STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:
When fires swept through Paradise, Calif., last year, we got a glimpse of our future. The fires destroyed almost 19,000 structures and killed 85 people. And many who study the response to disasters say this should be a wakeup call. Climate change means that wildfires, and floods and hurricanes are increasing in size, and severity and frequency. So how can other communities be ready? Paradise revealed a need to radically change the way we prepare. NPR's Kirk Siegler reports.
KIRK SIEGLER, BYLINE: On that terrifying November morning, Chris Beaudis narrowly escaped the Sierra foothills town of Paradise in his Ford Bronco with only his pit bull.
(SOUNDBITE OF DOG BARKING)
SIEGLER: He lost everything else and has no insurance.
CHRIS BEAUDIS: It's been really crazy at times. It's been really stressful at times. You think that it's the end of the world, you know, especially when everything you have is gone.
SIEGLER: Beaudis' new home is this 300-square-foot FEMA camper trailer wedged into a corner of the fairgrounds in Yuba City. It's in the valley about 50 miles south of what's left of Paradise. He's one of thousands of Camp Fire survivors still relying on direct federal aid.
BEAUDIS: Thank God that I finally was able to get on the help list and received help. And since then it's just been the biggest stress reliever of my life.
SIEGLER: Now, he may end up staying in this trailer for another year before he can rebuild. But this typical response to a bad disaster may be emblematic of a bigger problem. Emergency help is deployed, checks are cut so communities can be rebuilt, even in fire-prone areas. Thus far, FEMA alone has paid out more than $85 million in emergency housing aid here for fire survivors like Beaudis. Another $370 million has gone out in Small Business Administration loans. And it's typically the federal government's mission to get the recovery done in about 18 months.
Up in Paradise, that starts with cleaning up.
(SOUNDBITE OF CONSTRUCTION MACHINE BEEPING)
SIEGLER: Six months after the fire, they're still clearing destroyed homes, strip malls, gas stations, the torched frames of cars, scooping it up and hauling it all away.
(SOUNDBITE OF DEBRIS BEING HAULED AWAY)
SIEGLER: Debris removal alone is expected to cost close to $2 billion, again, mostly paid for by federal taxpayers. Bob Fenton is FEMA's Region 9 administrator overseeing the California wildfire recovery.
BOB FENTON: The quicker we remove the debris, the faster reconstruction can start.
SIEGLER: Clean up the debris and rebuild. This has been the mindset for disaster recovery in this country for decades, according to experts who have worked in disaster response and now study it. We wait until something happens and then come in and fix it. But this model is outdated in the era of climate change.
JOSH SAWISLAK: We have been very reactionary. The problem is that we've kind of gotten away with it for a while.
SIEGLER: Josh Sawislak was a climate adviser to President Obama and served on the Hurricane Sandy recovery task force.
SAWISLAK: We're not going to be able to do that anymore. We're spending more and more money. It's going to get even worse, and climate change is going to force our hand to be smarter about how we do this.
SIEGLER: Every year, we seem to experience the biggest hurricane, the deadliest floods, and now wildfires burning into a whole cities built in and around overgrown dry forests. Behavioral scientist Kathleen Tierney says staying the current course will bankrupt the country.
KATHLEEN TIERNEY: We may be able to slow down the losses, but we can't stop them. I mean, this is the legacy. This is the bill that has come due.
SIEGLER: Tierney says it's a basic human instinct to want to rebuild, to return to normal after a traumatic event, even if it's going home to an area we know is risky.
TIERNEY: Keep in mind the tendency that a lot of people have to say, we've had our disaster. We're not going to have another one. All we have to do is go back.
SIEGLER: Bob Fenton, the FEMA administrator, has been thinking a lot about this, especially after Paradise. A decade ago, he led an agency initiative to overhaul how communities plan for catastrophes. He's been trying to move the needle toward doing more upfront work. Now, this isn't easy. You've got politics tied up with budgeting, and it's hard to get people to prepare for something that hasn't happened yet.
FENTON: We've done a lot of work over the years to help people respond and rebuild. But how do we get them to plan better, prepare better and mitigate against future disasters?
SIEGLER: Last fall, as California was burning, Congress passed the Disaster Recovery Reform Act. Now, for the first time, it will allow the government to use some disaster relief funds for pre-disaster mitigation, including giving better planning tools and data to communities.
FENTON: Communities need to be aware of those risks when doing community planning, not to build in very high-hazard areas. And we need to build smarter.
SIEGLER: That new funding, though, is still a small percentage of the overall disaster relief pot - like, 6 percent. And it's not going to make a difference for this year's fire season. Even after Paradise, local governments here in the West are continuing to approve development in high fire-risk places. Paradise officials themselves are pledging to rebuild, though the new town will likely have a redesigned, safer street grid and homes built with more fire-resistant materials. Here's Mayor Jody Jones at a town planning forum.
JODY JONES: We all want to rebuild, and our constituents all want to rebuild. But we want to rebuild a more resilient, safe community.
SIEGLER: One of the lessons here is that it's not easy to change the system after one big disaster. But there is time to rethink what the new Paradise will be.
DAN EFSEAFF: So let's walk out over here.
SIEGLER: One morning at dawn, Paradise's parks director Dan Efseaff walks toward a steep cliff along a ridge on the eastern edge of town.
EFSEAFF: Basically, this was the track of the fire. It was directly where the sun's rising over here.
SIEGLER: To our left is a narrow road chock full of leveled houses built right up along the ridge. Efseaff is floating an idea to buy-out willing property owners here and turn the land into open space. It could be a park but also managed as a firebreak, a place where crews could safely park engines and take a stand.
EFSEAFF: The amount of resources that we spend during a disaster, it's a million dollars a day, or it's $10 million a day. Yet, I wish I had a million dollars for this next year to do vegetation work in here.
SIEGLER: There is a provision and money in that disaster relief reform bill for states to do these buyouts and turn land into green spaces. This hasn't been done before in high-risk fire areas, but it could be the future.
EFSEAFF: California needs to figure out, how do we live with fire? How do we adapt to fire? And what we do in Paradise, I think, has huge implications for not only the state but the country.
SIEGLER: Kirk Siegler, NPR News, in Paradise, Calif.
NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.