In this age of climate disruption and record shattering megafires, hurricanes, and the many other disasters wrecking havoc around the world, how do you rebuild from scratch? Allen Myers grew up in the town of Paradise, California and like thousands of others, lost his childhood home to the Camp Fire when it burned through 153,336 acres of the Sierra Foothills on November 8th, 2018.
Despite its name, Paradise had been afflicted by deep poverty and opioid addiction for years before the fire — it is also located in a very high danger area that regularly experiences wildfires. So, perhaps a more relevant rebuilding question is, how do you rebuild a town better than it was before? Not just recreating the old systems and structures that weren’t working for most people in the first place, but rebuilding with more resilience, equity, and humanity?
After the initial fire recovery was completed, Allen set out to find answers to those questions; visiting the small town of Onagawa on Japan’s Tōhoku coast.
Seven years earlier, a magnitude 9.0 earthquake sent a 45-foot high tsunami crashing into the eastern coast of Japan, washing away several towns in the process, including Onagawa. While many of the surrounding towns have been slow to rebuild and have had a difficult time getting residents to move back, Onagawa has taken a unique path through a participatory process which has been incredibly successful.
In the final episode of season two of The Response, we follow Allen’s journey and explore the lessons he brought home from Onagawa and the rebuilding efforts in Paradise. It’s a unique window into how residents are working together to build a new vision for what comes next, while fighting against the forces pulling them back towards the status quo.
To learn more about ongoing regenerative work in Paradise, CA please visit: www.regeneratingparadise.net
- Host and executive producer: Tom Llewellyn
- Senior producer, technical director, field production, and script writer: Robert Raymond
- Additional field production: Allen Meyers
- Voice over: Larry Inouye
- Translation: Annie Mellan
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For a full list of episodes, resources to cultivate resilience in your community, or to share your experiences of disaster collectivism, visit www.theresponsepodcast.org.
Below is a transcript of the episode, modified for your reading pleasure:
News Anchor 1: One of the deadliest and most destructive blazes, the Camp Fire, that burned through Paradise, California…
News Anchor 2: I’ve covered a lot of fires over the last decade, and this is the worst fire I’ve ever seen, it was the fastest moving fire…
News Anchor 3: Paradise is one town that was almost completely decimated by the fire…
News Anchor 4: This is what the entire town of Paradise looks like, everything from business, churches, grocery stores, I mean, there is really nothing left behind here…
Allen Myers: Um, right now we’re standing in the room that I grew up in and there’s nothing left. There is red dirt and gravel left in place from the excavators that scooped away my home. And I am at a loss…
Tom Llewellyn: Like thousands of others in Paradise, the house that Allen Myers grew up in was burned to the ground on November 8th, 2018, during the Camp Fire, the deadliest, and most destructive wildfire in California’s history. The fire was sparked by a faulty transmission line operated by The Pacific Gas and Electric Company, which has been diverting money away from basic infrastructure maintenance and towards higher profits and executive bonuses for years.
Starting from that spark, strong winds and dry conditions caused the Camp Fire to grow at an unfathomable speed, eventually tearing through 150,000 acres and taking most of the town of Paradise with it in a matter of hours.
Allen Myers: Here we are at the driveway, here’s the front door. You would have walked in here. What we’re seeing is a dirt pit right now, what you would have seen is our dining room table — you open into the dining room table. The back was the fireplace where my dad would…
Tom Llewellyn: Empty lots like Allen’s, delineated simply by rectangles of the rust-red soil native to this region, are a defining feature of Paradise’s post-apocalyptic landscape. As we drove to his property on the eastern edge of town, exactly one year after the fire, we passed by the remnants of burned out cars, charred stumps of Gray Pine and Western Redbud, and steel mailboxes that stood silently in front of, well, nothing.
Allen Myers: And right here would be the kitchen, and it would look out onto this beautiful Water Maple, Big Leaf Water Maple. When my dad first moved here, the owners, thinking that they wanted things cut down, wanted more space, cut down this beautiful maple. And my dad, with great care, stewarded one of the volunteer shoots and stump cultured it into a beautiful tree that shaded this back deck that he also built by hand. So these windows from the kitchen looking out onto that tree that would be full of birds and bird feeders and now it’s a burned stump. And what gives us such hope is that you see this burned stump, and you see maybe a hundred volunteer shoots that are about four feet tall at max height, and we’re going to steward one of those shoots into a beautiful maple once again…
Tom Llewellyn: The Camp Fire destroyed 11,000 thousand homes and displaced 50,000 people in the Sierra Nevada Foothills — a small but no less significant portion of the 1.2 million people in the United States who were displaced by natural disasters in 2018 alone. Many of Paradise’s former residents have moved to surrounding towns or are staying with family members or friends in places like Chico and Redding, while others were forced onto the streets. And although the process of rebuilding the town is now underway, the fact remains that only 11 houses have been rebuilt in the last year, and that many people are simply not coming back.
But Allen is. And in this episode of The Response, we’ll follow his journey since the fire, which has been guided by a very important question: in this age of climate disruption and record shattering megafires, hurricanes, and all the rest, how do you rebuild from scratch? And, not just rebuild the old systems and structures that weren’t working for most people in the first place, but how do you rebuild a town better than it was before, with greater resilience, equity, and humanity?
Allen Myers: I was born and raised in Paradise, California, a small town in the western facing slopes of the Sierra Nevadas. I was shaped by nature. I would hike down to the river almost daily as a kid. My dad taught me how to fly fish and pan for gold. It was a childhood spent outdoors. But there’s also a darker side to it. You know like any of these rural communities, there’s also depression, poverty, opioid addiction.
Once I got to high school, I had a friend either commit suicide or die from a drug overdose once a year, and that continued into a couple years after graduation. So I left Paradise, like a lot of my friends, as soon as I could. I was like, “Get me out of this town, let me see the world.” I went to several different universities. For eight years, I lived out of a backpack and traveled the world and got into photography and filmmaking.
On November 8th, 2018, I was in Kansas City filming and my aunt called me, she said there was a fire near Paradise. Shortly after that, I got a call from a friend in Chico and she was crying and she said, “I’m so sorry, I heard your house burned down,” because she heard that our neighbor’s house burned down. And then it just didn’t end. It just got worse and worse. It got really scary as I knew that friends and family were trapped in a town that was in a firestorm.
I had a scheduled trip to be there on November 9th. I [kept] those plans. What changed was the expectations of that trip and the duration. Knowing the state of people and the scale of the disaster and the economic situation for many of them before the fire, I knew that there was going to be a lot of need. And so I stayed.
Tom Llewellyn: During the next few months, Allen, along with many others, was involved in various aspects of the relief and recovery work ranging from housing to healthcare.
Elisabeth Gunderson: The medical infrastructure was just completely decimated with the fire.
Tom Llewellyn: Elisabeth Gunderson is a nurse practitioner. She grew up in Paradise with Allen and also came back to help after the fire.
Elisabeth Gunderson: Given that the population here is older and many of them are medically fragile, not having a medical infrastructure was a huge barrier for them being able to repopulate. We talked about forming a free clinic that would serve the ridge and act as an access point and fill in the gap as medical services started to come back to the ridge. We wanted it to be free; we wanted to go where people were. We [also] wanted to be mobile. So we went wherever people were congregating, still figuring out how to move on after the fire, and started seeing patients. So that’s Medspire — that’s how we started.
Tom Llewellyn: Elisabeth’s organization, Medspire, is still around, in fact, when we spoke to her they were in the middle of putting on a free flu shot clinic for the residents of Magalia, an unincorporated community just to the north of Paradise which was also burned in the Camp Fire. Of course, Medspire hasn’t been able to provide full healthcare services, but they are making a big impact for many folks who need basic medical care. It is one small step, helping to make the region habitable to those who are at risk of being fully displaced. But the most pressing need is still housing.
Allen Myers: That was the most urgent need and still remains one of the most urgent needs for people because we’re a rare, developed, powerful country in that we do not guarantee support for survivors of natural disasters. And how do you rebuild a town without the people that were living there, they need to be a part of it. If they’re displaced or if they’re living in their car or on the street, they’re not going to be a part of rebuilding the community — somebody else will, and then that’s not the town because the people are what make up the town.
Tom Llewellyn: Allen had a vision for a project that would provide housing in Paradise for those who were displaced. He was reaching out to landowners and architects, trying to make his vision a reality, but things just weren’t really flowing.
Allen Myers: So, we’re looking for housing, we’re organizing, we’re looking at what the projects are. There [was] a moment where five months in my health was suffering, I needed to take a break. I’d always wanted to go to Japan. I’d put this note in my head that I’d only go there if there was a purpose. But this came up as like, I’ll just go. And as soon as I said, I’m just going, a mentor of mine, Dr. Bob Stilger said, “You’re going to where? You’re going to Japan? Okay, hang on.” He got out a pen and paper and he started writing all these names down of the people that I needed to meet. Going to Japan was a learning journey on post disaster recovery for a community.
Tom Llewellyn: Seven years before the Camp Fire burned through Paradise, on the opposite side of the Pacific ocean, a massive magnitude 9.0 earthquake struck off the coast of Japan. The earthquake was the fourth most powerful ever recorded worldwide and it triggered a massive tsunami that reached 50ft in height. It ultimately resulted in the infamous meltdown of the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant and the complete destruction of many towns in Japan’s coastal Tōhoku region. Now, eight years into their recovery, Japan has many valuable lessons to impart when it comes to reubuilding from nothing. And one town in particular has been doing some very interesting things.
Allen Myers: We went to a specific town called Onagawa that has been doing things differently from the rest of the neighboring communities. They’ve taken the radical choice of seeing what is possible rather than seeing how they can rebuild what was. They had a young mayor, Mayor Suda, who grew up in the community, came home and invited the community to talk about what is possible now that this was their reality.
Tom Llewellyn: This is Suda-san. After losing his childhood home in the tsunami, he decided to return to Onagawa and run for office; successfully becoming one of the youngest mayors in Japan. Knowing they would not live to see the effects of their decisions, the elders of the town came to the unique conclusion that it would be best to give Suda-san, and other young leaders, decision-making power over the recovery, and supported and encouraged their leadership.
Mayor Suda: One thing that I did was that I wanted to get more people involved in planning for the rebuilding of Onagawa, which is quite rare in Japan, because in Japan, in most places, the government will just prepare a plan and then impose it on people. But what I did was I got everyone involved in thinking together.
Tom Llewellyn: So instead of simply accepting the rebuilding plans passed down from the town’s official planning commission, Mayor Suda decided he was going to hold a series of small listening circles with community members to find out what they actually wanted.
Bob Stilger: Hi, this is Bob.
Tom Llewellyn: Bob Stilger is the mentor that Allen mentioned earlier — he’s a kind of activist-scholar who travels the world helping people to reimagine what’s possible and build the lives and communities that they want. He’s spent time in both Paradise and Japan, which is where we reached him.
Bob Stilger: What started to emerge in Japan was basically a community that would keep both beauty and safety as its core organizing principles. The decision that was made that they would go in they’d and remove the mountain tops that surrounded the harbor, and then construct the residential area for Onagawa on the top of those mountains, where the tsunamis would never come. They’d take the soil from those mountain tops and bring it down and we’ll build a second level above sea level, that several meters higher — higher than almost all tsunamis. That’s where the schools and the library and the commercial district and other facilities are being built. Then they’d keep the sea level for industries and fisheries — so a three level town.
They designed a seamless transportation link — roadways that create a clear connection between those three levels. And again, they kept the beauty as a key organizing principle. This is the transformation, going from a catastrophic disaster to a once in a thousand year opportunity. The mountain tops are being removed, residential areas are being constructed. It’s been a challenge, everyone’s been living in temporary housing for eight years now. What’s sustained them is knowing that they are building a new community that will be beautiful and safe for many years.
Allen Myers: In going to Japan and meeting with community members, organizers, government officials there… when we looked at each other, there was this knowing. It was like we we knew each other on a deeper level because of the experiences and the decisions that we were having to make. In leaving each conversation, there would just be a moment… and they would either say it or you would see it in their expressions, but you know, [there would be a moment] of support and understanding and saying, ‘you got this. I know it’s a long road ahead of you, but you can do this.’
Any message for Paradise?
Mayor Suda: I know you all are in a difficult situation right now, and it’s taken eight years for us to get here. For us, it took half a year just to get electricity back to the entire town including the temporary emergency housing. It took about that long to get running water too. But even still our town was completely full of rubble. That’s the situation we started from. This early time is really crucial, and of course, it’s important to focus on improving the immediate situation, but I believe the period that will follow will be even more crucial. I know you’re in a difficult situation right now and it feels like a race against time. But those aren’t the only priorities. If I could invite you to think like this, it would be a first step.
The most important considerations are local. Your community’s unique needs, in whatever format — public, neighborhood groups, private sector — all in relationship together. There will be things that will go well and lots of things that won’t go well. If there isn’t open communication, you won’t know which sectors aren’t doing well. After our disaster, and then after the national disaster that occurred afterwards, we listened to the concerns of the community. We went out and visited people and heard their stories. I know there are painful circumstances for you all, but I urge you to move forward together and become unified. There is undoubtedly a path forward — there is a future. Believe in that, and go forth.
Tom Llewellyn: After disasters, there’s always a tension between rebuilding as quickly as possible and taking the time to rebuild in a new way with increased resilience — this was perhaps one of the biggest lessons that Allen brought back with him from Onagawa — that, and understanding the importance of putting the community front and center in the rebuilding process.
Allen Myers: How to have a community led recovery in Japan versus Paradise — it’s going to be difficult, it is already very difficult for Paradise. In Japan, there is a law that guarantees housing for survivors affected by a natural disaster. So immediately the community is housed and in place to be in conversation. With Paradise, that is not the case at all. You have families spread around the country. There are families in every single state that have been displaced by the fire. So, for us to be in conversation about a community led recovery is hard when the community isn’t there.
In Japan, they organized community meetings, the mayor would go to different celebrations, different events, because they saw the need to come together not only for conversation, but for spirit and healing, for community building. So they had a lot of different events, and the mayor would go and listen and be in conversation. And for us, we’ve been trying.
Tom Llewellyn: One of the first efforts to bring the community together was convened by a long term recovery planning group called Urban Design Associates, who had helped in the recovery of post-Katrina New Orleans.
Allen Myers: They took Paradise on a visioning process. And of a thousand respondents to questions that they put out asking what are our opportunities now? What are our values as a community? What is quintessential to Paradise? And what can we afford to let go of? And something that has stuck with me is that when asked what our values were, the top two responses were: number one, nature and number two, community. These are what are quintessential to Paradise. So with that, how do we use those values to guide each decision that we make in rebuilding our town? That’s part of how we came up with the Paradise Revival Festival.
Tom Llewellyn: The Paradise Revival Festival took place on October 12th and was meant to bring people together to celebrate, heal, and explore what comes next. It featured a resource expo that brought together Permaculture Action Network, a seed library, solar energy advocates, and more. It was also a place for healing, offering yoga workshops, guided meditation, acupuncture, massage, and art therapy.
Musicians from Paradise, who hadn’t performed in the town since the fire, were also invited to be a part of the celebration, where, on an outdoor stage, they provided a soundscape that emanated out over the community, off the ridge and into the canyons surrounding Paradise.
Allen Myers: There is this incredible pull, this incredible vacuum that wants us to go back to what was which was a pre-disaster, which was a disastrous conditions for a lot of families. And it is a fight, because if you’re not active, if you’re not doing something to counter that, it will go back to what it was. Frankly we’re at a time where it means life and death — not only for us as individuals, as families, but for our species, for our entire planet. I feel that, when I talk about it and when I see that Paradise has burned down for a myriad of reasons, a mismanaged corporate industry that cares more about profit than it does about human lives and how they operate. Climate driven fire where we’re losing thousands of species a year because of climate change and conditions that fueled a fire that destroyed a town, destroyed my home. If we go back to the way we were, we’re just setting ourselves up for further and further disasters.
Tom Llewellyn: Unlike Onagawa, Paradise is only one year out from their disaster. This means that, realistically, they’re still in the very early stages of envisioning how they want to rebuild. It also means that they’re at a crucial point which could really define how they move forward. As Allen said, the forces that are pulling the town back to the status quo are definitely real. And when you drive through Paradise, you see that. People just want their town back.
But the reality is that Paradise exists in fire country. Onagawa was able to literally rebuild their town on higher ground but what could Paradise do in their rebuilding process to mitigate the risk of their town burning again?
There are a number of ways, from building houses with fire proof materials, expanding roads, proper forestry management, micro grids and solar power (that could bypass PG&E transmission lines). These are all things that Allen and others have been exploring, but many of these tools are long term strategies that could take quite a while to implement.
How can Paradise ensure that as the town moves forward years, maybe decades into the future, that they remember the lessons of November 8th, and remain on the right path?
Allen Myers: In Japan, the kids created a memorial of sorts that also serves as a warning to their community and to future generations to say, “On this date, the water reached here. And if you are below this line, you are not safe.” To serve as a reminder of what’s possible, what could happen. And I wonder what is an applicable element that could exist in Paradise to serve as a similar reminder.
Bill Hartley: Morning guys, I’m Bill.
Tom Llewellyn: Bill Hartley is the vice president of the Gold Nugget, which was Paradise’s town museum before it burned down in the fire.
Bill Hartley: Well, the old location was just about a stone’s throw away on the other side of the road, and it completely burned to the ground. We lost all of the artifacts, we pretty much lost all of our history. So we recognize that we need to start over again, gather more artifacts, maybe design a future museum that will tell the story of this fire so other people can see what happened here in Paradise and learn from our experience, and maybe protect themselves so that it doesn’t happen to them. And that’s one of our missions right now, is to tell that story.
Tom Llewellyn: Making sure that the community remembers the fire will be an important part of the new Gold Nugget museum, but the vision extends well beyond that. They plan to build a new community center which would provide tools and resources, such as learning and maker spaces, a tool library, and a forestation area where residents could learn about fire resistant plants and other safety techniques.
Bill Hartley: Our aim will be an educational approach, not necessarily to just be remembered for a fire that destroyed our community, but as a community of resilience. With tragedy comes opportunity, and we have an opportunity now to be the community you want to be. You can dream big, and big things happen. So, whatever you’ve envisioned for a community that you want to make yours, and be proud of, you have that opportunity to build that. There are a lot of wonderful things I think that will happen as a result of that. We will be the community we want to be, we will make it look that way. It’s a great opportunity.
Allen Myers: I am very excited. I mean with that, there is still so much pain that exists, the pain that we have, the loss that we’re feeling, is because on the other side of that is our love for the place, and our love for each other. Being able to push through that, recognize it but not be consumed by it and have it fuel our recovery… I’m having so much fun in a multi-generational recovery path… From kids that I grew up with in Paradise that have returned home, to my parents, friends and elders on the ridge who have been there for decades… Seeing the possibility for a future that wasn’t there before… We’ve been released from a future that we didn’t necessarily want. And now we’re getting to decide what that looks like. And yeah, it’s exciting. I mean, building a town is a lot of fun. And doing it with people you love… I’ve been out of Paradise for fifteen years, and, at this point I can’t imagine being anywhere else. I know I’m exactly where I should be doing the work that I should be doing.
Tom Llewellyn: This episode of The Response was written and produced by Robert Raymond, and was executive produced and hosted by me, Tom Llewellyn.
Allen Myers shared the interviews from his learning journey to Japan, and connected us to the people in paradise who you heard from in this episode. Additional contributions were from Shareable’s Neal Gorenflo and Courtney Pankrat, and the voice over was provided by Larry Inouye.
A big thanks to David Leon Zink, Face of Man, Haley Heynderickx, and Mark Mckinnon for the music.
And with that, we’re saying goodbye for now. You just heard the final episode of Season 2 of The Response.
This year we produced 8 new episodes, released our first documentary film, supported community groups to reimagine existing spaces as Resilience Hubs, and finished our soon to be released book, “The Response: Building Collective Resilience in the Wake of Disasters”.
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