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Six steps of federal disaster assistance – Under the hood of the U.S. federal process


On the sixth day of Thanks and Giving, we give to you … six steps of the U.S. federal disaster assistance process.

In our last two posts, we talked about where and how to find help after a disaster. Today, we offer a glimpse into why disaster assistance is a complex matter. We look under the hood of the official U.S. federal response to disaster, led by FEMA. We hope this will shed clarity on what needs to happen for federal assistance to be distributed to disaster survivors.

We describe the official U.S. federal response process in six steps, drawing heavily on Unit 3 of A Citizen’s Guide to Disaster Assistance (Emergency Management Institute. Independent Study IS-7, 2003).


The philosophy underlying federal assistance is that community and local government drive the relief effort:

The responsibility of preparing for disaster recovery begins with the individual and builds to the larger responsibility of the community and local government. The local government has the primary role of planning and managing all aspects of the community’s recovery. Community planning efforts are supported by voluntary, faith-based and community organizations; private sector; and State, Local, Tribal, Territorial and Federal Governments.
National Disaster Recovery Framework Brochure

The federal government can bring far greater resources to an incident than a local government. But it cannot bear the brunt of all disasters, especially as the impact of disasters continues to grow. Neither can the federal government know the necessary details of every stricken neighborhood to determine who needs what, when. Therefore, the federal government requires local governments to share the cost of a disaster, and consults with local agencies to resolve last mile issues,

State, local, tribal and territorial government officials are primarily responsible for managing disaster recovery in their communities.
— Recovery Resources | (our emphasis)

Federal assistance is available to supplement the resources of State, local, and voluntary agencies in major disasters.
A Citizen’s Guide to Disaster Assistance, p. 3-1 (our emphasis)

The federal response process is initiated by a series of steps — see graphic above —
prescribed by a set of congressional acts, most notably the Stafford Act of 1988. A Declaration of a State of Emergency by the President of the United States is the key event that enables federal aid to be given to states for any incident.

Once approved, FEMA uses a series of official frameworks to direct their actions, including,

The National Response Framework (NRF) is a guide to how the nation responds to all types of disasters and emergencies. It is built on scalable, flexible, and adaptable concepts … to align key roles and responsibilities.
National Response Framework |.

The National Disaster Recovery Framework (NDRF) enables effective recovery support to disaster-impacted states, tribes, territorial and local jurisdictions.
National Disaster Recovery Framework |

This post walks through how these frameworks are activated.

Step 1. Before lightning strikes

Preparation and time are critical when responding to a disaster. State and federal officials may begin their response even before the disaster occurs:

In predictable disasters, such as hurricanes, [Advanced Emergency Response Teams (ERT-A)] may be sent into the area before the storm strikes to set up emergency communications equipment and help coordinate early response efforts. An important role of the ERT-A is to obtain information on the impact of the event and identify the types of short and long-term assistance that may be needed.
A Citizen’s Guide to Disaster Assistance

When the risk is high enough, the President may declare a State of Emergency in advance, as President Biden did for Florida four days in advance of Hurricane Ian’s landfall.

From the beginning, FEMA will work with state, local, nonprofit and private sector partners to provide relief. For instance,

Nearly a week before its first U.S. landfall … the American Red Cross mobilized more than 100 trucks loaded with tens of thousands of relief supplies, dozens of emergency response vehicles and hundreds of disaster responders to be ready to support families in the path of Hurricane Ian.

As the storm approached the coast, some 2.5 million Floridians were asked to evacuate and the Red Cross worked closely with our partners to support more than 200 evacuation centers.
Hurricane Ian Relief Information | Red Cross

Unfortunately, tsunamis, earthquakes, and other less predictable disasters do not offer much warning, leading to delays before help can arrive.

Step 2. Local to State Request for Aid

Local authorities request state help when local resources aren’t enough. State authorities request federal help when state resources aren’t enough. For example,

… local officials declared a State of Emergency, acting in accordance with the local emergency operations plan. As the flood waters rose and spread and essential buildings suffered major damage, local officials determined that they did not have adequate resources to respond effectively … and asked the State for assistance. To support their request, local officials described the extent and types of damage caused by the flood. They asked for specific kinds of assistance, including help in evacuating persons from affected areas and in keeping people from entering unsafe highways or other restricted areas.
A Citizen’s Guide to Disaster Assistance, p. 3-5

If the state agrees to the local request for assistance, the state governor will declare a State of Emergency, thereby releasing state resources.

Step 3. State to Federal Request for Aid

If the State concludes that effective response needs may exceed both the State’s resources and those of the community, then the State can request that FEMA regional officials join them in conducting preliminary damage assessments (PDAs). Based on the PDA, the governor decides whether to request federal aid.

The request must include specific information required by law, including the nature and amount of local and State resources that have been or will be committed to disaster-related work. The request must also guarantee that the cost-sharing provisions of the Stafford Act will be met.
A Citizen’s Guide to Disaster Assistance, p. 3-9

The above request process may seem lengthy. However,

In general, the larger and more severe the disaster, the less information is needed initially to support the request. A smaller or less obvious situation requires a greater amount of information to verify that Federal assistance is needed. An aerial survey conducted by FEMA and State officials might be enough to demonstrate the need for Federal help, although damage assessments would continue after the declaration to help manage response and recovery measures.
A Citizen’s Guide to Disaster Assistance, p. 3-9.

Moreover, state and federal authorities do not just sit around and await a phone call:

Typically, when a disaster as serious as that in the [flood] scenario occurs, it is apparent from an early stage that not only State but also Federal assistance may be needed. State and FEMA officials would continually monitor the progress of the incident.
A Citizen’s Guide to Disaster Assistance, p. 3-5

Thus, FEMA’s regional teams will be communicating with state and local authorities to assure a fast response as soon as it is determined that federal assistance is needed. As we saw above, for big enough disasters, FEMA may have the necessary Declaration of a State of Emergency that authorizes action before the event even happens.

Representatives of other response organizations such as nonprofits, local community organizations, and local businesses are typically included in these discussions. Most notably is the American Red Cross, which has a unique congressionally-chartered mandate “to carry out responsibilities delegated to us by the federal government.

Step 4. U.S. Presidential Declaration of State of Emergency

Formally, the FEMA Regional Director evaluates the governor’s request for federal assistance and makes a recommendation to the FEMA Director, who then reviews the recommendation, and passes it on to the President.

While this review may take time, it may be foreshortened for larger events, as we saw above. Indeed, in response to Hurricane Ian (2022), President Biden signed an Emergency Declaration for the State of Florida within hours of receiving the request from the Florida governor.

Step 5. Federal Response

FEMA leads the federal effort, but is by no means the only agency involved. Seventeen federal agencies, plus the Red Cross, are listed as primary or support agencies for the fifteen emergency support functions (ESF) of the National Response Framework. These federal agencies along with state agencies and non-governmental organizations have a seat at the table when determining and delivering federal relief:

The Federal, State, private, and voluntary agency response team relationship is established and fostered at an initial meeting held as soon as possible after the President’s declaration. All Federal, State, and voluntary agencies that can provide some form of disaster assistance are invited to be represented at this meeting. Initial relief coordination procedures are established, especially the details of setting up and staffing sites where disaster victims can apply for assistance. The [Federal Coordinating Officer (FCO)] and [State Coordinating Officer (SCO)] conduct subsequent coordination meetings as often as needed to establish priorities and objectives, identify problems, and document achievements.
A Citizen’s Guide to Disaster Assistance, p. 3-13

FEMA’s involvement in the response effort is determined by an agreement to which both FEMA and state authorities commit. Much of the agreement is based on the governor’s request for assistance,

This agreement describes the period of the incident (or disaster), the types of assistance to be provided, the areas eligible for assistance, the agreed-upon cost-share provisions, and other terms and conditions.
A Citizen’s Guide to Disaster Assistance, p. 3-11

FEMA may provide:

  • Assistance for individuals and businesses
  • Assistance for repairing or replacing essential public systems and facilities
  • Assistance for hazard mitigation to prevent or reduce future risk of the disaster

Step 6. Long-term Recovery

Many disaster assistance organizations, such as the Red Cross, only provide disaster response assistance. These are actions carried out immediately, to save lives, reduce economic losses, and alleviate suffering. However, people are in crisis long after the flood waters recede or the wildfire burns out. Homes may need to be repaired and communities rebuilt.

FEMA is in it for the long haul, helping individuals and communities for the full disaster recovery period:

The National Disaster Recovery Framework (NDRF) enables effective recovery support to disaster-impacted states, tribes, territorial and local jurisdictions. … The NDRF focuses on how best to restore, redevelop and revitalize the health, social, economic, natural and environmental fabric of the community and build a more resilient nation.
National Disaster Recovery Framework |


The federal disaster response process may not be perfect, but consider all that has to happen for a well-considered response to happen. The description above is a tremendously simplified story – much, much more is going on than we have time here to describe. However, we hope this glimpse under the hood of the official U.S. federal response to disaster sheds some clarity on the process of getting federal aid to where it is needed.

So, once the earthquake has subsided, the wildfire is contained, or the tsunami has receded, know that a vast and complex response engine with many moving parts is working to help you. However, it might take time. So, be prepared to be proactive, work with your community, and do what you can to help yourself and those around you.

To celebrate the thanks of Thanksgiving and Giving Tuesday, today, we give a very special thanks to these federal, state, and local agencies dedicated to helping us in the darkest moments, especially FEMAAmerican Red Cross, State agencies such as CalOES and CalFire, and local agencies such as Sonoma County Department of Emergency Management, Oakland’s Emergency Management Team, and Palo Alto’s Office of Emergency Services.


If you want to help empower people to help themselves, please
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We thank you for all that you give.

Five steps to obtaining disaster assistance


On the fifth day of Thanks and Giving, we give to you … five tips for getting the help you need after a disaster.

In our last post, we talked about four sources of disaster assistance, emphasizing that there is no one source for help. Today, we offer you five tips for getting started on navigating the stressful, confusing, and intimidating process of getting help.

These tips draw on the collective advice we gathered from people who had started and led a grassroots response to help their community in the face of COVID-19. The resulting “Seven Tips for Being Effective in a Crisis” were intended to help people start a community response, but we think the first five apply equally to helping find the help you need.

Tip 1: Just start!

Take a step. Take another. Keep going. Don’t let not knowing hold you back.

–– COVID-19 leaders study | Creative Crisis Leadership 

Finding help may seem daunting because there are so many sources that it’s difficult to know where to start. The worst thing to do is to give up before you start.The best thing to do is to start with a few places and go from there.

We recommend the following first steps.

  1. See what your local authority offers. They may have a website listing resources specifically available to you. For example, Sonoma county in California, posts recovery resources for residents affected by wildfires.
  2. Call your insurance company.
  3. Contact your local Red Cross chapter.
  4. Use FEMA’s to see what federal assistance may be available. 

Tip 2: Don’t be afraid to fail

If you do something, you may succeed. If you do nothing, you’ve already failed.

–– COVID-19 leaders study | Creative Crisis Leadership 

Do not be intimidated by the difficulty of asking, the complexity of an application, nor assume that you will not qualify for assistance. There is no shame and little harm in asking. You might be pleasantly surprised!

And the insurance company did send somebody out. And I’m saying, “I don’t think you need to come out. There’s no damage here.” And the guy went around with his white glove, or whatever he did. And said, “No, you got all this, this needs to be …,” whatever, [they] handed us a bunch of money.

–– Three CZU Fire Survivors Tell Their Stories

Tip 3: Don’t go it alone

Get others to help. Collaboration will make it easier, and help you do more.

–– COVID-19 leaders study | Creative Crisis Leadership 

As we said in our last post, “The first source of help is right next to you.” The people around you are going through what you are going through. They are probably seeking much the same information about disaster assistance that you are. Save time and energy by pooling your knowledge. Share what you’ve found and find out what they’ve already learned.

Moreover, obtaining disaster relief can be exhausting and stressful. Sharing the process with others who are experiencing the same stresses can be motivating and uplifting.

There’s a growing consensus among emergency response researchers that in communities where social ties are strong and there is a sense of connectedness, residents are more readily able to rebound after a disruptive event such as an earthquake, hurricane, tornado, wildfire, or illness.

–– How to rebound from disasters? Resilience starts in the neighborhood

If you want to go fast go alone, if you want to go far go together.

–– African Proverb

Tip 4: Build on what you have

Use the skills, resources, and relationships that are available to you. Develop new ones as you go along.

–– COVID-19 leaders study | Creative Crisis Leadership 

When meeting with neighbors, take stock in what skills you each have and take advantage of each other’s skills. Those with good internet research skills can take the lead on online searches. Those with extensive social networks can seek out information from that network.  Those with membership in community organizations can explore the resources they offer.

Tally the social connections you have collectively. Find out who has connections to people in positions of knowledge and expertise. Fostering these connections for the community can be a powerful tool in the undertaking of obtaining disaster assistance.

“A community that has trusted ties to decision-makers can also receive about 20 to 30 percent more money for building back after a disaster than communities that do not have those connections.”

––  How to rebound from disasters? Resilience starts in the neighborhood

Tip 5: Focus

Tackle one problem at a time. Don’t try to do everything at once.

–– COVID-19 leaders study | Creative Crisis Leadership 

Yes, there is a lot of assistance out there. This can be confusing. Furthermore,

… not all of the help is immediately available, and not everyone can access the aid easily. Also, eligibility for the programs can differ depending on the circumstances.

–– Here’s the disaster relief Hurricane Ian survivors can request, but it’s not always easy to get | CNN 

Figuring out what assistance to pursue when can be overwhelming and exhausting. So, begin by assessing your needs, prioritize them, and start with the most important ones. Do you need fundamentals like shelter, food, water, and utilities? Then start with those. Once you have obtained your top priorities, or at least performed the actions necessary to obtain them, then you can move on to the next, and the next, and the next….

When pursuing assistance, take the time to be thorough so as to give yourself the best chance of getting what you want.  Consider, as an example, that FEMA had 83,000 assistance applications within a week after Hurricane Ian. With so many applicants for FEMA to consider, you want to make it easy for their assessors to approve your request. So, make the effort to find out what makes a good application. Talk to experts and look for sites, like the following, that can help you through to a successful application:


There you have it –  five tips to help you make your way through the effort of getting help. We hope you never need them, but should disaster strike, we hope this helps.

To celebrate the thanks of Thanksgiving and Giving Tuesday, today, we give a very special thanks to the eleven remarkable individuals who gave us their time during our COVID-19 research project and whose collective insight produced our “Seven Tips for Being Effective in a Crisis.”


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Four Sources of Resources – Who You Gonna Call?

Photo by Neil Thomas on Unsplash


On the fourth day of Thanks and Giving, we give to you … four sources of resources to turn to when lightning strikes.

The flood waters have receded, the tornado has dissolved, the hurricane has blown through. You are suffering. Who do you call for help?

The good news is there is a lot of help to be found.

The bad news is that it can be hard to find. There is no one source for help. There is no one in charge of helping you! However, with the power of the internet, modern communication tools and, especially, old-fashioned talking to others in your communities, you can find the help you need.

Here are the four sources of resources to look for (if you are in the United States):

1. Community and local organizations 

The key to my, our, experience is, the fact that we are a very, very tight knit community helped immensely.

— Judy D., CZU Lightning Complex fire survivor

The first source of help is right next to you. If you haven’t already done so, check in with your neighbors, even the ones you don’t already know. See if they need help, and whether they can help you. If you work together, you will have access to many more resources than if you’re all off alone.

Next, check in with the community organizations around you — community centers, faith-based organizations, sports clubs, in other words, your community. These places often become hubs for sharing resources and exchanging information.

This information exchange is critical because the greatest source of help is not any one large institution, but rather the many, many community organizations around you. Don’t forget to check out community information sources such as local newspapers and local agencies’ sites, such as the Public Emergency Portal for Marin County, CA.

Even if you don’t think you need anything, stop by and say hello. You and the people there are all going through a traumatic experience. Reinforcing your sense of connectedness and community is vital to your mental health.

2. The Red Cross and other National Nonprofits

The American Red Cross’s primary mission is disaster relief. Contacting your local Red Cross chapter should be one of your first steps in seeking assistance. As an independent national nonprofit, the Red Cross does not need approval to spend money on helping you. So they can help you whether only your home burned or the whole town is damaged. And, their help arrives more quickly than that from federal or state agencies.

The Red Cross will help you with immediate needs, such as making sure that you have a safe place to stay, food to eat, clothes to wear, and critical prescription medications. But they are not alone. Many other national nonprofit organizations also support these and other needs, for instance, providing spiritual or mental care, or helping with animal welfare.

Following a disaster, local, regional and national voluntary organizations are often the first to arrive to provide assistance. They are also the last to leave. These organizations offer a range of services including feeding, sheltering, provision of hygiene or cleaning supplies, case management, mucking and gutting, debris and tree removal, tarping of roofs, repairing damage or rebuilding homes.

–– National Voluntary Organizations Active in Disasters 

Finding out about these different sources of assistance can be difficult. Remember, there is no one in charge of helping you and no one place to find out what help is out there. Talking to your neighbors and community hubs is often the best way to find out what is out there.

The U.S. Chamber of Commerce maintains lists of nonprofits providing emergency response and disaster recovery assistance.

3. Private sector

If you have insurance, calling your insurance company should be a first step in seeking disaster relief.

And the insurance company did send somebody out. And I’m saying, “I don’t think you need to come out. There’s no damage here.” And the guy went around with his white glove, or whatever he did. And said, “No, you got all this, this needs to be …,” whatever, [they] handed us a bunch of money.

–– Three CZU Fire Survivors Tell Their Stories 

Insurance companies provide other services besides “handing over a bunch of money.” For example, they may cover the cost of temporary housing if you have loss of use coverage. So, be sure to know what benefits your insurance policy includes and have your insurance company’s claims processing contact information on hand. The Red Cross’s recovering financially after a disaster offers excellent advice on how to work with your insurance company.

Many larger corporations and smaller businesses have emergency assistance programs to help their employees, e.g., Target’s Team Member Giving Fund. So, check with your employer.

Your utility company may be able to help you with reduced payments, if you are financially distressed. Such aid is often a result of government support. For example, the state of California provided money to reduce utility bills for people affected by the 2017 wildfires. Talk to your utility company to find out what programs are available to you and how to apply for them.

You may also get help online. Platforms for crowdsourcing aid to disaster survivors are becoming more common. For instance, can connect you with people who offer free housing to people who are impacted by disaster. will let you set up a wish list to collect funds for things you need, and is free to both recipients and donors.

4. Public assistance from the federal, state, and local governments 

Finally, you may be able to get help from the government.

When a disaster is large enough, the local government may call the state for help. That is when a state governor declares a state of emergency. This is not just an expression of alarm — it is an official proclamation that opens the door to the use of state funds to assist disaster survivors. You will need to find your own state’s emergency management agency to find what assistance is available in your state.

For example, the California Office of Emergency Services (CalOES) site for the 2021 wildfires, and Florida’s Division of Emergency Management’s (FloridaDisaster) site for Hurricane Ian in 2022.

When the disaster is too large for the state to handle, then the governor will request help from the federal government. Now, it is the President of the United States who declares a State of Emergency, opening the door for the use of federal funds to aid those affected by the disaster.

Federal aid to individuals and households comes primarily from the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA). It has many programs to support disaster survivors, all of which you apply for via

However, don’t stop with FEMA. Many other federal agencies provide assistance for disaster survivors that you won’t get with an application to FEMA. The American Planning Association (APA) maintains an extensive list of national resources for disaster recovery. A few examples include:

FEMA’s site does provide a search tool and an index to the various forms of federal assistance that may be available to you.


So, as we said, there is a lot of help available, but you may need to do some work to find it. Start by looking around your own community, especially for the emergency resources you need immediately. As you expand your search from immediate needs to long-term recovery, so too expand your search to the slower, but much greater resources of nonprofit organizations, businesses, and government agencies.

The responsibility of preparing for disaster recovery begins with the individual and builds to the larger responsibility of the community and local government. The local government has the primary role of planning and managing all aspects of the community’s recovery. Community planning efforts are supported by voluntary, faith-based and community organizations; private sector; and State, Local, Tribal, Territorial and Federal Governments.

–– National Disaster Recovery Framework Brochure 

To celebrate the thanks of Thanksgiving and Giving Tuesday, today, we give a very special thanks to the many community organizations who have given when others were in need. Napa Valley Community Foundation, CADRE, After the Fire USA, COPE, Coffey Strong and myriad others.


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Three CZU Fire Survivors Tell Their Stories


On the third day of Thanks and Giving, we give to you … three stories from people who had to flee their homes because of wildfire.

Cindy S. (not her real name) was at the grocery store when she received word that the Glass Fire had grown explosively and that she needed to get out immediately. She raced home, got her cat and two dogs into the car, and left. An hour later, the house was gone, along with all the family possessions.

We met Cindy at the 2022 Cloverdale Fire & Earthquake Safety Expo where she related her experience to us with pain in her eyes, tears in her voice, and gratitude in her heart that she, her family, her neighbors, and their pets had gotten out alive. We were there asking people to imagine what they would do if they had to evacuate at that moment. We also listened to many stories of real experiences, fortunately, few as dramatic as Cindy’s.

Learning from people who have experienced disaster is part of the research we do at Creative Crisis Leadership. We use what we learn to ensure that our immersive learning experiences are realistic, present participants with challenges that reflect real priorities, and create space for emotional realities.

Last year, we shared some insights on how wildfire affects everyone. Today, we share the stories of three people who were directly affected by the 2020 CZU Lightning Complex fires in California.

About the fire

CZU Lightning Complex fire perimeter.

On Sunday Aug 16 2020, lightning started numerous fires on the Western slopes of the Santa Cruz mountains. Early Wednesday, winds came up, and what became known as the CZU Lightning Complex exploded. By the time the fires were fully contained, a month later on Sep 22, they had burned 86,509 acres, destroyed 1490 structures, ravaged redwoods and historic buildings in Butano and Big Basin state parks, and caused one fatality.

Judy D., Judy S. and Barbara all live in the Santa Cruz mountains and had to evacuate. Here are their experiences in their own words.

Judy D.

Photo by John Pilge.

… we never thought we’d be experiencing fire, like, fire season was always, like, up north and east of here, right? You know, we live in a redwood forest. We live in a valley, six miles from the coast. So we thought that, you know, this isn’t going to happen here. And, over the last several years, like 2018, 2019, there’d be a small fire would pop up somewhere in the valley. It’s pretty heavily forested, but there’s also, 26,000, 30,000 people that live in these communities. And, as soon as a fire would pop up, Calfire was on it, or the local fire and volunteer fire departments were on it, and it would be out. So we never really thought that it would happen to us.

And of course, it started up a little bit further north of Big Basin and then, two days later, it was like, “Oh, no, there’s a fire.” We’re watching the fire, thinking, “They’ll get it out. They’ll get it out.” And as it kept creeping closer to us … we really didn’t think we were going to be evacuated. And then the next thing we knew is our friends in Boulder Creek are being evacuated. … we knew basically what we had to get ready. And we’re working with all of our neighbors. And all of our neighbors are talking.

My husband spent the time doing what we’ve learned from the fire departments and from all the videos about going around and hardening the outside of the home. Taking away the chairs, and we loaded up, … most of what was in the freezer we took with us. The power was still on when we evacuated. … and he took all of our little portable propane tanks, like for the grill and stuff like that, and put them out at the end of the driveway. I think we had four. And we had gas cans for a generator. So he put all the gas cans and propane cans out at the end of the driveway, which is what the fire department asked you to do. Turned off our propane tank.

It was a very orderly evacuation when they finally said, “It’s time to evacuate.” … we left when there was a warning. It was, it was terrifying. I mean, it was! … And you know, we’re thinking, “Ah, we’ll be gone a couple days.” [Laughs] “No, it’s not gonna be long.” And — my heart is just racing thinking about all this again — And we left, we backed out, and left. it was like, “Oh,” like, you back out of your driveway. And, you look at your house and say, “That’s probably it. Probably not gonna be here when I come back.” Because at that point, the fire was starting to come over the hill from Bonnie Doon. And so we just said goodbye and left.

We were very, very fortunate in that we had our in-laws to go to. You know, I have friends that were everywhere, from in their camper, and went down to Morro Bay. The hotels immediately all filled up in Santa Cruz, people could not find spaces to stay. And I think this is something that really needs to be done, is for people to kind of think through, where are they going to go if they’re evacuated? Because we’d never thought about it. And luckily we had relatives. But, you know, a couple friends got hotels, but I knew several people who were going from camp … campgrounds immediately filled up — you know, we’re in a place with a lot of campgrounds — they filled up with the motorhomes. But then all the ones up here were closed, the ones down in Santa Cruz on the beach were filled up immediately. So it took a day or two for people to find places to stay.

And then, as I said, we all thought it would be a couple days. And it was just being glued to the reports, glued to Calfire, glued to Twitter, and watching as the fire was moving in.

When we came back, we still didn’t have power for a week after we came back … The streets and the roads were lined with freezers and refrigerators that were just, you know, it’s like somebody died in there. It’s disgusting. It’s absolutely disgusting.

Judy S.

Photo by Susanne Jul

It was a real surprise that the fire came so close, because it moved fast. You know we had that thunder and lightning storm. And then three days later, two days later, we were evacuating, and it was raining ash.

I left before we got orders. Because, there was so much smoke and it was 85 degrees in the house. I couldn’t open the doors and windows. I don’t have air conditioning. So it didn’t make any sense to stay. And it looked like we were going to have to evacuate. So, you know, it made sense to go as soon as I could.

We’ve had to evacuate before. It actually was, “Okay, we’re going to evacuate. We’ll be gone for a few days and then we’ll be back.” But I didn’t come back for five weeks. I left on the 18th of August and I was allowed to come back on the fifth of September. And that was because of evacuation warnings and orders. They didn’t lift the evacuation order because there was still so many hot spots. They just didn’t want people around.

There was so much uncertainty during the evacuation. … There were three times during the fire that I thought [the house was gone], when we were evacuated. … this person has a camera on their house, and so he was watching the fire from the camera. And then the camera went out. And there was certainty — because the camera went out — that the fire had consumed his home and the creek, which meant it was going to come up the whole mountain here. That turned out not to be true. So, you know, there was good information, there was crappy information, you know. And a lot of that “Oh my god, my house is gone!” came from some of that. You know, should I be listening to this? What’s real? It’s just hard to know.

My neighborhood will never be the same. Because of it. And I, you know, we used to have a quiet, sweet little neighborhood and it’s not like that anymore. … there’s about 24 houses and seven of them burned in the fire. The fire was right across from my driveway road, it was on the other side of it.

I’ve gone through grief at the loss of my neighborhood and gratitude that my home is still here. … People are gone. My dearest neighbors don’t live here anymore. They live in Felton. People whose children I knew since they were born. And, just the character, the neighborhood changes, because some of the characters are gone.

So that’s what I’m noticing from people, is just the trauma. People, you know, people say, “Are you going to rebuild?” And one day it’s “Yes,” one day it’s “No,” one day it’s “Yes,” one day it’s “No.” And so it’s over a year later, and nobody has started to rebuild in my neighborhood.


Barbara’s house

It was the day before, when I started hearing that there were fires getting closer. And I started thinking, “Okay, what do we actually really need?” Packing the car took us an hour, half hour, an hour, something like that. We might have, I think we packed up the night before, had the car ready to go. And then headed out, you know, midday the next day.

I realized, very quickly, that there was very little I cared enough about that I needed to take it. You know, I didn’t care about pictures, somebody else has the pictures. The only things I cared about were our paintings. Because every one was important to me. And so those were what we packed up. And then we grabbed a little bit of clothes. And that was about it.

I was expecting huge long lines of cars leaving the area? Nothing. It was just really smooth and easy. No traffic problems, no nothing. … I think it was really because people were leaving at different times. What is it? There’s 20-odd thousand people in the valley, three ways out. … We left before they actually placed the orders. And I think people were already leaving before that.

My son actually was concerned about us. And so, you know, we talked for a moment, I get a call an hour later, and he said, “Okay, I have booked you into this place on the beach, you can work there, you got the internet, you can do whatever you need to do.” And, so, we went there, … then I felt, “Oh my god, I can’t do this!” That was so dismal. I really did not want to have to stay in that [little hotel] for a couple of weeks. … We ended up going a little further down the coast of Monterey, to a place where my daughter was evacuated to. So we were next door to each other there. We then get a call from my brother saying, “Hey, my neighbor is just opening up his place. He’s got two rooms for you guys.” I’m ashamed to admit that it felt like a vacation that part, because my daughter had a big place, right? And we had a studio right next to it. My brother’s across the street, the rock in Morro Bay is across from us. And we hung out there for two weeks.

I had already come to terms with the idea that I might well lose my home of 38 years, you know? And, yeah, it was okay. I mean, I just thought about it, it is “Okay, a new start.” You know, and, but I also realized, “Ah, yeah! I’m okay with this, but I don’t want to! I don’t want to lose my home.”

It was the red sky that first day, when we came back. And it looked like a moonscape. It was the strangest thing. How, you know, the whole sky was red, it was orange. I’ve never seen anything like that. And, the smells, that burnt smell. And that strange, eerie, moonscape feel to all of it.

About a 1000 foot from our house. … as the crow flies. … When we got back, I was surprised how much burnt debris there was, you know, in the yard and, and everywhere. And the insurance company did send somebody out. And I’m saying, “I don’t think you need to come out. There’s no damage here.” And the guy went around with his white glove, or whatever he did. And said, “No, you got all this, this needs to be …,” whatever, handed us a bunch of money.

This has been how long ago? Oh, it’s exactly a year. Yeah. And then, goodness, about three months ago, we went, just walking with some friends up near our house, but from their property — they were much closer to it. And you saw all this new growth. So the whole forest was opened up, you know, so it was really light. And there were all these little things coming up. And it was, you really understood how this was a part of the cycle. And we’d stopped it for too long. And that’s why we’re seeing such a fierce reaction. But it truly is beautiful right now.

In terms of rebuilding, what people are going through is just a tremendous amount of time to get permits in our area. I don’t know of anybody who has started rebuilding yet. And that’s a year later, and they haven’t been able to get the permits to rebuild.

Read what Barbara had to say about home preparation in this 2021 Wildfire Advent post. For a moving reflection on what it meant to lose a house to the CZU fire, we highly recommend Dear Wild Child: You Carry Your Home Inside You by Wallace J. Nichols and Wallace Grayce Nichols.

To celebrate the thanks of Thanksgiving and Giving Tuesday, today, we give a very special thanks to the many individuals who have opened their hearts and shared their disaster stories with us: Your stories help to empower other communities!


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Two Ways to Prepare to be Unprepared

Preparing for disaster

Photo by Mick Haupt on Unsplash


On the second day of Thanks and Giving, we give to you … two surprising and critical ways to prepare for disaster! 

What do you think of when we ask you to think about preparing for disaster?

Most people would talk about learning what to do and gathering supplies. Indeed, that is what most disaster management agencies focus on. They happily provide training classes and extensive checklists detailing what you should do and have. Many of these resources are well-designed and highly informative, for example, Calfire’s Prepare for Wildfire site and Red Cross’s What Do You Need In a Survival Kit.

However, is it really possible to be perfectly prepared? We think not. According to Juliette Kayyem, Faculty Director of the Homeland Security Project and Security and Global Health Project at Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government, there is no perfect preparation and no perfect response.


Researcher Stephan Gundel gives us some possible clues. He lays out a typology that classifies crises along two dimensions:

First, can we imagine a particular disaster? Do we believe it could happen? We can all imagine a car accident happening and believe that it could happen to us, so we wear seat belts. To pre-9/11 social consciousness, it was unimaginable and unbelievable that commercial planes filled with passengers would be used as bombs:

“The most important failure was one of imagination.”


9/11 Commission Commission

Second, even if we can imagine a disaster, is there anything we can do to prevent it or reduce the damage it might cause? Do we have the resources and will to do so? For instance, we may not be able to prevent an earthquake, but we can take measures to improve earthquake safety. However, many such measures are very costly, e.g., retrofitting your house, or unrealistic, e.g., moving to another state.

“Even as climate change increases the frequency and intensity of extreme weather events, from fires to floods and hurricanes, two-thirds of Americans say if their home is hit they would rather rebuild than relocate …”


NPR, Most Americans would rather rebuild than move if natural disaster strikes, poll finds. 2021

Intersecting these two dimensions, predictability and influenceability, yields four types of disasters:

Gundel crisis matrix

From Gundel, Stephan. “Towards a new typology of crises.” Journal of contingencies and crisis management 13, no. 3 (2005): 106-115.

Conventional disaster preparedness — learning what to do in particular circumstances and stockpiling resources — can only target conventional crises, the ones that are predictable and influenceable. For the rest we need something else.

So, It’s great to prepare, but it’s even greater to prepare to be unprepared.

But how can you prepare when you don’t know what you are preparing for? Here are two ways that we think are simple but critical.

  1. Get to know your neighbors

You may expect that your biggest source of help in a disaster will be disaster response agencies such as the local fire department, FEMA, Red Cross, or Civil Defense. Experience and research says that your biggest source of help will be the people you know and the people who are around you.

Researcher Daniel Aldrich who has studied the role of social networks in community resilience “has found that in a major shock, such as a tsunami or hurricane, a tightly connected community will save roughly 20 times more lives than the least connected community where nobody knows anybody (How to rebound from disasters? Resilience starts in the neighborhood | PreventionWeb).”

“Consider the earthquake that struck Japan on March 11, 2011. My colleague and I gathered data on and analyzed more than 130 coastal cities struck by the 60-foot tsunami. We found that communities with stronger social ties and more trust before the disaster had a smaller percentage of their population killed than similar communities that were less connected. While many engineers believed that the seawalls constructed along Japan’s Tohoku coast would save lives, we showed that social infrastructure, not physical infrastructure, kept communities intact. Survivors we interviewed told us that they’d only made it through because a friend or neighbor had helped them from their vulnerable residences.”


— Danel Aldrich, 2015, Some communities are destroyed by tragedy and disaster. Others spring back. Here’s what makes the difference. – The Washington Post

Other studies show that the people you know are instrumental in helping you get what you need in a disaster, including information, physical resources and practical help, as well as financial, emotional and psychological support (Elliott, Haney, & Sams-Abiodun, 2010; Hurlbert, Haines, & Beggs, 2000; Kaniasty & Norris, 1993).

So, get to know your neighbors!

  1. Develop your improvisation skills

If you’ve ever studied martial arts, you’ll recall that the first thing you learned was to fall. Not how to defend yourself or defeat your opponent, but learning to be flexible and adapt when you are thrown off balance.

The unpreparedness equivalent is to learn to think creatively about the people and resources around you. In other words, learn to improvise. Not only with things, but with the people who happen to be around you.

“[Improv] also highlights many of the soft skills that can be transferred to the work world, like being an engaged and active listener and being able to process information and react. If something comes up unexpectedly, these improvvers are ready to address it.”

— Harvard Business Gazette, For more than just laughs.

“Human beings are at their best when they are open to the world, able to notice what’s needed, and equipped with the skills to respond meaningfully in the moment. … This is what the great jazz players do: They learn by leaping in and taking action before they have a well-conceived plan. Once they’ve honed their skills, they know how to fabricate and invent novel responses without a scripted plan and no guarantee of outcomes. They discover the future as it unfolds.”

Barrett, Frank J. Yes to the mess: Surprising leadership lessons from jazz. Harvard Business Press, 2012.

Being prepared for disaster is great. That includes making the plans, learning the skills and gathering the supplies suggested by disaster management agencies such as FEMA, Calfire, and Red Cross.

However, it’s greater to be ready for when the plans fail, the skills aren’t relevant, and the supplies aren’t there.

That’s why we at Creative Crisis Leadership do what we do: Create community workshops that provide communities with opportunities to experience some of the chaos and confusion of a crisis, practice improvising, and discover what they can accomplish with the people and resources that happen to be available.

On the second day of Thanks and Giving, we extend our special thanks to the communities who have helped to test our Wildfire Community Workshop:

  • Windsor CA: Patti Restaino, Geoff Peters (COPE)
  • Oakland CA: Shana & Noah Johnson, Ford Johnson, David Waxman, Brianna Taylor (Oakland OES), Kyle Tramblay (Oakland OES), Olga Crowe (Oakland OES)
  • Portola Valley CA: Kristin & Rusty Day, Patti Fry


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We thank you for all that you give.