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In Paradise, housing, water and jobs prove elusive in Camp Fire’s aftermath

In Paradise, California, thousands of residents are trying to cope with disruption and displacement resulting from November's devastating Camp Fire. Children attend school in a repurposed hardware store, where counselors try to help them manage their trauma. Meanwhile, amidst millions of tons of toxic debris, finding safe and stable housing is a challenge. Special correspondent Cat Wise reports.

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  • Judy Woodruff:

    The Camp wildfire roared through Paradise, California, last November, leaving 85 people known dead and the town a wasteland.

    As demolition crews continue to clear tons of toxic ash and debris, there are concerns about the environment, public health and the safety of the water.

    Special correspondent Cat Wise reports on how survivors are trying to bring some sense of order back to their lives.

    It's part of our weekly series Leading Edge on science and technology.

  • Man:

    I pledge allegiance.

  • Students:

    To the flag of the United States of America.

  • Cat Wise:

    The morning ritual is the same, but life has changed dramatically for these Paradise students since November 8. Many left for school on that sunny morning, never to see their home again.

    A former hardware store in Chico, 15 miles away, is where classes are now being held. Their middle school was only partially damaged, but like many in the area, it remains closed. At the new location, every attempt has been made to keep things as normal as possible.

  • Woman:

    All right, so a chance to show off your spirit next week.

  • Cat Wise:

    Breakfast is served on checkout counters. Classes are held in converted aisles, where shelving that once held tools now supports students. There's a library, a gym of sorts, rows of donated shoes and supplies and many messages of support from around the country.

  • Elaine Collins:

    If you could just raise your hand, how many of you lost your home, your home is gone? OK. So all of you but two.

  • Cat Wise:

    On the day we visited, a group of sixth-graders were meeting with Elaine Collins. She's one 20 counselors who have been brought in by Butte County to support students and staff as they cope with the trauma of the wildfire.

  • Elaine Collins:

    If you could pick one character trait that has gotten you through this.

    Yes?

  • Student:

    Courage.

  • Elaine Collins:

    Courage. Yes. I think you are all amazingly courageous and brave.

  • Student:

    Strong.

  • Elaine Collins:

    Yes. So your strength has gotten you through this. What has been the hardest thing since November 8?

  • Student:

    New living situation.

  • Elaine Collins:

    New living situation. OK.

  • Student:

    Losing my home and what I treasured for 11 years.

  • Cat Wise:

    Like many of the new counselors, Collins came out of retirement to help. She's been working with students of all ages.

  • Elaine Collins:

    You and I can talk about feeling stressed, we can articulate our loss. For, let's say, an 8- or 9-year-old boy, most of them don't have the schema to even begin to think about the loss they have experienced.

    So, particularly with elementary school kids, it's really common to see stomach aches, headaches, acting-out behavior.

  • Cat Wise:

    She says the larger community is going through a tough period.

  • Elaine Collins:

    In a major incident like this, at first there's, you know, there's sort of a stunned numb thing that happens. And then you kind of go into this honeymoon phase. There's just a high level of gratefulness for all of the help that's coming.

    And then you get to the phase that we're kind of beginning to dip in now, which is life sucks right now, and I don't know how long it's going to suck.

  • Cat Wise:

    While signs of progress are visible, much of the town remains in ashy piles, which were blanketed in white recently after a snowstorm.

    About 14,000 homes and businesses were destroyed in the Camp Fire. This will be the largest debris removal program California's modern history. It's estimated more than five million tons of concrete, metal and ash will need to be cleared before the rebuilding can begin.

    Crews of government contractors are just beginning to haul away all remnants of former structures. But before they can step on a property, homeowners must give approval. That paperwork-intensive process has been playing out here in the Butte County Right of Entry Center.

  • Casey Hatcher:

    Every one of those files represents somebody who lost their home, a family who no longer has a place to live.

  • Cat Wise:

    Casey Hatcher is a public information officer for the county.

  • Casey Hatcher:

    We're going to have to have a variety of options in order to meet the need for so many people to rebuild and be housed. There's the temporary housing opportunities that will be brought in by FEMA.

    The local communities have passed ordinances to help relax provisions for people to live in temporary housing, like R.V.s or trailers.

  • Cat Wise:

    Scenes of lives upended are everywhere, trailers parked next to burned lots, cars packed with possessions, and nearby hotels crowded with long-term guests.

    Paradise resident Michael Baca is one of those trying to make do in uncertain times.

  • Michael Baca:

    It's not what it used to be, yes, but we're all right.

  • Cat Wise:

    He's moved back on his uncleared lot, an arrangement local officials initially approved, but then banned when FEMA announced late last month that federal funding could be jeopardized if residents were allowed to live in potentially toxic areas. Baca says he wants to stay put.

  • Michael Baca:

    Until they come and clean it up, I don't believe there's any reason why we should leave.

  • Cat Wise:

    He's wondering now about job prospects in his community, something on the minds of many here.

    About 50 mostly small businesses have reopened, a small percentage of the roughly 1,200 in the community before the fire. New businesses have emerged to serve the throngs of construction workers. But many store owners are facing an uphill battle.

    Oh, wow.

  • Jeni Harris:

    Water came in everywhere. Came in up here. Of course, my equipment was in here, and completely covered in mold.

  • Cat Wise:

    This now soggy retail space was once a lively Curves gym owned by Jeni Harris. Hot embers created holes in the roof of building she rented, which allowed rain in, for weeks, before she and other residents were allowed to return.

    Harris, who lost her home in nearby Magalia and is now living in an R.V., says the process to collect homeowner's insurance was relatively straightforward. It's been harder to get things sorted out with the building that didn't burn.

  • Jeni Harris:

    I haven't gotten any insurance payments yet, but we're working on it. I do expect I will. It's a little bit scary. I have a lot of members who are rebuilding, but they are living in Chico, they're living in Durham, they're living in surrounding areas. So, it's going to be a much smaller group.

    I want to be part of the rebuilding of the community. That's really important to me.

  • Cat Wise:

    Another big concern for businesses and residents, a toxic chemical called benzene detected in the town's water. The local water district is investigating and has told residents to use only bottled water for the time being.

    Cars now line up at a distribution center for weekly rations. Back at Paradise Intermediate School, Elaine Collins ended her counseling session by giving each student a piece of donated jewelry with an inspirational inscription.

  • Elaine Collins:

    It says, "Yours is a story so brave and true, and life is seeing the hero in you."

    So, I don't know if you realize how people around the country, around the world are thinking about how brave you are.

  • Cat Wise:

    Teachers and staff hope to be back in Paradise next fall, but it could be months before a plan is finalized for next school year.

    For the "PBS NewsHour," I'm Cat Wise in Chico, California.

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