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Coffey Strong group in Santa Rosa disbanding with its fire rebuild work done

A well-known Santa Rosa nonprofit will soon cease operations, and that’s a good thing, according to its members.

Coffey Strong, the neighborhood support group that played a vital role in helping residents of Coffey Park rebuild their homes after the 2017 Tubbs fire destroyed over 1,400 homes in that neighborhood, will disband on Oct. 1.

“Our mission was helping people get back in their homes as quickly and efficiently as possible,” said Steve Rahmn, the group’s president.

With 95% of those destroyed homes now completed or under construction, that mission is nearly accomplished.

“When people don’t need you anymore, that’s rewarding, in a way,” Rahmn said. “When no one’s calling, hopefully that means you’ve done your job.”

Coffey Strong came together in the weeks after the Tubbs fire. Coffey Park resident Jeff Okrepkie, whose home had burned, put together a panel discussion at the Santa Rosa Junior College. Some local builders and politicians were invited. Around 200 people showed up.

“Most of them had never built a house before,” Okrepkie said. “They didn’t know what the process was. They were lost.”

At a follow-up gathering of some 400 fire survivors, this one at the Luther Burbank Center, Supervisor James Gore outlined the concept of block captains. Using yellow highlighters on a giant map of Coffey Park, he and Okrepkie divided the neighborhood into five areas.

“It was completely arbitrary,” recalled Okrepkie, Coffey Strong’s founder and first president. After deciding on those impromptu boundaries, “we said, ‘OK, if you want to be a captain raise your hand.’”

After that meeting, he got on his phone and bought the internet domain for Coffey Strong, which quickly became a clearinghouse for information it would then share with homeowners.

The group worked closely with the city of Santa Rosa — in particular its deputy director of development services, Gabe Osburn, and chief building official Jesse Oswald, whom Coffey Strong vice president Anne Barbour referred to as Robin to Osburn’s Batman.

Oswald had high praise for Coffey Strong’s fierce, effective advocacy.

“They took us to task sometimes,” he said, but always for the correct reasons. And the relationship was symbiotic: “They did a ton of work to help us, getting the word out on certain things, helping us find neighbors we hadn’t been able to contact.

“They were amazing, and accomplished a lot,” Oswald said.

Coffey Strong worked with the city on every aspect of the rebuild, from debris removal in the immediate aftermath of the fire to earmarking some $20 million from Santa Rosa’s share of the PG&E legal settlement following the 2017 firestorm. Those funds are going toward street and curb repairs, sidewalks and landscaping along Hopper Avenue, and other infrastructure upgrades.

Okrepkie recalled the day that Pacific Gas & Electric Co., while digging a trench, severed a sewage pipe attached to his neighbor’s house. The neighbor got the utility on the phone, but was getting nowhere. Okrepkie passed the neighbor’s name and contact information to Coffey Strong board member Lani Jollitt, who by then had developed close contacts at PG&E.

“After Lani got a hold of it, the pipe was fixed in three days,” Okrepkie said.

He regards the end of nonprofit he founded with pride and fulfillment, not sadness.

“It’s not like we ran out of gas,” Okrepkie said. “It’s more like we ran out of road.”

Shutting down Coffey Strong doesn’t mean that residents who need assistance won’t be able to find it in the neighborhood. “All of us will still be able to help,” Barbour said. Those seeking answers, or advocacy, “can connect with us individually.”

Ever since Coffey Strong started, she said, “the question was always, at what point are we done?”

Barbour’s answer was always, “We’ll know, because we’ll work our way out of a job.

“Well, we’ve worked our way out of this job.”

You can reach Staff Writer Austin Murphy at austin.murphy@pressdemocrat.com or on Twitter @ausmurph88.

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