Waiting game

Photo by Ashiah Scharaga

Kristy Malloy has been living in a trailer with her husband and three kids (from left: Aiden, Bethany and Wyatt) since late November. The family has been approved for FEMA housing, but has no idea when any units will become available.

Kristy Malloy has tried to focus on what she has been grateful for since Nov. 8: She has a roof over her head and a job, and her family is safe. But living in a travel trailer in a dirt lot behind a church in Chico for nearly four months has been hard, to say the least.

For one, the trailer’s roof leaks. And its propane heater doesn’t provide enough warmth, so her family uses a space heater. There are five of them—Kristy, her husband and their three children—crammed into a small living space with their two dogs and cat.

After the Camp Fire, Malloy signed up for temporary housing through the Federal Emergency Management Agency. The family didn’t have anywhere else to turn for help. That’s because, after the Humboldt Fire, “the insurance companies disappeared” for their older modular home on Stapleton Lane in Paradise that escaped that 2008 blaze. They weren’t so fortunate this time around.

FEMA housing communities are in the works in Gridley and south Chico—the topic of Tuesday’s (March 26) special Chico City Council meeting—but progress on them has been slow, and they are not enough to accommodate all eligible families.

In the meantime, that’s left many trying to figure out their next steps while living in less-than-ideal conditions.

For Malloy, despite continued calls to FEMA, she has yet to hear anything concrete—no timeframe for when or where a FEMA-provided and -furnished manufactured housing unit, with one to three bedrooms, will become available.

“I’m really frustrated,” she said. “I’m kind of in the dark…. I know there are FEMA trailers [being used]; how the heck [those people] got in there before anybody else, I don’t know.

“But that’s the problem. There’s not enough places, and there’s not enough communication with FEMA.”

In part, this uncertainty stems from the fact that FEMA is still working out the details, according to Dan Horvath, director of FEMA’s northern branch for California, who spoke with the CN&R after Tuesday’s meeting. One of the agency’s biggest hurdles is securing land, he said.

Currently, there are 229 families living in FEMA-provided trailers, according to FEMA spokesman Victor Inge. Most are scattered around Butte County: there are 70 at Bidwell Canyon Marina in Oroville, 50 at the Glenn County Fairgrounds and 27 at the Old Orchard RV Park in Orland. In addition, FEMA is paying for 174 families to stay in hotels and motels, spread among 18 counties surrounding Butte (plus, 634 elsewhere across the U.S.).

But these numbers are far short of the overall target of housing 1,300 families. Gridley’s project at a 72-acre city-owned industrial park is expected to provide 350 modular homes for one to two years. In Chico, 2750 Hegan Lane and 1 Aztec Drive—13 acres total comprising an expected 82 homes—are also in an industrial area, but on private property, with a similar lease agreement. Melissa Fornof, a Silver Dollar Fair exhibit spokeswoman, said 61 units are planned for the fairgrounds’ north lot, where FEMA is installing utilities.

The Chico City Council has held two informational sessions related to the communities planned for Chico. Tuesday, more than half of the 10 speakers addressing the dais were from Cessna Avenue, a neighborhood in unicorporated Butte County near the Hegan Lane development. Most voiced concerns about traffic congestion and safety.

JD Estep told the panel it recently took her 45 minutes to drive about one mile, from her home to Park Avenue. “That’s the kind of crazy it is right now, and that’s in ideal conditions,” she said.

Others, however, urged FEMA to get moving. Joe Mack, who manages one of the south Chico industrial properties, appeared exasperated. There has been no activity, no dirt turned since a lease was signed six weeks ago, he said.

“My question is, when are we going to break ground, get one person housed?” he said. “Then we’ll all come back here and complain about it.”

In response to the public’s comments, Horvath said he understands the community’s pain and frustration, and wishes the process was quicker. It takes an average of four months for FEMA to set up such communities once a lease is signed, he added.

“This housing mission is a really tough mission, to meet all the environmental requirements, the permitting, working with the water district … working with PG&E, the requirements to trench all power underground,” he said.

In the meantime, families are stuck in limbo. Malloy has been getting to know her new neighbors, bringing them meals and care packages to welcome them to their makeshift neighborhood. She and her husband don’t want to uproot their children, but are concerned it’ll take too long for FEMA housing to become available. They won’t be making any decisions until the summer.

“It is [hard], but there are people in worse situations than I am. … we’re coming into our new normal.”