Golis: No off-the-shelf solutions to a historic disaster
Doing my job, I’ve irritated a politician or two over the years. Looking back, I feel bad about it …
Well, no. I don’t feel bad at all. Politicians are grownups. They can take care of themselves.
Having said that, I want to write today about how thankful we should be that hometown people are willing to sign up for these jobs. In the aftermath of the October fires, public service involves long hours, complicated and unfamiliar issues and trying every day to help people who are living through a nightmare.
If you think any of this is easy, you need to sit through a meeting or two and find out how the world works. For residents and public officials alike, there are no off-the-shelf solutions for the most costly disaster in California history.
Exhibit A: The universal frustration associated with efforts to install a new water system in a Fountaingrove neighborhood. The system serving 350 home sites is contaminated with the carcinogen called benzene, likely leeched from plastic pipe burned during the Tubbs fire.
At a joint meeting of the Santa Rosa City Council and the Board of Public Utilities last week, 70-year-old Carol Ellen began by telling the council that she and her partner have already spent $60,000 on rebuilding plans. Ellen and her 300-plus neighbors would like to know when they can get started.
And who can blame them? They want to get back to their regular lives. For many, the time required may be the difference between rebuilding or moving on, which means shouldering additional financial losses plus the stress associated with relocating to another town.
Unfortunately, city officials didn’t have many answers for them — except to say that it could take two years to navigate all the obstacles and install a new water system for these homes.
“We were told — worst-case scenario — that it would take a year,“ resident Scott Adams said, “Now its going to be two years — kinda, sorta — and it’s a moving target.”
Adams said he and his family are living in an 800-square-foot apartment because they can’t find another place to live. “Two years is too long to be out of a house,” he said.
For an undetermined number of homeowners, two years will be too many. Many will watch their insurance reimbursements expire before then.
And so officials were left to sympathize, express their regrets and wish it could be otherwise. “We know this is personal,” said Mayor Chris Coursey. “We know two years is too long.”
“Everyone who works for this organization (city government) wants to get people back into their homes as soon as possible,” he added, “but we don’t yet know what’s possible.”
It’s instructive to understand that this is not the simple task of installing new pipes. There are questions related to engineering, public health rules and financing. (Estimated cost: Somewhere north of $30 million.)
To be successful, homeowners and city officials must figure out how to keep in alignment with insurance companies, home lenders, contractors, engineers, state regulators and a federal government that may or may not help pay the costs of construction.
So, welcome to public service.
A couple of weeks ago, a City Council that has devoted a lot of time and money to helping the homeless was portrayed as uncaring for failing to establish a permanent camp for homeless people.
This is how it goes now. Never mind that Santa Rosa is struggling with additional expenses and lost tax revenues associated with the fires. Never mind that cities all over America have grappled with what remains an intractable problem.
If advocates for any cause want to ask for more help, more power to them. But it’s not fair nor useful to suggest that elected officials don’t care.
It’s a tough time. The challenges are like nothing Santa Rosa or Sonoma County has experienced before. It will become necessary to understand the limits of our capacity to produce overnight results in the face of an unprecedented disaster.
We won’t like it, but patience will be required. Along the way, it wouldn’t hurt if we remembered that elected officials didn’t sign up to manage all of this. Once upon a time, public service didn’t involve so much uncertainty, frustration and heartache.
Pete Golis is a columnist for The Press Democrat. Email him at email@example.com.