Yet the recovery is also when a disaster’s polarizing effect becomes acute: Private and public aid in many cases accrue to the haves more so than to the have-nots. “Disasters are increasing the disparity in terms of people’s homes, their income, their access to services,” said Brad Kieserman, the vice president for operations and logistics at the American Red Cross, which remains on the ground after the Camp Fire. “Disasters, for most communities, exacerbate already existing issues, which is why we often see in shelters what what we sometimes refer to as ‘the least, the last, and the lost.’ The people who had the least, who were the last to get services, who were already at the end, who were lost beforehand, especially financially.”
Chaos and uncertainty fuel this stratification. The Camp Fire interrupted town services and caused a mass internal displacement, with families crowding into makeshift shelters, setting up tents in church parking lots, doubling up with friends, and occupying any empty hotel rooms, motel rooms, and housing units. For many evacuees, it was unclear who was offering what to whom, or what was guaranteed or even tentatively provided by the government.
Making matters worse, many of the people trying to coordinate resources had lost their home or cell phone or computer or car in the fire. “There was no real clarity on what options were available,” said Tom Tenorio, the executive director of the Community Action Agency of Butte County. A person he works with had become homeless, he said. “She was advised to get a Small Business Administration loan,” he said. “And she was wondering: ‘Why on earth would I want to get an SBA loan?’”
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Income determined who stayed and who left, in part. “People who were able to leave, many of them are gone,” said Audrey Denney, an expert on agriculture and education and a recent congressional candidate now helping with the recovery effort. Research from prior disasters has shown that, as a general point, this is what happens: After a disaster, the rich leave and the poor remain. Poverty rates climb by “one percentage point in areas hit by super-severe disasters,” one recent study found. “That suggests that people who aren’t poor are migrating out or that people who are poor are migrating in.”
For many of those staying, life gets harder, with fewer jobs and increased expenses. For renters and the unstably housed in Paradise and Chico, the fire has given way to a dire housing crisis, with spiked rents, no vacancies, and surging demand. “I’ve lived in the same rental house for years,” Denney said. “My 90-year-old landlord who lives in Sacramento called me yesterday and said, ‘I’m getting the house appraised to sell.’” She said that she might have to try to live with friends, or potentially move away from the area.