USA – Fires, like all natural disasters, disproportionately affect those who are low income. They often lack insurance and resources to rebuild or move elsewhere. The effects on families and communities can be long-lasting.
A paper published last year by the National Bureau of Economic Research analyzed 90 years of natural disaster data. It found that major catastrophes increase a county’s poverty rate — the percentage of people living below the poverty line — by an average of 1 percent. That’s because disasters encourage those who are well off to leave, and it makes those with low income poorer.
In Redding, Ca., Wendy and Norm Alvarez had a unique living arrangement. Norm is a carpenter and had taken care of an antique dealer’s house for years. The place was on a scrubby country road on the outskirts of town. It had a workshop where Norm did small jobs for other clients, and it had an in-law unit. Two years ago Norm and Wendy moved in.
It was an ideal setup, one that they thought would carry them into a fairly comfortable retirement.
“It was peaceful and quiet to sit out here in the evening with all the trees and birds and animals,” Wendy said, “We had a good life.”
About a month ago, the Carr Fire forced Norm and Wendy to evacuate. The next day they were watching the news and saw footage of their neighborhood. Some of the houses were untouched. Theirs was completely destroyed.
Nearly everything they owned was burned. Wendy said she felt like suddenly they might never recover financially. And she’s right. They might not. The set back has been tremendous.
Not only did they lose their possessions, their affordable living situation and Norm’s caretaking arrangement, they also lost what Norm used to make money: his tools. All he has left is a drill, which happened to be in his truck when they fled.
Like many who lost homes in these fires, the couple did not have renters insurance. For the first time in their lives they had to ask for help.
“Financially we are in a position we haven’t had to be in,” Wendy said, “It’s been very uncomfortable to humble yourself to ask for help.”
In the immediate aftermath of the fire, organizations like the Red Cross, the Buddhist Tzu Chi Foundation and the Lion’s Club gave them some money for food and clothes. The Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) helped cover a few months rent. Right now they’re splitting rent on an apartment with other fire survivors.
“None of us know which direction we’re going to go,” Wendy said.