The line moved steadily but still grew Monday outside the Federal Emergency Management Agency and local assistance center in downtown Santa Rosa as people streamed in looking for driver’s licenses, temporary housing and other disaster relief in the aftermath of the North Bay fires.
More than 900 people used the center over the weekend after its Saturday opening on the first floor of The Press Democrat’s building at 427 Mendocino Ave. Michael Gossman, a Sonoma County Water Agency official tasked with managing it, expected another 550 people on Monday.
“I didn’t know what to expect,” Gossman said, recalling Saturday morning’s opening when just five people at the in-take table caused the line outside to back up.
On Monday, 25 county employees manned the table. That’s who people meet with after coming through the center’s front doors.
Gossman said intake workers interview fire victims, collecting basic information such as name, address of their damaged home and number of family members, before assessing their needs. They put together a checklist where fire victims need to go next as they make their way through the center. Rooms are divided into federal, state and local services.
Many of those at the FEMA center escaped the fires with nothing but the clothes on their backs and need basic documents, including birth certificates, driver’s licenses and car titles.
After leaving the intake area, which includes a child care room, residents must wait to meet with FEMA representatives, which can take hours.
A woman Monday who declined to give her name called it a “controlled zoo.” She stopped by to get help with smoke damage, but after waiting more than an hour to meet with a FEMA representative she decided to fill out the form online using her cellphone.
Officials urged residents who can to apply for disaster relief online at www.DisasterAssistance.gov or by phone at 800-621-3362. Computers also are available at the center for residents to apply online, Gossman said.
He urged residents to stop by for assistance, regardless of immigration status. Although undocumented residents may not qualify for certain services, Gossman said they might be able to receive other support or services.
FEMA provides grants to cover temporary housing, home repairs and losses not covered under personal property or homeowner insurance policies.
Shareen Lal and her family arrived more than a hour before the doors opened Monday morning. The Tubbs fire destroyed their Hopper Avenue home, where they lived for the past decade.
“We only had 15 to 20 minutes to get out,” said Lal, who grabbed her purse before fleeing.
“I’m still in shock. I couldn’t even remember who my mortgage holder was,” said Lal, whose husband ran a trucking business from home. Both thanked the center’s workers and volunteers, who, they said, provided guidance at every step, making it easier for them to apply for FEMA and cancel the electricity and cable at their home.
“Be patient with the people in there,” Lal said. “They’re dealing with hundreds.”
Sonoma County Supervisor Shirlee Zane said Monday that if people have trouble getting service regarding Social Security numbers or aid for veterans, they should contact the offices of congressmen Mike Thompson, D-St. Helena, and Jared Huffman, D-San Rafael, whose staffs will help.
Zane said she was unhappy to learn that the center over the weekend hadn’t included representatives from Social Security and veteran services, but that had been rectified Monday.
While visiting the center Monday with Assemblywoman Cecilia Aguiar-Curry, D-Winters, Thompson said workers have a “good pulse” on the community’s needs.
“They’re trying to help as quickly as they can and they’re trying to make people feel comfortable while they’re helping,” said Thompson, who shared the story of a fire victim whose identity was stolen. He said the identity thief filed a FEMA application using the victim’s identity, but representatives were able to intervene.
“They stopped the scoundrel from getting anything,” he said.
Gossman said it was the only identity theft incident to date.
The center will be open daily from 9 a.m. to 7 p.m. until not needed.
Staff Writer Randi Rossmann contributed to the story. You can reach Staff Writer Eloísa Ruano González at 707-521-5458 or firstname.lastname@example.org. On Twitter @eloisanews.