How to Overcome the Challenges of Meeting Urgent Needs Post-Disaster While Building Future Resilience with Michael Morter
“You have to have some structure so that when that event happens, there’s a trusted grassroots network in place.” —Michael Morter
It is said that disaster recovery is part problem-solving and part relationship-building. It recognizes that both practical solutions and social connections are vital to restoring what was lost and building resilience for the future.
In this episode, Jennifer sits with former Wildfire Recovery Ombudsman for Oregon, Michael Morter. Michael helped communities navigate rebuilding challenges after the devastating 2020 wildfires and worked to address barriers that were impeding recovery efforts. Drawing on his experience in state government and insurance, he now advises communities through his consulting firm on navigating disaster recovery.
Listen in as Jennifer and Michael offer a behind-the-scenes look at disaster recovery coordination and insights directly from someone who has navigated these challenges first-hand.
They also discuss the importance of engaging local builders and navigating complex debris removal processes, innovative programs that increase access to recovery resources, as well as valuable lessons on community engagement, building social capital before disasters strike, and establishing trusted roles like an Ombudsman to cut through bureaucracy.
- 03:23 Building Social Capital in Disaster Response
- 10:03 Identifying Barriers Impeding Recovery Efforts
- 15:02 The Wildfire Ombudsman Project
- 19:19 Engaging Local Builders
- 25:17 Disaster Recovery Resources and Insurance and Settlements
- 35:12 Gentrification and Infrastructure in Rural Communities
- 40:03 Affordability Concerns and Alternative Sanitary Methods
- 44:02 The Importance of Community Involvement
- 49:23 The Importance of Trust and Building Relationships
- 54:44 The Importance of Having a Dedicated Ombudsman in Recovery Efforts
Disaster recovery is like rebuilding on unsteady ground. Join @JenGrayThompson and former Wildfire Recovery Ombudsman for Oregon, Michael Morter as they explore the challenges of rural community recovery along with invaluable lessons on helping underinsured areas rebuild. #Recover #Rebuild #Reimagine #NorthBay #podcast #wildfire #DisasterRecovery #DisasterRecovery #AfterTheFire #Season5 #HowToDisaster #DisasterOmbudsman #FrontierFires #MegaFireChallenges #CommunityResilience #RelationshipBuilding #SepticSystems #Insurance #SocialCapital
06:16 “The ability to build trust quickly with local government stakeholders can’t be understated.” —Michael Morter
10:43 “When you’re trying to provide services without a local connector that can recognize that and do that work, that’s difficult.” —Michael Morter
10:54 “Trust is always an issue in every disaster. But trust in a rural or frontier community is very hard-earned… because they are so used to being self-reliant.” —Jennifer Gray Thompson
23:13 “These homes are eviscerated so you can’t even use the foundation. And so, the work with those builders could make a difference. Those were really crucial relationships.” —Michael Morter
24:36 “So much of disaster is about secondary trauma.” —Jennifer Gray Thompson
26:02 “How do you solve a problem? Find the right people and get them in the room.” —Michael Morter
30:22 “It’s a negotiation. So if you’re working with your builder, ask for it and get it.” —Michael Morter
31:41 “It’s very hard to navigate when you are grieving for the life that you had. The life that you had is worth grieving over. But just try to take a deep breath and don’t make decisions that you may not be ready to make because everyone’s in a hurry after disaster.” —Jennifer Gray Thompson
46:45 “Nothing is going to be perfect for sure. And there also tends to be a lack of understanding.” —Jennifer Gray Thompson
49:01 “You have to have some structure so that when that event happens, there’s a trusted grassroots network in place.” —Michael Morter
51:34 “For economic stability, you need social stability.” —Jennifer Gray Thompson
54:26 “You can know everything about everything else, but learning a disaster is a whole thing.” —Jennifer Gray Thompson
54:48 “Execution is an art form a lot of the time —Jennifer Gray Thompson
56:54 “Disaster is super hard work and you deserve to break.” —Jennifer Gray Thompson
Michael Morter has over 20 years of experience working for the state of Oregon. He served as the Wildfire Recovery Ombudsman for Oregon after the devastating 2020 wildfire season. In this role, he helped communities navigate rebuilding and recovery challenges. Michael now runs his own consulting firm, advising on disaster recovery issues. He draws on his extensive experience in state government and insurance to help communities rebuild in the aftermath of disasters.
Jennifer Gray Thompson: Welcome once again to the How To Disaster Podcast. My name is Jennifer Gray Thompson, and I’m the CEO of After The Fire USA. Today’s guest is a dear friend of mine, Michael Morter.
So I met Michael Morter about three years ago. And after he was appointed to be the Wildfire Recovery Ombudsman for the state of Oregon in 2020, Oregon experienced the worst wildfire season on record. They had to really innovate where there were some things they could look to other states like California to figure out what to do. In other ways, arguably, they really improved upon the system. One of the things that they did was really look around to see how we can actually help our communities, especially very rural communities, navigate this really terrible, terrible time that we’ve had with mega fires. And they chose Michael Morter, which I thought was really smart. He’d had about 20, 30 years of experience in state government already, particularly in the area of insurance. So this is a very important service. I also really liked the fact that he was very protective of his community. And he said to me about a year after I came in, he was like, Jen, when After The Fire came here, I just wasn’t sure how would you get into Oregon? How would people listen to you with this work at all? But now he’s buying the Kool Aid, and I really appreciate that. I don’t mind a community that is a little bit suspicious. That’s okay. These disasters are really terrible events. A lot of people rush in who have bad intentions, but I do. I’m so glad that he took the time to really vet me, took the time to vet the organization. And then he leaned all the way in. And since then, he’s been a tremendous thought partner for me. He left this state after about 18 months, which is how long they funded that position.
Side Note in the world of How To Disaster, we argue that three years is the right amount to zoom out at random on temper, almost any position in a mega Fire, five years is better depending upon what happened. And what the parameters are, where you are, but really three years. Regardless, we applaud the state of Oregon for this really innovative, very cool thing they did even creating a position like the Wildfire Recovery Ombudsman. And we’re very happy that Michael is now retired in a private consulting firm. He’s going to come on today to talk to us about his experience in that position, so please help me welcome Michael Morter to the How To Disaster Podcast.
Once again, welcome to the podcast, Michael.
Michael Morter: Thanks, Jen. Great to be here.
Jennifer Gray Thompson: I love your story. I was talking in the intro about that Oregon California thing and how pleased I was when you sat me down a year later. And Pam was there too and said basically, I was skeptical but now I’m a believer in what you do. So side note, I took that as a huge compliment coming from you. What I would like you to do is when we start this podcast, set the scene for us. It’s 2020. It’s summer. What are you doing at your job? And then tell us your fire story?
Michael Morter: Okay, well, thanks, Jen. That’s an interesting series of building blocks. So 2020, I was in transition from a challenging post. I’d paid my dues working at Oregon’s health insurance exchange, which was a debacle in its own right out of the gate. And so we had to do a several year course correction on rebuilding the exchange. I went on a job rotation with the state to the construction contractors board. And that all landed as COVID was getting underway. So it’s like, wow, where is my footing now? Does it make sense to return? This was a nine month job rotation. So I came back, but really wanted to do something else for the last two years in my State career. And that was put in process. I was given the opportunity to return to the Insurance Commissioner’s Office, and that’s the Oregon insurance Commissioner’s Office. And that started September 1, 2020. So I was like, okay, great. I’m the old sage guy who’s going to help them on their legislative agenda. And this will be my glide path. I can see what the next two years look like.
Jennifer Gray Thompson: Make sure people know how long you have already been working for the state by now.
Michael Morter: Thankful for that clarification. So it was really 20 plus years at that point. So I’ve worked for the insurance commissioner for four years. I’ve worked for the state building codes division. I helped them launch a statewide outreach program. And I think of all the experience I had, that was the really pivotal one because we have a statewide code, but it’s enforced locally. So there’s this tension between the state and local government. I just think in so many ways that blessed my ability to connect with the local government because it wasn’t coming in and out on bugs. We got this figured out, you need to do what we tell you to do right now. So that experience of building code was really helpful. And then in the health insurance realm, I did a lot of statewide travel. So I built connections with the business community and key stakeholders. So that just kind of built out the network to what purpose. I didn’t really know until the fire hit.
Jennifer Gray Thompson: How to build social capital is very important in a disaster. A lot of technical knowledge at the same time and some degree of compassion and understanding for the distressed or tension between the space, between state government on the ground, local government. Just for those who are listening, how do you even do that? I just want to make sure that they’re catching that very big skill set.
Michael Morter: It’s important. And I think the ability to build trust quickly with local government stakeholders can’t be understated. In this case, there were a number of folks who were still around in the building programs that knew me. And thankfully, I’d maintain those relationships even though it has been several years since I’ve been in the field. And you could really feel a sense of relief. Stuff has hit the fan, but Michael’s here, and that’s a good thing. And it just starts opening doors. I think that otherwise people don’t open when, as you well know, people come in. We’re here to help. It’s like, well, really, are you here to help because we have a problem?
Jennifer Gray Thompson: A lot of times, not really. They’re not bad people, but they’re only there for like the first 6 to 8 weeks, and then they’re gone. So it’s September 1, you’re in this new position, what happens?
Michael Morter: I report for duty. And because it’s COVID, everybody’s working remotely at that point. I signed whatever paperwork I needed to sign at that point, and then just really was plugging back in to the insurance commissioners to say, all right, where can I add value? Take the role. Obviously at that point, I would have been a senior policy advisor. Suffice to say the only gray beard in the group. So I was looking forward to being able to help guide the legislative agenda and some really good talent they had on board, the fires hit.
Jennifer Gray Thompson: For those who don’t know, sorry, I really want to make sure of that because I love this story so much. I wish that everyone would get a wildfire ombudsman, so I’m interrupting a lot because I really do like it. What happened in Oregon, and when? Just so people can get a flavor for it.
Michael Morter: So Labour Day weekend was when our fires hit. And ironically, we were actually up one of the canyons. It was 24 hours before the fires hit and we were looking at a piece of property with some friends thinking, this will be perfect. And we had the opportunity to camp. Thank goodness, we didn’t. But yeah, it was in that category. Do you know what’s coming? No. And then things change so quickly. We had a really, highly unusual low humidity event. You could just feel the air drying out like the prior 48 hours, I’d say. And then the winds kicked up that night. And once they did, that was just a matter of time. And so we had tremendous loss of structures in 8 counties in Oregon. Thankfully, loss of life considering these fires came down at night heavily, in predominantly rural areas, at least in two of the counties. I think we were really lucky to get away as we did.
Jennifer Gray Thompson: Set it so people understand, Oregon had never had mega fires like this before. The fire chief in Ashland in that area, we were in a meeting together and he was like, okay, I had gone to California and had done mutual aid several times, but I didn’t expect it to happen here. Even though at that time, we were just a few miles over the California border. He wasn’t dumb or simple. It was just that this magical thinking flicks all of us, and it was a stunning amount of mega fire across a state in one fell swoop as many complex fires or many fires that came together to form complex variations and he was affected too. So sorry, go ahead.
Michael Morter: That’s really important because it was over in a matter of a day. We had eight counties from, close to the Portland Metro area all the way down to Southern Oregon. And it ranged from where your fire chief you’re referring to a fairly urban area. That fire down in the talent Phoenix area were neighborhood, city neighborhoods were eviscerated. The other areas around the state were definitely more rural. And so we’ve got that mix. You have one county in particular, which has really struggled with recovery because the burn scar is in an unincorporated area. And when you’re trying to provide services without a local connector that can recognise and do that work, that’s difficult. It
Jennifer Gray Thompson: Trust is always an issue in every disaster. But trust in a rural or frontier community is very hard earned. You can’t just drive in there and think that they’re going to trust you. That’s not going to work that way because they are so used to being self reliant. They rely on the community, but they rely on each other. Outsiders? No, not the face. So you are watching all this unfold, what happens?
Michael Morter: I report to work next week and somebody comes over to my desk. It was the day I was in the office and said, hey, they really need help at the emergency command center. Can you go over for a couple of days? Like, sure. I have been around the state government a long time, but I have no idea what I’m walking into. It’s the Red Cross. It’s the National Guard. It was organized. But I’m thinking, where is my place in this? Because they just needed somebody to help answer some of the insurance related issues and just be a go between, at least that was the initial goal. And thankfully, I received it. I remember this very clearly. I walk in and they’re like, hey, this briefing is starting. I’m just all eyes. What can I do to help? And I received it between a key rep from the Red Cross who had significant disaster experience, Denise and fellow Nick from FEMA, who had both been through this drill. And they looked at me, did a quick assessment.They’re like, okay, so you understand local government, you’ve been around insurance, you’ve been around building codes, you’re going to be more helpful here than you think. And so I went through that first couple of days really just answering and trying to be helpful where I could, and I was finally able to connect with a lead staffer from Oregon’s Division of Emergency Management. He was really the point person for the state and did a short interview and said, I’m trying to figure out where I can best use you over the next couple of weeks. And by the time I got through that conversation, he said, I don’t think you’re going back. So this is not a rotation. I was like, well, that’s all well and good. But where that really shifted was probably the next week or two.
Governor Brown made what I think was just a terrific decision, and that was to appoint Matt Garrett as our wildfire recovery director because Matt had worked for the state for years. He was a highly regarded, very politically adept individual. And he was able to come in and hit the ground running and had the respect of the other agency heads immediately. Of course, he’s working under the governor’s umbrella, but really just brought so much substance to the position, the effort and call, frankly. Matt and I knew one another that hadn’t worked directly together. We had a phone call, probably my second week at OEM and he just said, what can you tell me? It was an hour and a half of just breaking down, here’s what’s working, here’s what’s not. Here’s what I think could work better. And at the end of that, Matt just said, well, keep me in the loop and consider me your direct report. That was like, oh, okay. You work out the details, I’ll happily come along. And so Matt actually asked me to write my own job description, which I’d never had that opportunity, and gave it some thought and really crafted it where at the end of the day, my responsibilities were around the built environment. So really identifying barriers that were impeding permitting, wetlands, building official interface, working with contractors, whatever that might be. Did that for the next almost two years, and it was phenomenal work.
Jennifer Gray Thompson: Got my hand up for a question. Is there a way that we can actually drop a PDF of your job description in the description, because I would really very much like other states to consider why it is fit. This is of particular importance. A lot of counties have an ombudsman for their building department, and an ombudsman for disasters. It’s a very hard job. Somebody’s got to hit you. Has to be a bit of a unicorn, which is you. A bit of a unicorn in that sense. But if you can find people to fit it, you can also always ask people who’ve done it to like you’ve done it. And so there’s many ways to do it.
Michael Morter: Happy to share it. It’s a little dog ear. It was scanned as we’re in the midst of all the chaos. So yeah, I definitely think it’s worth states considering because you saw the difference. And so the other thing that was in place for a number of years prior to the wildfires was the governor’s regional solutions program. I can’t say enough about that because those staff had already been working in the communities, and you worked with a number of them as well. That too is a definite, unique Oregon creation where they’re really trying to help troubleshoot issues at the local level in each region.
Jennifer Gray Thompson: We should probably drop another link on regional solutions. Because in our after action report in Oregon, we specifically called out how fortunate it was that they had regional solutions in place. In the case of Santiam Canyon that they had a sit in place, that collaborative piece. They did this wildfire ombudsman program and chose you. Regional solutions are really breaking up Oregon into, I think there are four or five, how many pieces?
Michael Morter: I would say five or six regions.
Jennifer Gray Thompson: They assign a person who keeps their eye. It is like a mini ombudsman, it’s very, very smart. The name is smart too. Its regional solutions. They’re there to help with the issues that are coming up. Specifically, it helps lawmakers, it helps local government, it helps bureaucrats, it helps the people on the ground trying to work it out. To be clear, Oregon has 4 million people. In California, we have 40 million people. I still wanted it here. Even if we had to break the ombudsman piece into northern central Southern California, I think that we would have benefited from that. So there were really great things in place not knowing that this would happen necessarily, but also undergoing the disaster that was really a catastrophe, which was COVID, which is a mismanaged disaster. I mean, nationally mismanaged. So then the ombudsman piece, did you come up with that? Or Did somebody else like the name of it, because I love it.
Michael Morter: I have to give credit to a former boss of mine from building codes. He’s a very strategic thinker. He had heard that Garrett was getting appointed and said, I’m guessing something’s heading your way. And he was spot on. And so he planted that seed. And by that point, he was representing the state home builders. He knew the value that I would bring to the position of hearing people out looking for solutions, and really trying to move as quickly as reasonably possible. As you know, federal and state bureaucracy sometimes is slower than we need. But to bring that just pragmatic skill sets the table. He dropped Ombudsman and then I latched on to it and said, we’ll take a run at it. And I always coveted it. I’d always coveted the title. It’s like, boy, if I could ever do that work.
Jennifer Gray Thompson: I tried to get a job with Permit Sonoma as an ombudsman after our fires. The director, he loves me, I love him. He had an ombudsman, but I referred the county supervisor and hiring staff away from the county. Supervisor is fraught with issues. When I saw that they had an entire one for the entire state for all of the fires, I coveted your position. I couldn’t even have done it. You’re in this position, but then you’ve got to hit the ground and start talking to people and finding out what their problems are. Let’s start in Southern Oregon. The Almeda Fires specifically it’s in Rogue Valley. For those of you who don’t know, it is an arson fire. Although we never really get to know each other, I never really see who that person is. I’m not really sure about that. Started in Ashland at the Greenway. Ashland has a much wealthier community than the two neighboring communities. There’s not a Greenbelt in between so they just flow into each other. Talent and Phoenix, were actually destroyed in most of their downtown’s as well during this mega fire, and it took out a lot of workforce housing, a lot of mobile home parks. Very painful. A lot of mixed status worker homes, a lot of undocumented people who had paid maybe $10 or $15,000 for their singlewide, 10 years earlier. And then they find themselves homeless, not insured. There was one mobile home park, and 99 out of 100 of the units were not insured. And if you are in those who don’t know, unless you have a child or somebody in the house is documented, you are not eligible for federal relief. If somebody in the house is, then you are to a certain extent. Talk to me about walking into that community.
Michael Morter: I relied heavily and continued throughout the process. Representative Pam Marsh that you’ve gotten to know, she is a superstar. I’ve been around electeds most of my working career in two states and have met few people as pragmatic, smart and kind. So that’s an unusual package.
Jennifer Gray Thompson: I’ve never heard anybody, not that nobody has anything bad to say about her. But I have to say that, I’ve never heard anybody say anything but good things about her. I think it’s her willingness to listen and act, and she wasn’t offended. We sent her all of the legislation from California, which a lot of people don’t like. That had been enacted at the state level since 2017, and she was very happy about it. It was like, okay, what is my state’s need? Not every elected official can or will do that. Keep going.
Michael Morter: Well, I think it was really maintaining a steady check in with Representative Marsh. If there was something she was hearing in the community, or she was comfortable referring people to me at that point because that was one of the sources. And then it was just connecting me to the community groups who needed help and trying to get the word out about what I could or couldn’t do. And one of the things that I did have to draw a line around was anything tied to social services. For my experience and background, that was just outside the portfolio. So the case management work was not something I touched. But again, I built the environment during my building code days at Southern Oregon as a geographic assignment. So a lot of people in the business community that I met years earlier we’re still in key roles. Working with them, leaning in with the local home builders immediately, what are you hearing? What are you seeing? And that was really helpful because most of these builders, in fact, I don’t think any of them, if they’d ever built on the heels of a loss. Maybe someone had water damage in their house, but they had never worked with homeowners. As you know, these homes are eviscerated so you can’t even use the foundation. You can’t even use your condition. And so the work with those builders and just say, look, what are you hearing and seeing that I could make a difference in those were really crucial relationships out of the gate.
Jennifer Gray Thompson: I’m glad that you pointed that out. I like to say that we do equity, but we’re not a social service organization. We coach the entire community. It’s good to know what your skill set is and to be very honest about that. Because sometimes in a disaster, we see people really crumble because they’re way outside of their skill set, and they hyperventilate in their desire to do everything. And then they also are having a hard time saying, I don’t know how to do that thing. I’ve never done case management. We don’t do that, but we know who’s good at it. And that’s really part of what you absolutely came to really understand all of these social organisations because we get a lot of pop-ups after disasters, which are great. We are properly supported and funded. And if they’re properly led, so there’s all of that. There’s some if’s in there, but they should not be discouraged. Often, they also combine forces which we’d like to see. But getting people back, dealing with a built environment becomes an equity issue as well. It also becomes like a mental health issue because it can get people back, and it can really remove so many barriers because so much of disaster is about secondary trauma. The more barriers there are, the more people who are already in trauma become discouraged, depressed, and engage in behaviors that are not healthy for them or their community. So if you’re listening to this and you think, oh, ombudsman built environment builders. Do not underestimate the ancillary benefits of that for the entire community rebuild because we don’t often see enough emphasis on engaging builders. We were just in Marshall Fire last week in Boulder and we did have a builders meeting. It was so good to hear from them about IBHS and Smart Home America. I realized that this is an underutilized space that’s something that I will eventually want to talk to you about. How important is actually the facilitation of that and keeping them engaged? It’s huge. Also, because that’s all the fraudsters come in. A lot of them are from out of state, out of area, offering to rebuild all these homes. We really want to strengthen the builders at home as much as possible and empower them. That’s my soapbox.
Michael Morter: Well, to that point, Jen, I guess it’s important for anyone considering this role to look for those connectors. And I think that’s where you and I share so much. We love connecting. How do you solve a problem? Find the right people and get them in the room? What I did see on the case management side, once we started, DHS got your program up and underway and their program manager. I just caught in passing, it was on one of these Zoom calls where it feels like you’ve got 50 people on a call. I’m like, wait a minute. This case managers are getting questions about insurance and they’re not qualified. But let’s do this. And so I got a hold of my friends at the insurance division and said, hey, we need to have a sit down so you can give them a primmer and talk to them about the resources you offer. Because we don’t want people, again, just having to revisit this in turn, and where do I go for help? I’ve already lost my house. And now, I’m having a tough time dealing with this adjuster and need help. We have to think really broadly about those resources and timing, and when to get them in front of people when it’s most helpful.
Jennifer Gray Thompson: A side note, there isn’t an excellent nonprofit called United Policyholders that does help people after a disaster. They never had a big presence in Oregon. They’ve had a very light touch there. Other communities have a much bigger presence. uphelp.org, look at them. In Oregon, they just were not really present in that disaster, I think, except for some Zoom call. So sidenote, go ahead.
Michael Morter: And I do think that was helpful. The learning tool for both of us. When I was working with Representative Marsh and reviewing some of those proposed bills that came through, you have to know that every state has different insurance contracts. I think that was a learning curve for the folks from the United Policyholders. But once that was queued up, I think they had good visibility here for what they could do, and certainly would welcome them to the fold again. For folks who are listening in, I had thought, oh, this is somebody that’s working. Is this a front for the trial bar? But no, they’re an independent organization looking to help consumers navigate insurance. So people don’t need to worry about, well, am I going to give up a third of my claim benefits if I’m working with UP and you’re not. So I think what I would recommend to people is to make sure that you’re working with your insurance agent. You got an insurance commissioner in your office, every speaker in your state. Every state has one working closely with him. And then to the extent, you can track down for some guidance. That’s also helpful.
Jennifer Gray Thompson: They are online that you can always access. They have a roadmap to recovery, they have webinars. We highly recommend their services. But in the sense of like, tell us how you worked with local builders, like every disaster community, they’re also often affected by the disaster. So talk to us about your first steps in trying to coalesce that effort.
Michael Morter: In this case, it was helpful because they had actually a fairly active Builders Association in Southern Oregon. So they had a chapter. I knew their executive director from my time building codes. I knew several of your builders, but not all of them. And the hard part is for a number of them, they already had work in the pipeline. You don’t drop your existing clients, you need to finish that work. The other part was, there was a clear difference between the builders who were willing to take the time and spec a bid so that as the insurance company looked at it, they could compare for like, if they didn’t have a complete bid that made it a lot tougher for the homeowner to negotiate with the company. And so I really had to get to those builders that were spending the time breaking down. Well, sure the insurance company is using the software to generate your claim activity and what a presumed reimbursement should be. But you really can’t take that at face value. I guess I would offer that for anybody. It’s a negotiation. So if you’re working with your builder and he said, no, this is what you had, and what they’re speaking is not the same. Ask for it and get it.
Jennifer Gray Thompson: And if you’ve not yet burned down, congratulations, My mike is in a weird place, I’m just gonna let that happen. If you’ve not yet burned down, you do want to check with your insurance company. Because I think for most people who haven’t burned down in their brain, they think, if it was a house fire, here’s how much it might cost in order to either repurchase my home, or to rebuild it in the event of a house. Or an event in a house where you can often keep your foundation in the event of a mega fire, it’s very different heat thresholds. You’re competing with in our case, I hear just in Sonoma County, 6,000 other families to rebuild pretty much the same pace that you would like to. And that means that the cost goes up tremendously, the occurrence of fraud goes up tremendously. People who then wanted to bypass the rules, like in California, you can only give a $1,000 deposit to a contractor. That’s all they can take. But in our case, we had some people who wanted to, naturally trauma, trauma induced wanting to get ahead so they handed them 100,000, 150,000. And a lot of people never saw that money again. And so side note, it’s very hard to navigate when you are grieving for the life that you had, and the life that you had was worth grieving over. But just try to take a deep breath and don’t make decisions that you may not be ready to make, because everyone’s in a hurry after a disaster.
Michael Morter: That is a great point, Jen. Because one of the things I was completely unaware of, even though I had an insurance background coming in was, what are the ramifications for people accepting that money and then paying off their mortgage loan? Because their lenders are like, no, pay this off. This is good. And God forbid if people had a 3 or 4% interest rate, they lost that by accepting the settlement move forward two years by the time you can get a hold of a builder, and now it’s seven.
Jennifer Gray Thompson: We just talked about this last week. We were in Boulder. We had a meeting with both builders the night before we had a meeting with Fannie Mae and fire rebuilders. Their fires 20 months post disaster right now, these stories were appalling. The things that these people have been through being told by their lenders that they had to pay off their mortgage, and then they have to get a construction. They’re subject to much, much higher interest rates. But not only that, it’s industry standard. It’s definitely true for Fannie Mae, if you check a knowyouroptions.com, you’ll see that this is true that you often can just add that year onto the end of your mortgage. So if you have a 30 year fixed, you become a 31 year fixed. There are no penalties. But do educate yourself though, is your lender going to report that to a credit bureau? Or are they on board? Are they telling you what’s actually true? We like bringing Fannie Mae into communities because they actually can hear what they are experiencing like a mobile home park in Talent where there’s only 10 units left. Uninhabitable for weeks, but the landlord based in Canada never stopped charging rent because he was a charming person who I’m sure is going somewhere hot, anyway. When people don’t behave well knowing what’s going on behind, use your lawmakers. There are other ways to navigate it, but don’t pay off your mortgage unless you’re sure that you have to. And it’s likely you do not. And it’s even more likely that you can wait another year. The other thing that we heard this time that I had not heard before is the number of lenders who, because they accept the payments from the insurance companies who were not only holding the amount of their current mortgage, but anything above that as well. So if they had 200,000, some people got SBA loans or cars, you can get those now. It’s a new program. You can get more money from SBA at a very low interest rate to actually build back more resiliently. SBA is another conversation. If you are denied, keep appealing. But the lenders were actually holding on to even $200,000 more just, and they were accruing their own interest but not paying the interest for holding all the money to the actual fire survivors when it’s their money. Knock it annoying, not kind or human.
Michael Morter: Yeah, there you have it right. So that for me was one of the missing links that I wish we had really been out in front of because it can’t be said enough. You don’t have to do this in many, many of the cases and just take the time. Get your feet on the ground, figure out what’s happening. But I think for some folks, they thought it would bring closure, and it really doesn’t because it doesn’t move you further ahead in the process at that point.
Jennifer Gray Thompson: It doesn’t. I interrupted you to go on a soapbox rant. You’re getting the builders together, I think our point is well taken. Don’t leave out the builders. The fuzzy side of this relationship is their community. They do want an opportunity to help, I think in Sonoma County, (inaudible) had a particularly good job of hosting builders every single week. Whether or not they remembered to, they were still coming to talk about the rebuild. Take us up to Santiam Canyon.
Michael Morter: What we saw in that rural community that’s been so challenging, and I know this will resonate for rural areas on septic, those standards have changed, right? We want to take care of our groundwater, but what does that mean if you have an 800 square foot cabin and a tiny lot? And now, that’s not as functional, or you’ve got to buy your neighbor’s lot. And from my perspective, it’s not progress if what you have is someone new to the community, and now it’s a house that is one in the place of three lots. I think that’s a tough one. Someone early on told me, if you want to see gentrification, pay attention to the footprint of a disaster. I tend to think of gentrification in a very urban context, but it’s not. And for both Canyons, I think the McKinsey as well as the Santiam, getting those resources to the folks is absolutely a struggle because the people who were appropriately insured and had capital rebuilt fairly quickly. But if you were underinsured and there’s not as much capital, that’s where we still have a gap. Very many gaps in both communities.
Jennifer Gray Thompson: We see the most no insurance in rural communities, frontier communities. You don’t have a mortgage, then it’s very common to not have insurance. You understand why these people, they’re not irresponsible at all. That’s not the point at all. They are often low income and they can’t afford the insurance as well. Until they can’t afford not to have it makes me so sad. I don’t know if we’ve ever talked about solving for maybe, you are a private citizen, you can say things that you maybe couldn’t when you work for the state. So my question is one of the things that we’re passionate about, because I came up in Santa Cruz as well as I do. I wish that we could solve for toilets and sanitation for these rebuilding communities to avoid gentrification and pushing out people who are part of that community. The issue of septic especially in a Canyon, near a river, it’s not even the best thing for the environment. There’s no way they can do the sewer. But there are other technologies that are even 30, 40 years old that are just simply disallowed. How was that handled in Oregon?
Michael Morter: There’s a process for alternative pathways through our Department of Environmental Quality. But that takes time to go through that process, unfortunately. So there are some discussions, for example in McKinsey, they were considering in the community of Blue River their septic alternatives. One of them was boring, which was interesting to me. It’s like you’ve got a vertical septic, how does that work? And at the end of the day, I think the price point was just out of reach in the community. And the other thing that you have to keep in mind, alright, so septic is typically done at the individual level. There are options for more community based systems. But anytime you’re involving neighbors, and it’s expanded, if you don’t have an incorporated area and a mechanism for funding it, that gets really difficult. So is it viable? And that’s one of the questions for a community like Blue River. One, is it viable? And at what cost? And do people want that? Would they say yes, I am? I’m in. I think the infrastructure issues and river communities are huge. And it’s not successfully cracked.
Jennifer Gray Thompson: You would be so useful for any, especially in a lot of ways. You’d be useful for a lot of things. But in addition to the builders’ exchanges, helping communities actually navigate, if you look around your community right now, and so you haven’t yet burned down, but you’ve found this podcast because you’ve come to the end of the internet. Then one of the points of resilience is really, if your community burned down like Paradise, the entire everyone’s on septic, including the business downtown, how would you actually come back from that when septic can add 30 or $40,000 on to the cost of your rebuild? State requirements are different when the home was rebuilt. In California, we have, I think it’s called the K Code of the California State Building Code which Mendocino had to use in order to build back into allowing alternative methods of composting toilets, those sorts of ideas. But maybe on a state level to really look at, like, if we do have a disaster in one of these heavily rural communities, a huge point of equity, it’s an equity issue is how can we anticipate that we know that’s going to be a problem, and that they’re not going to be able to afford that. But if we had an alternative we’d already gone through and we knew that like, or three alternatives, whatever it is, because you can do those often for a few $1,000, which is very different from $30 to $40,000. I feel like they should call Michael Morter. So you spend almost two years in that position. Tell me about what that was like? What do you learn? What you found moving? What you found frustrating?
Michael Morter: I was so impressed by the capacity of people I got to know. I’ve always been more than a glass half full person, but I met so many talented people who did things completely out of the box. As an example, when I had landed at, this is probably like week 3 at emergency management. And it was like, okay, I think I have this figured out. Here’s where I can help. I was introduced to a fellow by the name ofMatt Lind. Matt is a younger, but career guy at our Department of Transportation. He was tasked with his leadership of the debris cleanup, and figuring out how to do this. How to work with DEQ. And his counterpart, Brian, I’m sorry Brian, I’m drawing a blank on your last name. Brian was great too. The two of them just shouldered this enormous responsibility. All right, the state has a multi 100 million dollar cleanup, I think the final bill was $300 million. Not in their job descriptions–
Jennifer Gray Thompson: Ours was a little, it was a billion I think for just Sonoma County. Go ahead.
Michael Morter: So how do you do that? Several of us were like, hey, let’s call California. So I will also shout out to the insurance commissioner’s office down there, they were always willing to talk to me and talk to our staff. Your transportation folks that had done the clean up said, here’s the best practice. But for the love of God, don’t do this. So our guys are like, okay, we’re not allowing that. And I think seeing that work, and the two organisations that had never done anything like this ran what I think was a highly successful effort. Meaning, they wrapped up in a little over a year, or maybe it was under a year after the fires. So at the end of the day, their staff was moving along. And the rest of the slog, as you well know, right now we’ve got to get houses, we’ve got to get communities back. And that’s the long part. But if you have people that jump in and organisations just say, we’re going to make this happen as quickly as we can cut. That’s amazing to see. I saw that at the state level or the local level where people just really leaned in, that’s the good stuff.
Jennifer Gray Thompson: In rural communities, a couple of notes like, well, we had a wildfire in our area, and we were cleaned up in eight months. Wherever they are. Every year, we’re talking heavily in rural areas where complicated debris removals are often at very almost inaccessible roads like this was not simple. And there were major environmental concerns, watershed issues like Michael mentioned earlier, and so every cleanup is slightly different. We did not know how to do it because we didn’t expect it. So we had some over scraping issues, we thought our local environmental quality people thought, oh, they should come all the way down to the dirt until there’s nothing in the dirt. And that was actually not necessary. So mistakes were made. I hope that we put all of our mistakes to good use, but we certainly made them.
Michael Morter: I think that’s important for communities to be able to reach out and say, hey, can you help us? Absolutely. Pay it forward. And so I had forgotten that we had heard about the over scraping down there. So it was really trying to find that balance of what needs to happen. And then when you talk about the partnerships in the rural areas, the state had to move quickly, and they were working on behalf of FEMA. So you’ve got this federal agency that generally is not, I mean, I don’t know that anything federal is beloved in rural America. Having grown up there myself, we don’t want the Feds to tell us what to do. But getting that released so that people could go on the property and begin the cleanup, that took a lot of work for folks to be comfortable with ours is going to happen. And so I think for communities to talk about that in advance would be well served. We ever find ourselves in this boat. There were a number of areas where there was tremendous pushback like it was going to be a takeover. It’s like, no, no, no, it’s a cleanup. We’re removing all these toxic things off your property at no charge. But it was a lot of work to get out in those areas and get that permission. And then I think when it was all said and done, people are like, oh, that worked really well.
Jennifer Gray Thompson: Nothing is going to be perfect, for sure. And there also tends to be a lack of understanding. So for context, Michael and then Jim White from the Oregon Nonprofits Association, they came to us after they decided we were cool, which is fun. And you guys said, I love that you’re down here in Southern Oregon, but we’d really like to see you in Central Oregon. Can you meet with this Emergent Leader and talk to her because she wears many hats. This is so common in rural and frontier areas that people have any capacity whatsoever by taking on multiple roles and how to do the disaster. But they actually had some really cool best practices up there that we stumbled across. Their hospital district was sort of reformed to take the lead. And it was genius. And I just thought that it was just so wonderful. And our job really just ended up being to meet you there and Jim. And to go around and listen to what everybody else was doing. I was so moved to actually be able to say back to them because they were worried, Dina was worried that we were going to see behind the veil. You’re too eager to know what you’re doing. And instead, we were like, I don’t know if you know this, but you’re doing a great job. And none of us know what we’re doing at first. But my goodness, by that time they were a year at 14 months post disaster, what a great job you’re doing. But as the ombudsman, you knew that we could still bring value to them that it would look different. But you understood the subtleties of all of the communities. Bringing it back to that, your role in that was huge.
Michael Morter: I was just on a call last week sponsored by rural development initiatives, and it was a panel conversation, Representative Marsh, Kevin Dial and myself, and I think one of the things I definitely, if I go through a list of top fives, they’re at the very top for that model. But they would also tell you that it won’t work for every area. You can’t ask your rural hospital necessarily in Central Washington or northern Idaho to do that work. But what is your model? You have to have some structure so that when that event happens, there’s a trusted grassroots network in place. Because if you do that, like the Santiam, they probably still don’t give themselves enough credit for this, but you and I have both seen them. We’ve seen the work in the community, and it was just phenomenal. I can’t imagine where they would be without that effort.
Jennifer Gray Thompson: The existing social capital, it doesn’t have to be like, I don’t need to form an organization that goes in and does all their stuff for them. That is not going to work in very (inaudible) a lot of communities. Sometimes it works if they’re more urban or suburban, but that currency of trust and relationships, because so many people who’ve been affected by a disaster, there’s a mental health component to it. They may not reach out, but if you know that they’re there and nobody’s heard from them, but you also know that maybe they need a new refrigerator, it’s almost a bespoke model, but it’s perfect for other people if you can adapt it to your needs. But you have now this repository of Oregon knowledge that’s so wonderful for Oregon, it can be expanded into other areas as an advisory role.
Michael Morter: Well, thank you. Thank you. The other one that was significant from my perspective, and when we talk about the interface into the rural areas, Lane County knew they already had a difficult relationship at the local level. Because as I mentioned, there’s not an incorporated area there. So leaning into that, and what can we do better, one of the things they did is they created a position, it was permit navigator. One they hired, absolutely the best person they could have because she’s approachable. She’s honest for follow ups. That’s an hour long drop. Well, you’ve saved all those community members that much time, so why not take it on your shoulders as a government to do best practice? Mike, we’re coming to you. That was huge. That was huge.
Jennifer Gray Thompson: It’s trauma informed, it’s huge. It’s more efficient because you’re going to reach more people. Some people, they’re not as concerned with getting everybody back to the community as some of us are. But for economic stability, you need social stability. And that’s the reality. You can actually feed off of each other, which means that all the other systems have to somehow work together in a collaborative fashion to do it. A lot of times, I always tell people when they’re like, oh, I want to come to California. It’s much easier in Oregon. I love my state, but it’s so huge and complicated. And the space between your average citizen and then the state government just tends to be much higher. if you don’t have access. Access is incredibly important in your ability to recover from a disaster. That’s what you were giving them access to was access. I don’t want to leave this conversation until you tell us, I see that you get all this information and you’d be out in the field traveling quite a lot, I imagine. And then COVID, side notes, and then you would filter it back upstairs. So what was the structure of that?
Michael Morter: That was the crazy part. So here, I’m working for Matt, a well respected leader who’s just the guy. Matt gave me so much latitude like, if you think it’s the right thing to do. I got your back. So I really tried to identify if it was a quick turnaround, and I can deal with a local conversation. Let’s do it. If I need to talk to a department manager about, hey, I think we’re running into some hiccups. I would do that if it were to the point that we needed to go to top leadership. That’s when I went to Matt. And everytime you want to bat for me it is like, hey, I’m knocking heads, I can’t get an answer. I need an answer. And it’s like, oh, thanks, Matt. So even though I had the history and the working relationships to have somebody who has the final say, they had the effort to be able to move the needle when I needed it moved was incredibly important. And so with Matt, generally, I’d say most days, I didn’t necessarily have contact. I was just like, okay, this is coming in. I’ve got to deal with this. Does it rise to Matt’s level? I did a weekly summary every week. The other day, I went back and started leafing through some of them like, oh, my god, we did that? So he got a summary, and then we had a call. I got the summary from him every Friday. And then Monday morning, we started off the week with a half hour phone call to be like, okay, where we are? What do we have? What’s coming down the pike? And otherwise, he turned me loose.
Jennifer Gray Thompson: So I think that there’s some important lessons there. He didn’t try to micromanage you which allows you to learn to eat and learning, you can know everything about everything else. But learning a disaster, it’s a whole thing. And that you had that kind of vet is pretty regular communication, summary on Friday, a call on Monday. I like how to pieces too because people are like, oh, yeah, we have an ombudsman. We got that idea checked. How do you actually execute it? Execution is an art form. Hopefully everyone in every state has a unicorn. So can you talk to us about what you are doing now? What did you like most about it? What are you carrying into the next phase of your life?
Michael Morter: Hmm, good question. It was hard to walk away from the role. And so your listeners are fully up to speed. It wasn’t voluntary on my part. I wasn’t fired. It just simply was the reality of what was a two year job rotation or close to it. Matt was asked to come out of retirement to take on the job for X amount of time. And he did that. I was pretty much attached to him at that point so I did go back to work for the insurance commissioner, but realized my heart was in the wildfire. I missed work. So I put in my retirement from the state of Oregon and thought about, one, I took some time off. But then I formed an LLC. I’ve had a couple of clients today. One of them was Oregon. Goodness, it’s not an Oregon solution. Yes, it’s an Oregon solution, thank you. It’s like, wait a minute, it’s not the regional solution. Oregon solutions, which is based out of Portland State, and they had been approached to help do work specifically at the Mckenzie River. And so I was brought on board just to help on some housing specific and relational issues for a period of time. That was great. I love working with McKenzie. And since then, I’ve done some work for Lane County. So back in the McKenzie, there’s a team here. But now, I’m waiting. That space is close to signing a contract with an outside provider that will hopefully continue work for me on a statewide basis and just doing what I do best.
Jennifer Gray Thompson: And also allowing you that time because well earned retirement after decades in the service state of Oregon, you can still serve the people in the state. But you can also have a little more time for breaks. Because disaster is super hard work, and you deserve to break. And I know that. I consider you a very valuable resource. We’ve had conversations about this and you don’t even know how valuable your skill set is for other communities. Even other states going through this to have your background would then have to learn about wildfires under a two year period. I did write a letter to the governor’s office at the time. I said, you really should automatically do this for a minimum of three years. Three years is sort of a magical number. People need it for longer, but three years of full time ombudsman is actually the best number. They did not listen, that’s fine. I’m just me, I’m not magical. But if you are listening to this and you are at a state agency, and you think, should I try this? I cannot highly recommend that when you find things, consider them at least for the first three years post disaster. I always love the people that I come into contact with in this work. And unless I don’t, that’s pretty rare. I can name them, but I won’t because there’s not that many that I think, oh, not for me. For the most part totally for me, and I’m very happy to have you as a colleague and a friend. So we’re going to drop some links and some documents into the description. We also do a full transcript. We’ll show you how to get in touch with Michael if you are interested in talking to him more. He has just a lot of knowledge. You may think, oh, two years and 70. But it’s not just two years. It’s like imagining you went to war for two years, how much you would know about that particular war. And that’s the deal. That’s how this work is. Michael is certainly a veteran of that. So anyway, is there something that I didn’t ask you that you wish that I had asked you?
Michael Morter: I think we’ve pretty much covered it, Jen.
Jennifer Gray Thompson: All right then. So this has been another episode of the How To Disaster Podcast. Our guest today is Michael Morter, former ombudsman, Wildfire Recovery Ombudsman for the state of Oregon. And now, in private practice. And thank you again for spending this time with us.
Michael Morter: Thank you, Jen.