“You’re in that place where disaster hasn’t hit you, but you know it’s coming. Start training now.” -Tennis Wick

 

The community often looks to public sector officials for everything, and any delay or failure often turns to blame. Most people forget that these officials are victims themselves. The only difference is that the public sector stands at the frontline despite their own loss. Disaster is a battlefield where many lives and properties could potentially be lost. In order to win, collective action is needed. In this episode, Jennifer and Sonoma’s PRMD Director, Tennis Wick discuss effective approaches and systems that can help leaders and individuals make the transition from disaster response to recovery.  Tennis also speaks about ways to deal with misinformation, address contractor fraud, allocate funding wisely, meet the needs of thousands of victims, and help them get their life back together. Rebuilding and recovery is an exhausting process, and those at the forefront need to take time for themselves, otherwise they’ll be drained completely. Hear how Tennis makes sure he keeps his physical and mental well-being at optimum level. Tune in and be disaster smart!

 

 

Highlights:

  • 03:09: On the Disaster Frontline
  • 08:01: Meeting the Needs
  • 14:04: How to Approach Rebuild Projects 
  • 21:07: The Role of a Block Captain
  • 26:07: The Problem with Contractor Fraud
  • 30:22: Be Disaster Smart 
  • 38:48: Risk Mitigation is a Collective Effort
  • 42:25: Start Training Now
  • 45:15: How Helpers Can Help Themselves

 

Quotes: 

01:19: “We often look towards the public sector in times of great disaster for all of the answers, we also often place all of the blame at their feet. But one thing we forget is that there’s a human being at the center of that too. And they’ve often undergone the disaster themselves.” -Jennifer Gray Thomson  

15:06: “Setting up a system where people could come in and start rebuilding their lives wasn’t just the bureaucracy of getting their house re-permitted. It was helping people recreate their identities.” -Tennis Wick

27:18: “People are under constant strain if they don’t have a good, reputable contractor. That stress probably starts way back in insurance. If you’re underinsured, you’re already coming in with less money than you need to build back what you had. So unless you’re going to build a smaller place, you’re constantly going to be under pressure.” -Tennis Wick

31:11: “We have to stop responding to disasters, and get in front of it once and for all.”  -Tennis Wick

32:22: “Sea level rise has accelerated. Fires have accelerated. Flooding has accelerated. Drought has accelerated. You can either be overwhelmed by it, or you can start planning for it and being smart about it.” -Tennis Wick  

39:24: “We’re all at risk. So unless we want to suffer the tragedy, we’ve got to respond collectively to this.” -Tennis Wick

39:48: “We’re spending billions of dollars of tax money in disaster response. That’s certainly not the best way to be using our funding. We’re going to end up spending less money working on smart disaster intelligence and proper management of natural resources.” -Tennis Wick

42:30: “You’re in that place where disaster hasn’t hit you, but you know it’s coming. Start training now.” -Tennis Wick

46:22: “As a helper, you have to prioritize your own physical and mental well being. It’s good to give a lot, but you’re not supposed to give everything.” -Jennifer Gray Thompson

47:13: “Turn off the media for a while and experience what’s happening. There’s a lot more good news out there than bad.” -Tennis Wick

 

Meet Tennis Wick: 

Tennis Wick has served as Permit Sonoma Director since November 2013. The agency balances environmental protection and sustainable development of Sonoma County’s natural resources through the agency’s planning, engineering, building, well and septic, code enforcement and customer service sections.

 

Transcription:

Jennifer Gray Thompson: Welcome to the podcast How To Disaster, recover, rebuild and reimagine. My name is Jennifer Gray Thompson, and I’m the CEO of After The Fire. We’ve very special guests on this week’s episode, Mr. Tennis Wick is the director of PRMD for the county of Sonoma. With me and Tennis on the show, because he has a lot of experience navigating disasters while they’re happening, and also navigating how do you rebuild? What from the public side? What is it that you need to know about? And how do you even navigate that as a public sector official as well as the person on the other side of the rebuilding? I want Tennis to come on today because I saw his work during the 2017 wildfire disaster that struck the North Bay of San Francisco. It was an incredibly hard thing to navigate, and I feel like he really showed up for people. And it was not without a great personal sacrifice in many ways. We often look towards the public sector in times of great disaster for all of the answers. We also often place all of the blame at their feet, and it’s not that that isn’t always warranted. But one thing we forget is that there’s a human being at the center of that too, and they’ve often undergone the disaster themselves. One of the things that we do after the fire is we help public officials actually navigate this time, and we also help the public navigate public officials. This is really important work because there is no way to actually get through a disaster without collaboration from all sectors public, private and nonprofit that requires a measure of grace at the time when it’s most difficult sometimes to offer it. So I wanted Tennis to come on to talk about his experience navigating for mega fires one flood in the past four years alone. 

So once again, welcome to the podcast, How To Disaster and welcome to the show, Tennis Wick.

“We often look towards the public sector in times of great disaster for all of the answers, we also often place all of the blame at their feet. But one thing we forget is that there’s a human being at the center of that too. And they’ve often undergone the disaster themselves.” -Jennifer Gray Thomson  

Tennis Wick: Well, good morning, Jennifer. Thanks for having me on. Tennis Wick, Director of PRMD Sonoma, where the land use regulation agency for the county. We balance environmental protection with sustainable development. And we also staff the planning and intelligence section emergency operations for the county.

Jennifer Gray Thompson: So I’ve had the pleasure of working with you for about four and a half years in the county. And during that time, in 2017, we underwent a mega fire disaster covering four counties heavily impacting Sonoma County. We lost about 6000 units of housing, and it really was sort of a sign of things to come for the rest of the American West. I’m hoping that you can talk to people today about your first year experience just as a human being in a lead position for the county of Sonoma and how you experienced that event.

Tennis Wick: Sure. So about 10 days before the 2017 complex fire, we actually had done a tabletop exercise with our team and emergency operations, gaming a fire that happened above Oakmont. So we had that strategy in place about how to respond to a fire. What we weren’t prepared for is what happened that night. And for me, I live in Petaluma, and my phone started ringing around midnight to get up to the emergency operation center and in Santa Rosa right away. So I flipped into my clothes, got into my truck, and started driving out of town. And I didn’t get as far as Bodega Avenue, just on the edge of downtown.

Jennifer Gray Thompson: People in another area, can you give them the measurement of that because they may not know what the Bodega is. So like Bodega is actually in Petaluma.

Tennis Wick: Yes. Sorry, but as the name would imply is the market road that leads from the coast and the agricultural part of the West county into Petaluma and connects us with the Bay Area. So major arterial at midnight, there’s usually very few people on it. And when I got out there, there were thousands of cars streaming from the west county through town. Of course, we could smell smoke. And as I pass the gas station on the edge of town, there are people already fighting over gasoline. And I thought, okay, this is way better than anything we’ve dealt with. And then of course, going up the highway with almost nobody going northbound and all this out boundlings for all the roads leading out of the county jammed. We were already in chaos really, that’s what it was. And when I got into the emergency operations bunker, the setting was pretty similar. I think this was the biggest disaster that the county had ever faced at that time. And I’ve come to learn since going through many disasters since then here in Sonoma County, and in other jurisdictions where we provided support, that’s the nature of it. There’s a lot of misinformation flying back and forth. And our job is to sort that out, figure out what’s really happening, where it’s happening, and how we get resources there.

Jennifer Gray Thompson: So this is the first time that we had experienced, anybody had experienced a mega fire of this magnitude and had taken out not just homes in the wildland urban interface, but it actually took the freeway overpass around to get another 1500 homes. So you walk into the emergency operations center, and there is, one of the things I talked to a lot of leaders on this podcast, one of the things that I always like to bring in is there is the call to duty, a call to action and to help. And at the same time, managing your own trauma because it was an incredibly traumatic thing to witness. So can you talk about what the next 10 to 14 days were like for you?

Tennis Wick: Non-stop. We typically are told that we’re gonna operate on 12 hour shifts, and it ended up being pretty much around the clock the first three days. And as you said, with parts of the fire attacking parts of Santa Rosa like Coffee Park that no one would ever think of the wildland urban interface. And also Oakmont, and then coming down Fountain Grove towards downtown Santa Rosa, and that threat remained for over a week. So we were even looking at where to set up a local Assistance Center in Santa Rosa. At the same time, we were also realizing the struggle that if we put it in certain locations, we’d still have the risk of the fire taking up the assistance center. So we were still fighting the fire and trying to help fire survivors simultaneously. Yeah, it was extraordinary.

Jennifer Gray Thompson: And you had the extra added bonus that we had many fires at once. The Tubbs fire was the major fire but Napa was also on fire which borders Sonoma County. And where I live in Sonoma Valley, we were surrounded by a ring of fire, which really hampered the county’s ability to actually serve a valley of 40,000 people. And that was an extraordinary thing to witness both our strengths and our vulnerabilities. He also had 400 people from patients in a very, very medically fragile community. It’s a developmental center. So can you address how the Emergency Operations Center had to be creative at times to make sure that the needs were met?

Tennis Wick: Yeah. I’m glad you brought up the Nuns fire and the fire in relation to Sonoma Valley because that was an extraordinary time. My family, like your family, has been in Sonoma Valley for generations, very close to my heart for me. And the incident commander who’s the CALFIRE chief is in charge of the whole thing called at one point and said to his team, which is an extraordinary group of people were tapped out. And he wasn’t sure how long he could hold the fire off from the town of Sonoma, and he needed us to come up with an evacuation plan for Sonoma Valley. And that we had four hours to do it before he would have to execute. So I’ve told this to numerous groups since then that it really showed the power of a liberal arts education, because the people on our team are from all sorts of backgrounds, technical and liberal arts, and that emphasis on public service, critical thinking and clear communication. The pillars that we use for hiring in our civilian life here in Sonoma served us really well that night. Because you can go through all the training in the world you want. But when you receive a task like that, you need creative thought and people that can work well, communicate and operate quickly. So we had to do what people might see more typically for hurricanes in Florida, and figure out counter flow on state highways to get tens of thousands of people on to public transit and out of harm’s way. 

So part of it was identifying the most vulnerable populations, as you mentioned, those at Sonoma Developmental Center, those at senior homes, figuring out how we are going to wrangle every single bus in the region to come in. How do we get the man whose cars are going out? And then where do we take them? So all of the sensitive populations had to go to places outside of arms away in the East Bay in the inner Delta. That was an incredible logistics exercise. And then for the fire survivors who needed another place to go, we at first were relocating them to the Civic Center in Marin County. And then found out two hours into the fire, we wouldn’t be able to. So I called my old friend Steve Page, he’s an example of the extraordinary nature of Sonoma County. So he’s someone I’ve known for decades, called him and said: “Steve, I need your help.” He said: “What can we do?” And said: “I need a place to put 20,000 people.” And he said: “Okay, we’ll be ready. What else do you need?” It was my 92nd conversation. There was no histrionics. It was just about what we do to help the community and that just galvanizes things for our team. And up until 10 minutes of the execution point, we had a plan in place. It was being implemented, transportation was coming in logistics, and we were already setting up at the raceway. And that’s when the incident commander called and said, we think we can hold the fire.

Jennifer Gray Thompson: Wow, that’s interesting. Because you and I have had a lot of conversations about this fire and a lot of experience together. And I knew that you had called Steve Page. And for our listeners who don’t know who Steve Page is, he just retired as the longtime manager of Sonoma Raceway, which is a very large prominent Raceway in town. He’s one of the most steady and competent kind, and admirable leaders that I’ve ever worked with. I know that I benefited from your phone call because I evacuated my sister, my entire family, my mother, my niece, my husband, and we went to go to the Sonoma Raceway, and that’s where we evacuated to. I slept in my car with my dogs, because I still had to work. And immediately, when we pulled up, I remember finally rounding that corner, and it was at night because it took a long time. All the lights were blaring, and there were people waiting for us with whatever we needed, coming around and checking on us. So it really was one of the most moving experiences, especially as somebody who’s a helper, and I don’t accept a lot of help, which is something we will talk about in this podcast, to feel safe, and to feel sort of rescued in that moment. So I applaud that decision. And it’s also the value of relationships, like you knew exactly who you were dealing with ahead of time. And there’s just so much to be said about leaning on those relationships in a time of great crisis.

Tennis Wick: We fortunately haven’t let go up to this day. Aside from my office phone annoyingly going off with a spam call just now, almost all, and I know this among all my peers and professional life that people I deal with were on cell phones now. We don’t use our office phones anymore. It has quickened the relationships and deepened the relationships that we have with people after this disaster. So it’s a good thing.

Jennifer Gray Thompson: It’s very important. Because then at some point, you realize, especially working 20 hours a day, I would feel guilty for the four hours I was sleeping. You do get sort of to the other side, and the fire becomes contained. And it actually burned in our area for 24 days, but it was contained pretty well after about 10 to 12 days. The danger was lessened. And then for you in addition to doing that, you then had to make decisions with the county leadership about how is it do we even begin to approach rebuilding 6000 units of housing, and we’re going to do this with people who are traumatized, and have had a lot of things done to them that were not their choice. And all of a sudden, you have at least 5000 people who have never wanted to build a house ever have to become independent contractors. So let’s talk about what that was like.

“Setting up a system where people could come in and start rebuilding their lives wasn’t just the bureaucracy of getting their house re-permitted. It was helping people recreate their identities.” -Tennis Wick

Tennis Wick: So it was an adrenaline drop where you’re just constantly going. I think I lost, thankfully, lost 10 pounds over the course of about two weeks just being on adrenaline the entire time. So we had to transition out of disaster response and into recovery. So what it meant for our organization is inspectors moved out into the field with CALFIRE peers and started doing the important code determinations on each of the properties. So red tag, yellow tag, green tag along with a damage assessment that’s done for emergency management purposes on thousands of properties. So that was going on in one arm of our organization. The other arm of the organization was working with some colleagues in the county on a joint local Assistance Center with the city to take over the old newspaper building in the downtown of Santa Rosa while the fire was still going, and setting up a system where people could come in and start rebuilding their lives. And that wasn’t just the bureaucracy of getting your house re permitted. It was really helping people recreate their identities. And what I mean by that is, most people in these fires lost all their credentials. So they lost birth certificates, passports, driver’s licenses, all the things that those of us who haven’t been through disaster just take for granted. And all of the benefits that accrue from those documents, they lost all that. 

So we had people in the local Assistance Center, from the Department of Motor Vehicles, from Social Security Administration for the State Department, for both the United States and Mexico, so that people could get that part done, they could then move into working with insurance advocates with people from the construction industry, from the licensing contractors board things, they could learn about what to look for when they’re hiring and not hiring a builder in addition to getting records on their property. So it took sometimes three hours to work through all that. But they came out the door really thankful because they walked out with a provisional driver’s license, passport, some way of figuring out. I get their birth certificates, which of course come from many states or different countries, and getting starting to get their life back together. And then we had to reopen our doors here at Permit Sonoma, where we normally serve about 150 people a day in our Permit Center, that first day we opened. It was, I believe 425. So an extraordinary number of people coming through who were with [inaudible], some with anger, some in tears, some both. The moment I will always remember was this couple who would be about my parents age, so they’re in their approaching 90s. They’d lost their house, and [inaudible] is a very proud man who was just exhausted. His wife was asking the right questions and getting records for their property. And you could just see that he was about to break down and lose it, and is a very wonderfully great county surveyor. [inaudible] saw this and just quietly went out, kind of took him to the back of the office where he could have his cry, compose himself, come back and join his spouse. And I thought that that’s the moment things started building back for us.

Jennifer Gray Thompson: It’s amazing, and I think it was a great surveyor, by the way. It’s amazing though how being human to each other. The thing I actually love about disasters is, well, it is a terrible thing that happened, and I don’t love that it happened at all. But I do appreciate the opportunities for the very best of humankind to show up, and we’re going to make mistakes. We’re going to sometimes grouch even at each other or make decisions from a place of trauma. Oh, yeah, yeah, you know me. Yeah, yeah. Tennis and I are friends.

Tennis Wick: I am exactly still for you to this day, even when we’re on camera.

Jennifer Gray Thompson: Oh, you don’t fear me at all. I tried to work so funny. Here’s my interjection. As I’m driving back to the county after two weeks of serving in the valley, I am driving back to my cubicle with the window view, the smallest cubicle in the county. And I look up in the hills of Glen Ellen and I say, you know what? I want to dedicate my life to rebuilding this place , helping these people think it was, I want to put all my whatever I can do, and I don’t know what I can do, really. So the first person I tried to go work for was you. I wanted to be your ombudsman, because I actually really respect you, and I like working with you. So that is a compliment, except you didn’t hire me, but I’m okay with that because I think I’ve landed on my feet. It’s all good.

Tennis Wick: Not a code nerd. And you never will be. And thank you for that. Well, much better for you.

Jennifer Gray Thompson: Well, it is. It’s actually a great fit for me, but also still allows me to work with people like you, and you specifically. I do choose the people I admire to be on this podcast, and this is why we’re here. But it was such an extraordinary thing to work for the public sector because so much anger, trauma and grief. It was in the community really. For someone who’s never experienced a wildfire disaster, it is very much a run for your life situation that gets progressively often way worse than you think it can possibly be. I think it’s really bad. And somehow, it’s worse because the fire monster is still coming for you. And people lose, like you said, like wind and rain, sometimes they lose everything. But often, they don’t, or they can’t find their identity. People do evacuate in their skivvies, or naked, like this is it for their lives, they run for their lives. And so you are now having to serve a population who need to rebuild their lives, and to do it in a way that reduces the trauma. 

And one of the things that I really like about how we approach this in Sonoma County has to do with the Block Captain system. I’m glad you brought it up. I’d love it. If you could talk about how that actually served both the public and the public sector servants because we try to talk, we try to talk communities into, that we highly recommend it put it that way. And it’s often met from the public sector side with a lot of concern that now it’s going to organize and weaponize against them. I always try to help them understand that it’s actually just all of us doing our part. Can you talk about the impact here?

Tennis Wick: I think the Block Captains idea, at least in my experience, really emanated with Supervisor Gore. It was really great because he made sure that the bureaucracy didn’t do its control psychology thing, which it typically does. It says, we’re going to have a meeting in this location at this time, we’re going to give you this information, you’re going to assimilate it and leave. That’s the convention of how the government works. And he turned it on its head and said, look, fire survivors look at Santa Rosa as a community or Sonoma as a community whether they’re in the incorporated or unincorporated area. So we’re going to let these communities who already figure out who already know who they are, and they’re going to come to us with their leaders. We’re going to go out into their community, which obviously had been decimated in the case of Larkfield-Wikiup in Coffee Park. So we’re gonna let them tell us where it’s convenient for them, to me, at what time, and then what place. And we’re going to be there whether we’re in the water utility, the county government or the city government. And we’re going to be there with people from the trades and nonprofits, whoever these people need. And your job is to just be availed. That was great. It set a tone that said, from the leadership down, that these people are first priorities. Listen to them. And from that, you’ll figure out what you need to do. That was fabulous. 

Unfortunately, people like David Guillen who was my counterpart at the city at the time were already friends outside work. It really helped reinforce with us what we were already informally talking about was sticking a common approach to the rebuilding portion of it. And both organizations were already looking at record business before the disaster. And having fire survivors have to wait in the same line with other people was just not realistic. We realized that the local Assistance Center was a common success. We needed to build on that maybe in a little bit different ways so we could provide the oversight we needed to. But we brought in consultant teams from each city at each Government Center, and committed to a five day turnaround on permits. And maybe that would have happened without the block Captain process, but certainly after going through the first couple of meetings with block captains, there was no way we could do things the way we used to. We had to come up with something that was different. And yeah, it’s worked. In fact, the trailers in which the rebuilding happened here at the resiliency permit center. We still have it in the old planning commission chambers, but it used to be in trailers out here for years. Those trailers are finally leaving today.

Jennifer Gray Thompson: Oh, really? Wow. I remember when they went up there within like two weeks post disaster. I think really what you’re touching upon is the dedication to that sort of creative problem solving that you mentioned at the very beginning there too. And also a commitment to meet people where they’re at, like that’s a hard, critical disaster. Our first question, we always ask at the center of our organization, as we say, what do you need? And how can we help? Which is very different from what we know you have needs, here’s what we’re willing to do. Just a difference.

Tennis Wick: Absolutely. Started to impact our practice after disaster in our regular work.

Jennifer Gray Thompson: And accidentally, you didn’t mean it this way, but it ended up being great. It’s very much part of our work anyway that the consultant team that you brought in, and we don’t need to name them necessarily because we can’t endorse. But they have since been in so many other areas. We work in Santa Cruz, and now they’re there. And we work in Jackson County Southern Orient, and they are, I believe they’re coming on there as well. Yes, they sure are, they’ve done a great job of Paradise. You accidentally sort of gave him this specialty, and it reduces the trauma significantly for the people who are having to undergo, it’s not just the trauma of running for your life, and then it’s the trauma of losing your house, and then it’s the trauma of the process, and the journey of actually rebuilding your house. And for some people despite best efforts, they were still victims of contractor fraud. Can you address that? The contractor fraud part or the whole, either or all of the above, but contractor fraud is just always a major concern. And no, I don’t think any disaster community ever escaped it.

“People are under constant strain if they don’t have a good, reputable contractor. That stress probably starts way back in insurance. If you’re underinsured, you’re already coming in with less money than you need to build back what you had. So unless you’re going to build a smaller place, you’re constantly going to be under pressure.” -Tennis Wick

Tennis Wick: No, I don’t think so either. I mean, you can read books by Carl Hiaasen that actually find a way of making it humorous. But it is something that unfortunately happens in every disaster of looting and fraud. It’s just part of human nature. Unfortunately, in fact, we were just talking about the distress that the entire state is under with all multiple disasters, not having enough professionally licensed contractors to do the work that needs to be done, the strain on labor and materials. So what our contractors, both in Permit Sonoma and the ReBuild Division are facing at the resiliency permit center is that they inspect homes for code compliance, but not all quality assurance that the homeowner is contracted for. So if you’re building a stout and meets code requirements, or passes inspection, there might be really horrible installation of cabinets and countertops. And if you’re the homeowner, all that’s important to you because you’re pulling every financial stream possible to make it all work. And people are under constant strain. If they don’t have a good, reputable contractor, that stress probably starts way back in insurance. If you’re under insured, you’re already coming in with less money than you need to build back what you had. So unless you’re going to build a smaller place, you’re constantly going to be under pressure. So that’s one of the things we really guard against. And fortunately, we have a district attorney that works, has people in her office assigned to work with us at a local level, on contractor fraud, and also with local investigators from the licensing board that are based here in Santa Rosa.

Jennifer Gray Thompson: I think that for some people who have never experienced the disaster, one of the common things that happens is everyone wants to get back to normal right away. And even though that day is gone, you can’t get your savings back. It’s not happening, which is very, also deserves its own level of grief. But part of that means that people who are in this survivor position, they make a lot of decisions trying to get everything right back to where it needed to be as a trauma response. And when we do a lot of work with Fannie Mae, and if they underwrite your mortgage, you can actually want to push you even if you have a 30 year fixed, you’re near seven, you can actually push your seven to year 31, and take a minute. And I think that the more people understand that there are mechanisms to help you, you need a minute. A lot has changed since 2017. Now, in the world of rebuilding, rebuilding takes many, many years in Sonoma County is really far, far ahead of the curve for, ahead of predictions by far. And there’s many reasons for this. And the first reason is our land values are very high, and we are incentivized.

Tennis Wick: And because of that, people are usually indebted. And that came along with an insurance requirement that valuation and insurance didn’t necessarily carry through to our more rural counties where it’s really been hard to rebuild.

Jennifer Gray Thompson: Rural counties actually, as we transition into our evolution in our rebranding, which is after the fire. Our major concern is rural counties, and it’s very, very difficult to recover or rebuild. If you’re not a well resourced County, you can be rural. We are rural and well resourced, but most rural counties are not well resourced. So we can talk about that a lot, but I would like you to talk about the last four years. You’ve navigated four mega fires and one flood. So talk to us like between 2017 and today, what have you learned? Or what has surprised you the most? I mean, you’ve learned a lot, but what would you want somebody who’s listening to this podcast to know who is a public sector leader? And then what would you want a fire survivor to know on how to navigate this?

 “We have to stop responding to disasters, and get in front of it once and for all.”  -Tennis Wick

Tennis Wick: Well, that’s quite a question. Well, maybe I can relate it to something that’s happened most recently. Because you’re right, I feel like we have been on average in emergency operations 60% of the year since 2017. Either responding to floods, fire power shutdown, pandemic, we’ve been involved in it all. It has created a level of readiness that makes me incredibly proud of being part of the county family. It’s exhausting especially to do that and then fall back into your regular civilian life. And then at a moment’s notice, back into disaster. But what that constant back and forth has taught me is that we can’t live this way anymore, that we have to stop responding to disaster and get in front of it once and for all. So yesterday, there’s a press release, informing the public that we’ve released our draft hazard mitigation plan, that this is a plan that people use to take as an obligation, not the first priority. And this is basically how we respond to different types of hazards. And it’s necessary to have it in place and have it certified in order to get federal funding. 

“Sea level rise has accelerated. Fires have accelerated. Flooding has accelerated. Drought has accelerated. You can either be overwhelmed by it, or you can start planning for it and being smart about it.” -Tennis Wick

Well, now we understand existentially why it’s important. And that disaster doesn’t care about bureaucratic borders. So we did it in concert with a number of other local governments, cities, fire districts all together. So I think it prepares us better as an overall community for disaster. And will have us ready for the kind of funding we need to respond. But it’s still a response document. However, it will help us as we overhaul the general plan to start addressing some of the climate action needs that are obviously here. Because sea level rise is accelerated, fires have accelerated, flooding is accelerated, drought has accelerated. And you can either be overwhelmed by it, or you can start planning for it and being smart about it. So one of the things that happened in this last fire was as I related to people, we have a really great relationship with Ben Nichols, who’s the CALFIRE Chief, born and raised here. The man knows every contour in this county, and he came in for a midnight burrito dinner in the bunker. It was a rare moment because many of the staff from our natural resource and fire planning staff are also in emergency operations. So we took an opportunity to talk to our fire specialists about how we get in front of this, how do we stop responding to fire, learn to manage it and live with it. And you start by interviewing your fire specialist, your fire expert, and he said fire is always looking for its next meal. And with the warm app that we have up here over with the whole county show that he took us through. 

So what are the three areas we need to be focusing on? And he pointed to the lower Russian River, the Wallbridge fire was just coming through there. We’re trying to mark West, which is just topographically meteorologically ideal for fire over and over again as we learn. And then as you mentioned, fire has tried but failed so far to get, thankfully, to get through Glen Ellen, Kenwood and over Sonoma mountain to Petaluma Valley. So with that charge, we started applying for the bridge grant, the building resilient infrastructure and communities application. We, especially our fire natural resource, took all of their experience from all these disasters and their story professions and put that energy into this proposal. And what we told the Federal Emergency Management Agency and the governor’s office for emergency services is that Sonoma County is a different kind of place. It’s a very representative county in some ways, but also has this unique experience of constant response to disasters in a relatively short period of time. 

And while we think with a population of half a million and a million acres, with so much of this wildland, it’s at risk of fire in private hands, we can create a management with all different tools that starts with the building and works out, and from the wildland and works in to focus on structural hardening, defensive space and vegetation management. And vegetation management with all measures of tribal partners in learning how to do prescribed burns, fire experts, and prescribed burns taking care of firebreaks that we’ve already built with all these fires. Agricultural partners who can show us how to use livestock, and crop planting as firebreaks, mechanical fuels management, hand fuels management, all of these measures in these three geographic areas, and then we can scale it up for a whole county. And then we can become an example for how that can apply in the state and the federal government. So it was with great pleasure and surprise during a fire division staff meeting when this little email came up with a right hand corner of my computer screen during the zoom that said, White House press conference, please click here. 

At first, I thought it was spam and thought, what the heck. So I clicked on it, and it was the White House. That was the president along with Governor Newsom, Vice President Harris, and Governor Brown from Oregon announcing that Sonoma County would be the first recipient of a brick grant application in the country. So out of a $400 million program, 37 million of that is dedicated to us. So we’ve found the money to match the grant. Thank you Board of Supervisors for giving us the opportunity to innovate and spend the time on this application that we need. Now’s the fun part, Mike Miller Douche, one of the scouts on her promise that we would live up to our end of the bargain. And here we go.

Jennifer Gray Thompson: And I think it was a moment of pride for every person in Sonoma County to see all of the hard work that has been put into actually applying for that grants in the work, sort of everything we’ve been through for the past almost nearly four years, and that we collectively lean into learning and how to how to do better, and then also how to pay it forward. I love that he keeps that. I call him the douche secretly, don’t tell him that, he’ll never listen to this podcast. He said, it’s fine. He’s the head of Cal OES that he basically said, do this, do this, and do this well. And what we know is that you’re going to do this. You’re going to make mistakes, but also you’re going to pay it forward to other communities, and that they too can have, they can sort of start a little bit ahead of, I feel like in Sonoma County, we are innovating our way through this, which is great. But I’m always shocked by the lack of systems that were created, like they should have been created like 40 years ago, but we didn’t know. 

And now, our big job is to mitigate the risk. And I am an ardent supporter of vegetation management and aggressive investment there because we have historically mismanaged our wild lands or neglected them. We’ve made it political as opposed to, it is a public health issue, it’s an infrastructure issue. So can you talk about the sort of shift in the paradigm that is in the process of happening is imperfect, for sure. I personally would like to see about 100 million in the hopper for vegetation management on private lands. I recently got a question from a reporter though who said, you know why should our federal dollars go to help people with private land mitigate their risk? So I know how I answered, but I want to hear how you’re going to answer.

“We’re all at risk. So unless we want to suffer the tragedy, we’ve got to respond collectively to this.” -Tennis Wick

Tennis Wick: It’s a fair question to ask because we’ve, well, one, as a community, we’ve allowed people to move into the wildland urban interface. So collectively, we all own that whether we think it was the right thing to do or not. That’s the environmental setting we have. We’re all at risk to tell people and ask people in Coffee Park where the wildland urban interface is, we’re all in it now. I think with climate change coming at us in multiple ways, folks, we’re all at risk. So unless we want to suffer the tragedy, the comments that most of us suffer because one person doesn’t act, we’ve got to respond collectively to this. If there are political, social equities and economic equities that have to be worked out, in the meantime. But now, we’re spending billions of dollars of tax money in disaster response. That’s certainly not the best way to be using our funding. I think we’re going to end up spending less less money working on smart disaster intelligence and proper management of natural resources.

“We’re spending billions of dollars of tax money in disaster response. That’s certainly not the best way to be using our funding. We’re going to end up spending less money working on smart disaster intelligence and proper management of natural resources.” -Tennis Wick

Jennifer Gray Thompson: I’m so bad. Yeah, it costs about six times the amount to actually respond to a disaster, and it does actually mitigate the risk of the disaster. So the public pays for it regardless. I’m hoping too that we can integrate the question and the very important mission of equity into wildland fuel mitigation because every time we have one of these mega fires, it exacerbates in the neck are already existing inequity that are most at risk of actually for health, for their health being affected by the smoke alone is definitely a question of equity. If you are a marginalized community, your ability to recover at the same rate is just not, it’s completely unequal.

Tennis Wick: Element of the brick grant that will focus on that. Because it’s something that we didn’t do our best of in 2017, and I think we all have had to acknowledge that. And things have improved. Are they optimal? Nope, we’ve got to do a lot better.

“As a helper, you have to prioritize your own physical and mental well being. It’s good to give a lot, but you’re not supposed to give everything.” -Jennifer Gray Thompson

Jennifer Gray Thompson: We do, but I have confidence. And I think one of the main things is we have to continue to call each other in and really resist the opportunity to call each other out. So often, there’s a lot of anxiety that’s played out on social media about, and a lot of armchair experts on wind and rain, fire and energy, and COVID and health. And I think there’s a lot to be said for having a push back to the return of some respect for expertise. I don’t tell you how to build a building because you are in school for that, you know things. During a disaster, I would like us to invest in Alicia Sanchez, at KBBS, and to make sure that all these PSAs go out verbally on the radio in Spanish and indigenous languages, for example they will not be at our emergency shelters because of those sorts of things. But I think that we are definitely getting there. So what’s your advice? Say that this is a person who’s in Montana, and for some reason, they’ve picked up this podcast and all they want to know is, how do I navigate this? How do I navigate the trauma in my community? And at the same time, as a helper, how do I take care of myself?

“You’re in that place where disaster hasn’t hit you, but you know it’s coming. Start training now.” -Tennis Wick

Tennis Wick: Well, I could say as a local government official, you’re in that place where disaster hasn’t hit you, but you kind of know what’s coming. Start training now. And you know this from your time in county service, it was treated in Sonoma County as an afterthought. It was this grudging obligation we had to fulfill, and that culture has completely changed. We now use it as a placement on a team, and we’re about 40 out of 150 people. 40 grow active in emergency operations. 

And frankly, probably another 50 who are in field response. You have to perform well, and your civilian role in order to be considered. So it is almost in some ways an Excellence Academy for public service. Unfortunately, it also feeds back on itself by creating, I think, a better public servant that comes out of that back into civilian work. But what I would say with that in mind, to my colleagues who haven’t been through this yet, you will. I don’t know what form it’s going to take, but it’s going to happen to you, so start training now. Reach out to your local FEMA reps, feel free to reach out to me. I talk with people all over North America, Canada and the United States. I’ve been up to British Columbia and spoken there, my home province away from California. And it’s all of us sharing. I’ve learned a whole lot in British Columbia especially from how they work with First Nations people who are way more involved in disaster response and planning. So you also bring back something. In that experience you gain, it comes back to the community manifold, and you can give back yourself through mutual aid. But I would much rather be talking with people in this forum and directly off camera about it before their disaster hits. So yeah, I’d say to start preparing now. It’s coming your way.

Jennifer Gray Thompson: And it’s very hard because we’re human, and we engage in magical thinking that it won’t happen to us and we see it on the news. And I think until I saw my hometown on CNN, I had no clue. We’ve been through earthquakes. We’ve been through other things. But there’s something about being the object of the story that made it more heartbreaking. Even though it was good, the intentions were fine, but it was a surreal experience in that sense for sure. Tennis, how do you take care of yourself as a public leader though, because one of the things that we talk about is how to help the helpers. I would love it if you don’t mind being a little bit personal for you.

Tennis Wick: So I came home to me in a number of ways. I was actually up in the state capital at a conference four years ago. And of all the risks that I’ve had, I’ve had to say goodbye to my family twice during natural disasters because I wasn’t sure if I was going to see them again. So I make it through all of this stuff. I’m in a crosswalk right near the Governor Browns flat, and I run over by a car. So I had to recover from that during disasters, something I still live with. So now, I just make my own personal health number one priority, physical and mental health. I get lots of sleep, I don’t drink any more. Caffeine is my only sin. I make sure that I spend a lot more time with my family, and really focus on those core parts of my personal life that are really important to me. So that’s my own approach.

Jennifer Gray Thompson: Well, I want to make sure that people really, really hear that you have to, as your helper, you have to prioritize your own physical and mental well being. We’ve seen a lot of people, our colleagues and friends who have prioritized the community. So it’s good to give a lot, but you’re not supposed to give everything. And I think that’s really what I’m hoping, yeah, kind of make time for yourself. So we’re going to close out here. I guess I would like to know is, you have anything to add that I haven’t asked or anything you’d like the public to know. And including, that’s very nice of you to say that they can reach out to you directly. And to be clear, it is at Permit Sonoma, Tennis Wick, you can find him online, or you can look at the first slide in this podcast, and he will give you contact information.

“Turn off the media for a while and experience what’s happening. There’s a lot more good news out there than bad.” -Tennis Wick

Tennis Wick: So please reach out. I would say to people what I see happening. And it’s not just in the public sector, but I see it throughout the community. Turn off the media for a while and just experience what’s happening because I think actually, there’s a lot more good news out there than bad, that we are finding a way to respond. You turn on the 6:00 o’clock news, and you think the entire state is burning, and damnation is tomorrow. It’s not. We’re actually finding ways to get in front of the problem and start solving it. And as long as we all stay focused, it’s easy to find in this environment the worst case. I am focusing on people who will work with me to find the best case and make it better. I see it out there every day, and that’s what gives me hope. I have every expectation that we’re going to successfully deal with climate change and disaster.

Jennifer Gray Thompson: I’m positive that the only way we’re going to do it is together. Thank you so much Tennis Wick, Director of Permit Sonoma at the county of Sonoma. I appreciate your time, your friendship and all of your work and service to the community.

Tennis Wick: Likewise, my friend, I look forward to seeing each other in person.

Jennifer Gray Thompson: Yeah, that’s good. Take care.

Tennis Wick: You too.

Posted in
How to disaster logo

Recent episodes: