Gullixson: Message to fire victims: We need you to come back

Years ago, there was a gentleman who worked at the front desk of the Peninsula Times Tribune in Palo Alto who was memorable for his demeanor. He always had a smile and a kind word. His name was Robert, as I recall. We undervalue people like this in our lives. But after the Loma Prieta quake hit on Oct. 17, 1989 - 28 years ago last week - I never saw him again. He quickly loaded up his car and moved away. Arizona, I believe. Or maybe it was Texas. Didn’t even say goodbye. He told those nearest to him that he could no longer live in earthquake country, and that was it.

And every day after that, when I passed his desk in that lobby, I felt his absence.

The memory of Robert came back last week as I thought of the earthquake anniversary and what is happening in the lives of many people in Sonoma County who have lost their homes in the recent firestorms. So many.

I have covered disasters in my time. Earthquakes, fires, floods, you name it. But this is the worst. This was the first time I didn’t have to go in search of victims. I already knew them by name.

We all do. Their contact information is already programmed into our cellphones, and their life stories are carved into our hearts. They are us.

This was driven home for me each time I entered The Press Democrat last week. It seemed I couldn’t pass without encountering someone I knew - sometimes two or three - who was waiting in line at the Local Assistance Center, which has opened on the first floor of our building at 427 Mendocino Ave. in Santa Rosa. One day, as I sat with a husband and wife who I have known for nearly 19 years to experience the process with them (very efficient), I realized I not only knew these two, but I knew the person across the table who was interviewing them. I also knew the couple sitting next to them - and a woman at the far end of the table.

There are so many things that these individuals and families need right now. Housing, clothes, transportation. But it occurs to me what they need as much as anything is to hear this from the rest of us: We need you. This community needs you back.

Maybe that sounds schmaltzy. I suppose it does. But my guess is we need to say it as much as they need to hear it.

We have talked so much about the loss of structures - 5,449 total residential losses, 35 rental and condominium losses, 601 commercial property losses. But we haven’t talked enough about the loss, or the potential loss, of people - of friends. It happens after crises like this. Believe me.

These are teachers, doctors, contractors, professors, police officers, business owners, firefighters, nurses, custodians, farmers, and, yes, even employees of local newspapers. We can ill afford to lose them. From what I can tell, they represent a broad spectrum of our community, crossing all demographics, all income brackets and all ages. Losing these households - nearly 5,500 total - would be like losing the entire city of Sonoma. It’s hard to fathom the crater that would leave behind.

Strictly from an economic perspective, the loss of nearly 2,800 homes in Santa Rosa and hundreds of others in Sonoma County is going to be a major financial setback for local governments in terms of property tax revenues. But that’s not what we’re talking about here. We are talking about losing something far greater.

Let me clarify. None of these people that I know of has given any indication of leaving. This is their home. This is where their jobs are. This is where their children go to school. If anything, they are doing everything they can to get back to normal, whatever that looks like. From what I can tell, they appreciate all the support they are getting, and they have no plans to leave.

But that could change in the hard days to come. Maybe they will be tempted by a job opportunity in another area that would make their lives a little easier. Maybe they won’t be able to find another place to rent or they will encounter another hardship that will make life here just too difficult. Maybe a relative will offer them a place to live in Tracy, Fremont or Burlingame and maybe they decide to take advantage of it because the rebuilding is just taking too long. Maybe they intend for it to be a temporary move, but temporary becomes permanent. And when that happens, we will have lost something more in this fire.

When we evacuated our house on the morning of Oct. 9, I took photo albums. Tamara took food, mostly. Christopher took camping gear, and Clara took our dog Cody and her Kevin Durant bobblehead doll. But the things we really needed and wanted most, we already had - our friendships, our memories and one another.

I know many are saying that these days. But one night last night, I saw it for myself when Clara invited her friend Sophie over to our house, a friend she has known since before the two of them could crawl.

Sophie lost her home in this fire, and she is now living at the Flamingo Hotel. But despite all that she has gone through, she and Clara were two teenage girls in want of nothing that evening. It was a joy to hear all of the laughter at the dinner table, the silliness and the really bad jokes that never seem to get old. (At least mine don’t.)

That’s why it’s important to give our friends and family - as well as people we may not know very well - this simple message: We want you back. We need you back. And we are on this journey with you, whether it’s helping you find a house close to your office or school, finding a car or just finding someone to listen. We know we will get through this. We know Santa Rosa and Sonoma County will rebuild. What we don’t know is what we would be or who we would be without you.

You are us.

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