RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:
Fires have already destroyed nearly 1,400 homes in California this year, the latest in a string of blazes that have ravaged the state in recent years. As with all natural disasters, the people who end up suffering the most are those who had less to start with. From member station KQED, Sam Harnett has the story of two families in Northern California at different points in the struggle to start all over again.
SAM HARNETT, BYLINE: Wendy and Norm Alvarez lost everything in the wildfire that swept through Redding earlier this summer.
NORM ALVAREZ: That's the shop area. That's just (unintelligible).
WENDY ALVAREZ: Yeah, there was a wall here. I'm going to step down over on the other side to the other room.
N. ALVAREZ: This was our garden.
HARNETT: They lost their possessions, their affordable living situation, even what Norm used to make money, his tools.
N. ALVAREZ: Yeah, table saws, chop saws, generators, ladders, all that. It's history.
HARNETT: Norm's a general contractor. All he has left now is a drill that happened to be in his truck when they fled. Wendy and Norm rented a house in Redding, about three hours north of San Francisco. It's a rural area where good jobs and affordable housing are hard to replace. The couple's in their 50s, and they thought they were set for retirement - not anymore.
W. ALVAREZ: Financially, we are in a tough position that we haven't had to be in. And that has been very uncomfortable - to humble yourself, to ask for help.
HARNETT: Like many displaced by the fires, the couple didn't have renters insurance. Local nonprofits gave them some money for food and clothes, and FEMA helped cover a few months' rent. Right now, Wendy and Norm are splitting an apartment with other fire survivors.
W. ALVAREZ: None of us know what direction we're going to go.
HARNETT: Wendy and Norm may never recover financially. A study published last year by the National Bureau of Economic Research analyzed 90 years of national disaster data. It found that major disasters increase the poverty rate. They encourage those with means to leave, and they push the low income deeper into poverty as they struggle to recover. John and Ellen Brackett lost their home a year ago, and they're still in limbo.
ELLEN BRACKETT: Right here we had a two-bedroom house with a...
HARNETT: The couple owns 2 acres of land and had a house in Mendocino County. It had been in the family for three generations. Now the couple is living in trailers.
E. BRACKETT: These are our lovely ghetto FEMA trailers.
HARNETT: How long you been in here?
E. BRACKETT: What? We got here February of this year...
JOHN BRACKETT: Yeah, something like that.
E. BRACKETT: ...At least.
HARNETT: Their property was packed with old vehicles, trailers and motorbikes. That's all gone. They couldn't get insurance for all that stuff. After the fires, FEMA gave them $21,000. They used all that money just to get fresh water.
E. BRACKETT: Just for our well was almost all the money we got from FEMA.
HARNETT: The family has no real savings. Ellen has a job doing in-home care, and John was a sheetrocker. But a motorcycle accident and years of hanging drywall destroyed his shoulder. He just had surgery, and his doctor told him he's done with manual labor.
J. BRACKETT: I'm one of those kind of guys that like to give help. I don't like to receive it. I like to give it.
HARNETT: So what are you - what's the hope? Like, what are you...
J. BRACKETT: I've been to prison half my life, and I got out and I started doing good (sighing).
E. BRACKETT: Yeah. He started doing really good and then just loses everything.
HARNETT: Over 400 families in Mendocino County lost their homes to fire last October. According to a local community organization, only one has been rebuilt. Around 50 families like the Bracketts are living in FEMA trailers. Ellen and John are hoping to get one of a handful of low-interest rebuilding loans from the state.
E. BRACKETT: We're just going to slap in a five-bedroom modular and hopefully get our life back to normal 'cause this is a little crazy.
HARNETT: And the clock is ticking. FEMA only lends out trailers for 18 months. Ellen and John lose theirs in April. If they don't have a house by then, Ellen says the couple and their two kids and John's mother are going to have to live in tents.
In Mendocino County, I'm Sam Harnett, NPR News.
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