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Read all of the PD's fire coverage here

More than 250 community leaders converged Wednesday at Sonoma State University to mark the launch of a regional organization created to unite the public and private sectors in their efforts to help North Bay counties recover from the deadly wildfires that have ravaged much of the area.

Government officials from Sonoma and Napa counties, labor leaders, businesspeople, representatives from environmental groups and others gathered to hear about the new nonprofit, Rebuild North Bay, and its leader, James Lee Witt, a former director of the Federal Emergency Management Agency. The organization’s goal is to help the area collaboratively address the gargantuan, yearslong challenge of rebuilding.

Wednesday’s event at Sonoma State’s Student Center drew a virtual who’s-who of important North Bay figures. Among them were Rep. Mike Thompson, D-St. Helena, state legislators who represent the North Bay, supervisors from both Sonoma and Napa counties, SSU President Judy Sakaki, wine industry leaders and other local businesspeople.

Robert Fenton, current FEMA regional administrator, and Mark Ghilarducci, director of the Governor’s Office of Emergency Services, were also there to shed light on the recovery and rebuilding efforts.

“This is about people helping people,” Witt said at the meeting. “It’s not about one individual. It’s about everyone, and it’s about bringing people together — helping neighbors and helping each other.”

Rebuild North Bay was founded by Darius Anderson, a Sonoma developer and lobbyist who also serves as managing member of Sonoma Media Investments, which owns The Press Democrat.

“If we’re gonna go ahead and rebuild at the rate and pace that people are pushing us to, we have to make sure that we do it as a collective community,” Anderson said. “And if we don’t, we will have challenges going forward.”

Anderson said Wednesday he asked Witt to lead the organization based on a recommendation from Leon Panetta, a former U.S. Secretary of Defense, CIA director and chief of staff to former President Bill Clinton. Witt was FEMA director during the Clinton administration.

As interim director, one of Witt’s responsibilities will be to help develop an initial recovery plan for the region. Witt has characterized the organization’s role as working with state and federal emergency officials, as well as local government and community leaders, to identify the most crucial “voids” in the disaster recovery and the best way to fill them.

For example, there may be a void in a homeowner’s insurance whereby their home is insured but not its contents, Witt said at a press conference after the meeting.

“There may not be enough money to build back,” he said. “There may not be enough money to work with schools, or whatever it may be. But you work with the local communities and the local officials and the local volunteer organizations and you figure out what those voids are so that you can try to help make people as whole as possible and to build back as soon as possible.”

Wednesday’s community meeting also provided an opportunity for local leaders to inquire about the status of regional recovery efforts and offer their own input on the future of the rebuilding organization.

Sonoma County Supervisor Lynda Hopkins, for example, asked whether Rebuild North Bay planned to bring more gender and racial diversity into the ranks of its leadership. Anderson said it would, noting that several people have been asked but haven’t yet made a final decision.

Also, Supervisor Shirlee Zane urged the organization not to leave behind some of the county’s most vulnerable resident groups, including seniors living on fixed incomes and undocumented workers. Other questions raised by attendees included how recovery leaders would be proactive about meeting fire-traumatized victims and the timeline for debris removal.

The meeting provided a rare opportunity for a vast cross section of North Bay leaders to start a public dialogue about how they will work in concert to respond to the historic devastation and plan for rebuilding.

“The fires showed zero consideration for our community members. The destruction was relentless,” said Sakaki, who barely escaped her own home before it burned down, during remarks at the beginning of the meeting. “But our community members excel at showing consideration — look at all of you here — for one another ... That consideration, that strength, that love — those are the things that cannot be destroyed. And those are the things that will sustain many of us who’ve been through the most terrifying times of our lives.”

You can reach Staff Writer J.D. Morris at 707-521-5337 or jd.morris@pressdemocrat.com.

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