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SRJC journalists’ catastrophe, trauma related podcast promoted by NPR

“Chronic Catastrophe” delved into the affects natural disasters have on the mind, body and spirit. The podcast was picked up by NPR.|

How to listen to “Chronic Catastrophe”

To listen to the four-part series, go to www.npr.org/podcasts and search for “Chronic Catastrophe.” Also available on Apple Podcasts and Spotify.

Maritza Camacho knew the right questions to ask. So, for that matter, did fellow journalists Nick Vides, Lauren Spates and Rebecca Bell.

In reporting on the long-term trauma that recent natural disasters have wreaked on Sonoma County, the Santa Rosa Junior College Oak Leaf staffers knew what to ask because they all lived through the Tubbs fire, then the Camp, Kincade, Walbridge and Glass fires.

They lived through the trauma of that night in October four years ago, the saga of recovery and rebuild, the stress of annual fires and smoke-filled skies.

Add a couple of devastating floods and more hazardous air days than anyone cares to count, and that meant Camacho, Vides, Spates and Bell didn’t have to do a ton of preliminary research for their journalistic project because they lived it.

They were keenly equipped to ask, essentially, what is happening to us? How are these fires and floods and poisonous air days affecting our bodies, our minds, our spirits? And for some, how are these unrelenting disasters affecting our willingness to continue living in Sonoma County?

The answers to these questions are expertly told in their four-part podcast series called “Chronic Catastrophe,” which was underwritten by an $11,000 grant from California Humanities to support and highlight emerging journalists.

Their work was picked up by NPR and is now hosted on NPR sites and among their podcasts.

“They thought it was very professional, which is what we had been feeling. We had all felt like ‘Wow this is really good,’” said Anne Belden, the longtime Oak Leaf adviser who oversaw the massive project.

It’s a huge win for a team that not only reported and crafted the project as a small unit, but did it at the same time the COVID-19 pandemic shut the junior college campus. That prevented them from working in the same room for months and hamstrung their efforts to connect with sources.

Belden knew immediately the import of the NPR backing. It was validation — of the story, of the reporting, of the concept, of the delivery.

Belden was driving north from Monterey with her husband when she got the alert. She immediately reached out to the group and urged them to jump on Zoom.

“I was able to see them,” she said. “I said, ‘It’s on NPR’ … They were all crying.”

‘We bit off this enormous project’

In addition to working in a pandemic, the crew morphed from reporters who worked largely in print, photographs and video, to homing in on audio and delivering their findings in podcast form.

The group had to learn an entirely new discipline as they recorded interviews, mapped story plans and sorted out themes.

All four shared sources and collaborated on interviews, which included scientists, doctors, Reps. Jared Huffman and Mike Thompson, Sonoma County Supervisor Lynda Hopkins, as well as SRJC students, a teacher and former high school classmates.

The work stretched from January to just weeks ago. There has barely been a moment to catch their collective breath.

“We thought it was going to be a semesterlong project, but we bit off this enormous project,” Belden said. “There were some moments where I thought ‘This is not going to happen.’”

‘What does that mean for us?’

Spates, like her colleagues, was driven throughout the 9-month project by professional curiosity.

But it was also personal. She has a 2-year-old daughter. How was day after day of hazardous breathing conditions affecting her?

Spates’ reporting found that poor air quality affects children’s brain function and that robust filtration systems are not extras, they are essential.

The neurotoxins emited by fires that destroy homes and everything in them lives in the air we breathe, but also is carried into our homes, cars and offices by way of our shoes and clothing, she found.

“The things we inhale we don’t necessarily exhale,” once researcher told Spates on Episode 2, “The Body.” “Once we have been exposed, there is a limit as to what we can do.”

“I really hope that there is something to learn. I hope that when people get to the end, they learned something new,” Spates said of the project.

She did.

“Wearing a respiratory mask outside when it’s smokey is good but not nearly enough,” she said. “Even when the smoke is gone, the toxins are there. We live with them a lot more than we think we (do).”

And bad air is not just bad for the lungs, it’s bad for the brain. It affects cognitive function.

“What does that mean for us?” she said.

‘I really did think that was it’

When Camacho talked about PTSD not being the correct terminology for what Sonoma County residents have been going through, she spoke from a place of knowledge.

“I was going through my own struggle with mental health from the wildfire,” she said.

She was 16, a student at Piner High, when her family fled their home just outside of Coffey Park.

“We leave, we were slammed in traffic, everyone was honking and stressed,” she recalled. “I really did think that was it.”

She remembered a friend telling her she didn’t want to check on Camacho’s home because she didn’t want to be the one to break the news.

But Camacho’s house, remarkably, was not burned. But that does not mean that she and others like her emerged unscathed. While she had always felt that, her reporting bore it out.

She lives with worry and looming dread.

“This is our future,” she said. “It’s something that is inevitable now, as sad as it sounds. I live in San Diego and I still have a ‘Go bag.’”

‘The kid was gone’

Oak Leaf photographer Nick Vides said the people he interviewed questioned who they were after they lost everything.

Students his age wanted to move, while parents wanted to stay. A teacher no longer felt her professional calling.

Losing things is more than things. When a home is destroyed, people lose pieces of themselves, of their identity and of their history, the reporting found.

“In a way … the kid was gone,” one man said. “He just didn’t exist any longer. That feels a bit spartan to say but I credit that kind of being pushed over the edge into manhood with forcing me to grow up.”

Vides interviewed a history professor who lost her home, but more keenly, her personal library in the fire. She never returned to teaching.

Losing her books, her trinkets from travel, her photos and souvenirs, made her question not only her professional calling, but who she was as a person.

“This was not an easy thing to do,” Vides said. “But it was easy to get people to talk because I think it also lifts a weight off their shoulders.”

‘Each of us had a very different life experience’

For Rebecca Bell, the question to tackle in her episode was: Should we stay or should we go? If disaster is truly an annual event, why are we all still here?

Bell, a transplant from southern California who has spent the past two decades living and raising her daughter in Sonoma County, said she was initially drawn to this place for its beauty, its variety of terrain and for its people.

“I love the culture, the type of people who live here, people I can relate to,” she said. “It’s easy to make friends here.”

So Bell asked the question of why people stay, why some have left, and addressed the issue of that very question being steeped in privilege. Not everyone can pick up and leave.

Bell said the whole four-part series had a richness that only collaboration can bring. Each reporter comes from a different stage in life, a different back story.

“It’s been a real asset that each of us had a very different life experience,” she said.

By way of example she noted, “Nick runs into fires, I’d rather run away,” she said.

There will be more stories

Camacho, who is now studying journalism at San Diego State, said she envisions more work being done through “Chronic Catastrophe.”

She wants to tell the stories of first responders and of ordinary folks coming to each others’ aid in extraordinary ways.

She knows there are more stories to tell.

And unfortunately, Camacho and her colleagues said, the stories will keep emerging because in Sonoma County catastrophe is starting less once-in-a-lifetime and more painfully chronic.

You can reach Staff Columnist Kerry Benefield at 707-526-8671 or kerry.benefield@pressdemocrat.com. On Twitter @benefield.

How to listen to “Chronic Catastrophe”

To listen to the four-part series, go to www.npr.org/podcasts and search for “Chronic Catastrophe.” Also available on Apple Podcasts and Spotify.

Kerry Benefield

Columnist, The Press Democrat

Have a story that is wild, wacky, bizarre or beautiful? Tell me about it. Have a question that starts with, “What’s the deal with…?” Let’s figure it out together. This column is about the story behind the story, a place to shine a light on who we are, what makes us a community and all of the things that make us special. With your help, I'll be tackling the questions that vex us: (the funny, the mundane, and the irritating.)

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