Golis: We now define time as before and after the fires

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“Santa Rosa had taken the worst fate had to offer and bounced right back. “

— From “Santa Rosa: A Twentieth Century Town,” by Gaye LeBaron and Joann Mitchell, in a passage describing the recovery that followed the 1906 earthquake.

Eleven months later, the impacts of the October fires still hurt the heart.

You can see it in the eyes of friends still wondering how this could happen to their families. You can hear it in their voices and the sense of resignation that comes with knowing that the job of rebuilding their homes and their lives is only getting started.

So many questions: Where are you living? Did you get paid by your insurance company? Have you found a contractor? How long did it take to get a permit? Do you know when you can start building?

These are not happy questions to contemplate, but we now know we will need to take a breath and accept that healing and recovery will take time.

People who study the aftermath of disasters say we shouldn’t be surprised. There comes the sobering moment, they say, in which communities realize that this will be a journey of years, not months.

For the foreseeable future, we will define time as before and after the fires — perhaps in the same way the 1906 earthquake defined two distinct eras in the early history of Sonoma County. Along the way, we will learn how our communities have been changed.

This is what happens after 24 people are killed and more than 5,200 homes are destroyed.

As the news reminds us every day, we have plenty to do — rebuilding homes and businesses, managing a housing shortage and the resulting high cost of housing, improving emergency warning systems and water supplies, changing forestry practices, allocating financial responsibility, rewriting land-use plans and building codes, upgrading firefighting capacities, coming to understand changes in climate, learning how insurance policies will be affected, repairing and rebuilding public improvements, securing state and federal help, and more.

It’s a daunting list, but the good news is, we have already seen a new sense of resolve and coordination among government agencies, nonprofits and business groups. We will need more of the same to produce coherent (and lasting) solutions.

When it comes to hometown governance, all of us seem to have developed short attention spans — maybe you forgot — and all of us will need to do better. Over time, apathy will not be our friend.

There will be complexity. As it must, we learned last week, Santa Rosa is pushing forward with plans to improve water systems in the Fountaingrove neighborhood.

But it remains to be decided what measures might reduce the risk to the water supply during this kind of catastrophic fire.

We can’t be sure it won’t happen again, and so we do the best we can within the limits of engineering, resources and human determination. We will help ourselves if we don’t allow the inevitable disagreements to fester and become excuses for doing nothing.

In the coming months, we will face many such decisions. Our efforts will be made easier if we recall that we have much to celebrate. We live in a beautiful place with a temperate climate. We live in communities with strong support systems and a sense of resolve when it comes to overcoming the challenges brought on by disaster. We live where people from all over the world wish they could live.

Sonoma County has bounced back before. There’s no reason it can’t do so again.

While we — one by one — overcome these challenges, we will be OK so long as we are patient and steadfast, and so long as we are generous with one another.

Pete Golis is a columnist for The Press Democrat. Email him at golispd@gmail.com.

You can send a letter to the editor at letters@pressdemocrat.com

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