Wildfire doesn’t discriminate

November 10, 2020 by Terence Mulligan

Wildfire doesn’t discriminate.

It burns a Napa Valley estate and a mobile home park with equal devastation. What isn’t equal are the resources that survivors have for recovery once the disaster is over.

All wildfire survivors go through trauma, but people who are poor, elderly, sick or undocumented tend to suffer disproportionally – and need more help to rebuild their lives. They are often without insurance, personal savings, access to government aid or alternatives for shelter. In Napa Valley, for example, immigrants are over-represented among hourly wage earners. They account for 23% of our population, 33% of our overall workforce and nearly 75% of those who work in agriculture. Time and again, it’s this segment of our community that can’t make ends meet when restaurants are shuttered during a pandemic. Or two back-to-back firestorms disrupt the twin engines of our economy: viticulture and hospitality, while obliterating more than 600 single family homes.

After our last major wildfires in 2017, two local nonprofits, On the Move and UpValley Family Centers, distributed nearly $3 million in emergency financial assistance to 2,100 of these extremely vulnerable households, most of which were undocumented. Other workers had access to Disaster Unemployment Assistance, a government benefit. OTM and UVFC got critically needed cash to disaster survivors with no other remedy for their hardship. In doing so, they won a small victory for the idea of equitable disaster philanthropy, the crux of which is this: charitable dollars should go to those who need them most.

If this seems like common sense, it’s not. Far more common is the practice of doling out disaster aid equally to survivors, without regard to the resources they have, or the support they can get from other sources outside of philanthropy, like insurance payments and FEMA grants. While this one-size-fits-all method of delivering cash grants in one go-around is simple and quick, and done with the best of intentions, it is deeply flawed.

When disasters hit our communities, nonprofits become essential “second responders,” providing emergency services and cash aid to those affected. In the hours and days that follow a flood or a fire, everyone in harm’s way can and should be helped equally. But as time passes, and people who’ve lost personal property, homes or income step forward in need of more significant assistance, the best way to distribute disaster aid is with a discerning pipeline, not a lawn sprinkler.

Such a pipeline got grants of $1,500 (for lost wages) to more than $10,000 (to rebuild homes) to Napa residents after our 2017 wildfires. Low to moderate income homeowners, whose insurance couldn’t cover the full cost of rebuilding, were major beneficiaries. So were undocumented workers, and business owners who applied for federal disaster loans, but got declined. Services were available to all, while cash assistance was distributed based on verified losses and the financial circumstances of each recipient.

The work required to qualify a family for a $10,000 grant is not insignificant. Put another way, discernment isn’t free – but it’s absolutely critical. Napa Valley Community Foundation has distributed more than $25 million in disaster aid, and what we pay nonprofits to carefully consider survivor’s needs, and put cash in their hands, ranges from five cents to fifteen cents on the dollar.

Last month, those of us who live in Napa Valley awoke to blue skies for the first time since mid-August. In that hopeful moment, I wondered if people might be persuaded to think about nonprofit second responders the same way they think about firefighters: as essential workers doing a job that requires tremendous fortitude and unique expertise. Our local nonprofits come to the rescue of people in dire straits. And when the ashes have long settled, they help our neighbors rebuild their lives.

Terence P. Mulligan
President & CEO
Napa Valley Community Foundation
707.254.9565 x 11 (landline)

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