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Trauma, loss and logistics plague communities hit by wildfire

California’s deadliest wildfire, the Camp Fire, is now fully contained, but its death toll has climbed to 88, and more than 200 people are still missing. How are the people still searching for loved ones, and the thousands of residents displaced from their homes, coping in the disaster's aftermath? Amna Nawaz talks to William Brangham, reporting from Gridley, California.

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  • Judy Woodruff:

    Now, let's get an update from California about the deadly wildfires and their aftermath.

    The Camp Fire in Northern California is finally fully contained more than two weeks after it first broke out. It was the deadliest fire in the state's history, and the toll continues to climb. At least 88 people were killed. And more than 50 of them have now been identified. But more than 200 people are still missing and unaccounted for.

    Amna Nawaz has more.

  • Amna Nawaz:

    There are other big problems in Butte County too. Some 50,000 people have been displaced by the fires in a region that has a housing crunch as it is.

    Our William Brangham is at a Red Cross shelter in Gridley, California.

    We spoke earlier. And I asked him to give us a sense of how people are coping with this disaster.

  • William Brangham:

    Now that the fires are out, everyone is relieved by that. Don't get me wrong. That's a great thing, obviously.

    But everyone is coming to this daunting realization now that there is a very long-term problem here, and that is the fact that there are thousands and thousands and thousands of people who are now homeless. Their community is, for many intents and purposes, gone. It has burned to the ground.

    And those people are now living in shelters. I'm now, right now, in a very busy Red Cross shelter. We can't show the faces of the people who are staying here, but this is a bustling, busy place. Only going to get busier later today.

    People have nowhere to live. They have children that have to go to school. They suddenly have to figure out what to do with their lives. Yesterday, we went to a FEMA emergency center. And, there, you got a sense of how many needs people have to address. It's like a one-stop shop inside this place.

    You could get Red Cross aid. You could get aid from FEMA. You could register your kids for school. You could talk to the IRS about your tax return. You can go to the DMV. You can submit DNA, so that they could try to identify a missing family member.

    So people here are dealing with the emotional loss, on top of all of the logistical challenges of suddenly becoming homeless and having their homes destroyed.

  • Amna Nawaz:

    And, William, on a disaster of this scale, it is so easy to lose sight of the details of people's lives.

    So you're there talking to people. What kind of stories are they telling you about what they lost and how they're coping?

  • William Brangham:

    I met a woman who had lost her home in Paradise. It was a double-wide trailer. She loved the place. She had sunk her retirement savings into this home. "It was going to be my future," is what she said, and now that future is totally gone.

    And she could barely contain the tears. And we hear that all the time from people.

    I almost met a first-grade teacher yesterday in Chico, California, who is getting ready for school to start on Monday. But she has now got to take a much bigger set of first-graders. These are children who lived in Paradise. Almost all of the schools in Paradise were destroyed or badly damaged.

    Those kids have to start school. And so they are all now going to filter into local public schools. And she now was explaining just the difficulty of all of a sudden she's got her normal class, and now that class is going to get much bigger, with a lot of children who themselves are homeless, who have lost their homes, who are dealing with trauma.

    So, again, just another big challenge.

  • Amna Nawaz:

    There is, of course, the search for the missing that's still ongoing, families looking for their loved ones.

    William, we have heard a lot about this list that authorities are working off. What can you tell us about that list?

  • William Brangham:

    That's right, Amna.

    This list is a real mystery. And the sheriff's office here is painstakingly going through that list, contacting the people who first made the call to say, I'm looking for this person, trying to scour social media profiles, trying to understand whether people who are on that list are in fact missing, or whether they are just in a shelter or have moved away and actually are safe and sound.

    There's a table here just to my right that is covered with papers. We can't show you the close-up of it. But it is full of personal notes that people have written saying, I'm looking for my mother, I'm looking for my aunt, please call this number.

    I mean, there's just an ongoing sense of, where are these people? We just don't know where they are.

    Simultaneous to that search is the search that's going on inside the burned buildings all over Paradise and the towns around it. And you can imagine, when a building burns to the ground and all that is left of this ash, it's full of debris, sharp metals, household chemicals that are potentially dangerous after having been burned.

    And search-and-rescue teams and forensic anthropologists are combing through that ash, literally sifting through that ash, trying to find what may be an inch-, inch-and-a-half-sized piece of bone or tooth that could help identify whether or not one of these missing people has in fact perished, and help some families try to get some sense of closure.

  • Amna Nawaz:

    That's William Brangham in Northern California for us.

    Thank you, William.

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