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Why these California wildfire victims wish their houses had burned down

In Santa Rosa, California, what's left of a mobile home park is still desolate after a 2017 wildfire. The former residents with homes still standing aren't allowed to live there, but they have also had trouble getting insurance money. Karla Carballo-Torres and Lorin Eleni Gill of UC Berkeley’s Graduate School of Journalism report.

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  • Judy Woodruff:

    But first, California wildfires have left a trail of damage over the past few years.

    One more casualty, it turns out, has been the senior citizens whose houses in a mobile home park survived, but remain uninhabitable.

    Our story comes from two students from the University of California-Berkeley's Graduate School of Journalism, Karla Caraballo-Torres and Lorin Eleni Gill, who narrates the report.

  • Lorin Eleni Gill:

    At the north edge of Santa Rosa city limits, you will find a barren lot marked by charred stumps and an empty pool.

    It's what is left of Journey's End Mobile Home Park, still desolate after the Tubbs Fire struck in 2017. Still standing are 44 houses that survived, but they are empty. No one is allowed to live there.

    The fire devoured more than 100 homes, but, oddly enough, the folks whose houses remain say they wish they had burned too.

    Eighty-four-year-old Theresa Udall's home was unscathed by flames, but like her neighbors, she can't move back.

  • Theresa Udall:

    I put all my savings into that house and paid for it outright. So it kind of ticks me off that, you know, it's being held in hostage.

  • Lorin Eleni Gill:

    The fire destroyed the electric, gas and water systems that supported the homes.

    Former residents with homes still standing aren't allowed to live there. But they have also had trouble getting private and federal insurance funding.

    Richard Weinert is deputy director of codes and standards at the California Department of Housing and Community Development.

  • Richard Weinert:

    This is a report from November, when we did the inspection of the 44 units that were left there.

  • Lorin Eleni Gill:

    He says private owners are in control of the land beneath the houses, not residents like Theresa.

    With no utilities, the state declared it uninhabitable, while the property owners weighed their options.

    Weinert was on the team that placed red tags on surviving houses. The move was intended to open doors to federal funding for the fire survivors, but it was unsuccessful.

  • Richard Weinert:

    We came from an idea that, if we could post a non-occupancy type of notice on each one of those 44 units, then FEMA would come in with some more money for them to reimburse them for the homes.

    But, from what I understand, unless the home was actually destroyed by the fire, that FEMA couldn't provide such funding.

  • Theresa Udall:

    This is my humble abode.

  • Lorin Eleni Gill:

    Lawyer Kendall Jarvis represents multiple Journey's End residents.

  • Kendall Jarvis:

    It's sort of an odd situation that there isn't a lot of precedent for. It's not something that most institutions are prepared to deal with.

  • Lorin Eleni Gill:

    In an e-mail, FEMA explained that the agency disbursed a total of a million dollars to former Journey's End residents, most of whom lost their entire house. Those whose houses survived received very little funding compared to those whose homes burned down.

    With the houses blocked off and minimal federal funding, it seemed like things couldn't get worse for the homeowners, but it did.

  • Kendall Jarvis:

    I often tell people you suffered the loss, and you thought to yourself, that was horrible. Thank God we're alive. Now let's move forward. And then you met your insurance adjuster.

  • Lorin Eleni Gill:

    Yvonne Rawhouser is among those still negotiating with her insurance for a full payout.

  • Yvonne Rawhouser:

    Seeing the fires raised about 2,000 degrees Fahrenheit, the interior wiring of my home has been invalidated.

    When I found out my house was still standing, I was elated, because I thought, oh, I can just come home.

  • Lorin Eleni Gill:

    According to Legal Aid of Sonoma, various insurance companies have covered minor damages, but not relocation costs.

    For most insurance, which handles Rawhouser's case and others at Journey's End, told us by e-mail that, while it sympathizes with residents in this situation, it has paid all claims and benefits due to them under the terms of their policies.

  • Kendall Jarvis:

    They have had a very hard time getting access to their insurance policies, because their insurance companies are claiming that they do not cover the loss because it is excluded, due to the fact that it resulted from a "government action" — quote, unquote — not from the fire.

  • Lorin Eleni Gill:

    Transporting the houses to another site is expensive, and other housing options are limited. Rents have skyrocketed, leaving seniors on Social Security and pensions with few places to go.

    Steve Morrow is one of them. The Vietnam veteran is renting a different trailer elsewhere, while he continues to foot the bill on his Journey's End's house.

  • Steve Morrow:

    I'm retired. I want my own place. I want to live my days out with my dog. There's other people who are in the same position. They don't have the money to rent somewhere.

  • Lorin Eleni Gill:

    Co-owner of the property Ramsey Shuayto declined to go on camera, but told us over the phone, his family's partnering with a nonprofit housing developer to build a residential complex with apartments designated for the displaced seniors.

    It could be years before the project breaks ground. Journey's End's residents say they cannot afford any more time to wait.

  • Kendall Jarvis:

    Until there's either access to their insurance policies to provide them the finances to move forward and/or access to a relocation benefit, and, theoretically, both, these people are basically just in limbo.

  • Lorin Eleni Gill:

    More recent fires in Northern California displaced an estimated 50,000 people, many of whom are elderly. Several mobile home parks representing about 4,000 houses were lost.

    Journey's End's is a glimpse of the agonizingly slow path to recovery for many wildfires survivors.

    For "PBS NewsHour," I'm Lorin Eleni Gill in Santa Rosa, California.

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