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Still Sonoma Strong

Author: Karen Hart
December, 2019 Issue

There’s a Japanese proverb that speaks to the resilience of Sonoma County, “Fall down seven times, stand up eight.” Nana korobi ya oki. In times of crisis, people show their true character. It’s easy to lead and work together when all is well and life is good. But only those of strong character can move forward with strength, grace and compassion during darker times.

In the past several years, Sonoma County rose to the occasion several times in the face of disaster. It began with the October 2017 firestorm, which wiped out neighborhoods, damaged some businesses and decimated others. Most devastating, 24 lives were lost. Sonoma County and its people fell to their knees. In the days, weeks and months that followed, the ashes and debris were removed, homes and businesses were rebuilt, and the people of Sonoma County picked themselves up and began the long road to recovery.

When the smell of smoke filled the air during the Mendocino Complex fire in August last year, we were reminded once again how fragile life is and how quickly disaster can strike. It left many people feeling anxious, despite mild autumn days in other parts of the North Bay and another bountiful grape harvest. When the rains returned, hope arrived with the season, but in February this year an atmospheric river dumped water on Sonoma County. At first, no one was too concerned, but in the early morning hours of Feb. 27, it was clear a flood was in control. The Barlow, a Sebastapol shopping district, suffered devastating damage.

Then this harvest season, the North Bay collectively held its breath, hoping this would truly be a time of celebration. The month of October made history once again, however, and this time for all the wrong reasons. It began with a planned power shutoff Oct. 9 and 10, leaving many Sonoma County residents and businesses questioning the need for such extreme measures. The impact on the local economy is estimated to range from $50 to $70 million, according to an analysis by Moody’s for the Sonoma County Economic Development Board.

But then the Kincade fire ignited on Oct. 23 around 9:30 p.m. Three days later, on Sat., Oct. 26, Lynda Hopkins, fifth district supervisor of the County of Sonoma, had finally fallen asleep when she received a call from Chris Godley, emergency manager, at 4 a.m. “[He] was calling to let me know that CalFire’s models were showing that the Kincade fire would jump 101 and burn all the way through the Russian River Valley to the coast. ‘This is going to roll right through your district,’ he said. In between the fire line and the coast stood our farm, my house, and a half-dozen communities that I love and represent.”

The firestorm was declared fully contained two weeks later on Nov. 6. In that time, nearly 78,000 acres were destroyed; 187,000 people were evacuated (including 300 inmates in the North County jail); and 374 buildings were destroyed (174 homes and 11 businesses). Once again, Sonoma County fell to its knees.

“This is all in addition to the very real human costs of having four disasters (floods and fire) in the last three years,” says Hopkins. “Many fire survivors from 2017 were already facing stress and PTSD before this event.”

Despite the damage, the response by first responders and local leaders was a tremendous success. This time, no lives were lost.

Lessons learned

In the face of disaster and tragedy, there are lessons learned and the Sonoma County Sheriff’s Department stepped up and responded differently. “The most compelling lesson we learned is the importance of early evacuations when we have the opportunity,” says Sonoma County Sheriff Mark Essick. “Empty houses and streets allowed firefighters to focus on protecting homes and saving an entire town. Not a single person died. This is a team effort between CalFire, the Sheriff’s Office and the community. Our community trusts us, and we strive to give them timely, relevant information so they know why we’re asking them to evacuate.”

Economic impact

The overall economic impact to Sonoma County is yet to be calculated. “We know that many small businesses and homeowners suffered catastrophic losses as the result of the power shutoff,” says Hopkins. “Many of these businesses operate on thin margins, and I’m concerned that we’ll be seeing layoffs and closures over the next few months.” Additionally, tourism-related businesses may see a decline and harvest season was cut short, she adds. “Our vineyards and wineries were in the middle of crush and early-phase fermentation activities. There will be major losses from the power shutoff and mandatory evacuation orders in those sectors, in addition to crop loss from the fire and smoke.”

Begin again

The culture of Sonoma County and its people cannot be adequately addressed in such a short space, but much like the Japanese concept of strength and flexibility, it speaks to the resilience of Sonoma County. No matter how many times life knocks you down, you get up. It's especially important to remember during challenging times.

While there is still much suffering among those who lost everything and a climate of uncertainty lingers in terms of the fire’s impact on small business and the tourism industry, we must collectively stand up, wipe the grit and grime from our knees and heal the wounds from this most recent disaster.

Once again, Sonoma County and its people are standing at a crossroads of transformative change. As we await winter rains and celebrate the holiday season, we stand up and begin again. In the spirit of recovery, Hopkins offers this advice, “Be kind. So many people—first responders, fire victims, those rebuilding homes, business owners and employees—will be struggling with daily living,” she says. “Be patient. Stress takes a large toll on people, and right now there’s a lot of stress in our community.”

In the days, weeks and months ahead, thank those who give tirelessly to keep our communities safe, and support local businesses. “Shop local.” Hopkins urges. “Go out into your community and shop. Try to do your grocery shopping at local grocery stores. Dine at small, locally-owned restaurants. Buy produce from a local vendor, or at farmers markets. And when you shop local, let the business owner know you’re there to support them and their staff.”

Fall down seven times, stand up eight.

We’re still Sonoma Strong, as we stand up, move forward and walk the path to recovery. Together.




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