible people who've done some truly amazing things. So I'm going to bring those people to you.
We created the podcast how to disaster to show you the breadth and depth of humanity in the midst of this really terrible thing that happened. We are bringing you humanity, that's the greatest resource you'll have in a disaster. And something that you learn in a disaster is that when everything else burns down, that humanity doesn't burn down. And this is going to be tough, it's going to be hard and that it's entirely possible. So welcome to How To Disaster, and thank you for giving us your time.