Christine Files: My name is Christine Files. I am the President of the Bastrop County Long Term Recovery Team.
KUT News: What’s the job of the Recovery Team?
Files: The Recovery Team is assisting uninsured and underinsured individuals and families with recovery from the Bastrop County Complex Fire.
KUT News: And about how many folks fall into that category?
Files: There’s about 747 folks that fall into that category.
KUT News: In the most general sense, what has this process been like for you? In a personal and professional way?
Files: In a personal way, it’s been an incredibly rewarding experience. Helping these folks that could not otherwise recover from the wildfires is something I never imagined in my entire life I would be doing. I got involved primarily because I knew hundreds, I had hundreds of friends whose homes burned down in the Bastrop area so I got involved with this project early on in the beginning stages of the organization and eventually in January, was elected the Vice-President and then in February, became the President of the organization.
KUT News: What kinds of things can you do for these people?
Files: We’re rebuilding homes. We’re assisting individuals who can’t rebuild their home on their own, but we have rebuilt 29 homes so far. We have replaced one manufactured home for a total of 30 homes that we’ve either completed or rebuilt. A lot of folks in the Bastrop area have started their homes then run out of money and we come in and help them also complete those homes, so we’ve done anywhere from full rebuilds to finish outs of those homes.
KUT News: Where do you get the money to do this? What are the steps that it takes for people who don’t have insurance to try to start anew?
Files: Let me first give you some statistics. In Bastrop County, there were approximately 276 uninsured of those homes that burnt. Of the 1,704 homes that burnt, 276 of those were uninsured. Seventy hundred and forty-seven of those homes, the household income was below the poverty level. The amount of money that people got from FEMA was $28,076 toward the rebuilding of their home. Obviously, $28,076 is not going to rebuild a home so what we do is we have case managers and case managers do intake of the cases. They determine that these individuals or families are, in fact, poverty level and have no other assets to recover on their own. Once they’ve made that determination and once the case has gone through construction for an estimate to either help them finish out or help them rebuild, they’re presented to what we call the unmet needs table.
At the unmet needs table, these folks, I have funders sitting in there. The funders that are sitting there right now are Austin Disaster Relief Network, The Episcopal Diocese of Texas, United Methodist Church Southwest Texas Conference, First United Methodist Church Bastrop, The Bastrop Ministerial Alliance. I have Austin Community Foundation and I have The Meadows Foundation and Lutheran Social Services Disaster Relief. Those individuals then listen to the case. They decide whether the case is worthy of going forward and being funded. They then also decide how much they are going to put in to assist funding with that case. So, that’s kind of how a case makes it to the rebuild stage or the finish out stage.
We’ve also done various other projects. We’ve assisted homeowners who have been able to go out and purchase a manufactured home with their FEMA money. We’ve assisted them with building porches or ramps and skirting on those homes so we also fund those types of cases, but that’s pretty much in a nutshell how it occurs. So, this is basically funder driven.
KUT News: Is funding a concern? Have you – what’s the response been like when you go out looking for money?
Files: Funding is always a concern. The response has been – up to this point has been magnificent. These faith-based groups that we’re working with have been – we could not have done what we’ve done today without them. However, they also are of limited funds and we’re now reaching that point where the faith based groups funds are starting to run out and we’re going to need to go get additional funds from either individuals or private grants. I did mention that The Meadows Foundation and The Austin Community Foundation are there at the table. They are there with grant funds that they have given us, but they are for the purpose of buying materials for rebuilding homes.
So, we bid in basically a certain amount on each home from those grants so we’re out – we’ve got 18 grant applications out there. We’re out trying to get additional grants. We’re trying to find funds wherever we can find funds from. We’re getting set to have a fundraiser on the anniversary of the fire, which is a Tuesday, September fourth, 6:30 at the Hyatt Lost Pines in Bastrop there.
KUT News: Today’s July 27th, 2012. Do you have any kind of estimate of how many more folks might need to avail themselves of this help?
Files: We have HUD grant funds coming in that will kick in, building is set to begin I believe March of next year. Those HUD grant funds are supposed to build anywhere between 160 and 200 homes. As I said, we’ve already built 30 homes. We have additionally funded an additional 15 homes for building through the next spring. We’re looking at probably in the neighborhood of 300 homes that still need to be built after that so even with the HUD grants coming in and those 160 to 200 and what we’re able to do, we’re still looking at a deficit of about 200 homes that we will still need to help people on.
KUT News: It sounds like there are some really tough decisions being made especially when you talk about whether there is funds available to help a specific person that kind of go before a panel or a table of people and explain what their situation is. It sounds like it is a hard process. What goes into that?
Files: It’s an extremely hard process. Right now, we’re having to prioritize who gets help and who doesn’t get help. Who gets help is people that are in unsafe situations or are in a FEMA trailer. Those FEMA trailers leave Bastrop County next March. There will be no extension granted on those FEMA trailers so if they’re living in a FEMA trailer now, that FEMA trailer is going to be gone next March so we have prioritized people living in FEMA trailers or people living in unsafe, unsanitary conditions or people that have been moved around numerous times who are staying with friends and have to move from friend to friend to friend’s house. We’re also prioritizing the elderly and the handicapped so it’s kind of a normal triage process that everybody would think makes sense.
KUT News: We’re coming up on a year anniversary, but there’s still people who are in deep need here. What have they been through and what’s their kind of state of mind like when they reach out to you?
Files: It varies from they’re doing okay to they can’t stop crying. As we near – I’ll tell you, the Colorado fires reignited a lot of those emotions and when those fires were being pictured on the news constantly for about three or four days, those emotions totally reignited the emotions in Bastrop County and we saw several people that just needed mental help that we were able to refer out for assistance just to get them through that time period. We are seeing as we get closer and closer to the one year anniversary that those emotions are starting to peak again. If it gets dry at all, the emotions start to peak again. If there is another fire in the area, the emotions go up. It’s been very interesting to me that there has been very little waning of the emotional side of this fire.
KUT News: And you, yourself live in Bastrop? If you wouldn’t mind, what was your experience during the wildfire?
Files: I was evacuated. The day of the wildfire, I actually drove in, which was a Sunday. I drove into the bank to cash a check to go to Lagrange to see Merle Haggard play at their county fair there and I saw some smoke over in the distance and I went to go check it out because it was extremely windy and, as I was driving in, I could see dust flying all around. It almost looked like smoke, it was dusty and I thought boy if anything starts today; this is a really bad day. I got out to Highway 21 and Pine Tree Loop and saw what was a black tornado crossing Highway 21 and it was not until you looked about 300 feet in the air that you could see flames and I started calling everyone I could feasibly call and I knew this was bad.
I knew it was bad and I started heading back to my own home which was in the path of the fire and I got to my own home and I started loading up my animals, my horses, open the gates for the cows, called a friend of mine that lives directly across the river from me and told her to get out and 20 minutes later she told me she was watching her house burn down. At that point and time, it started raining chunks of burnt pine bark onto my property and so I evacuated and left and I was out of there two weeks before I was able to return.
KUT News: Your house made it?
Files: My house did make it.
KUT News: This thing touched people even those who are not without a place to stay. If you could, just kind of talk about the wider effect on the entire community up there.
Files: I’ve been very vocal that this fire affected everyone in the area and not just in Bastrop; in all of Central Texas. It affected everyone, particularly in the Bastrop area. There is a survivor’s guilt that goes on with this. It may be part of the reason that I’m doing the job I’m doing today. Initially, I’m certain it was part of the reason that I got involved, but it did affect every single person and I can’t explain to you what it’s like living in a disaster area because you see it every day and during the fire and this particular fire, as you well know, took 35 days to be fully contained. It wasn’t out in 35 days, but we had 100% containment in 35 days, but for those 35 days, all of us sat and wondered whether it was going to blow up again and it could have blown up again; it very well could have.
There were days that people actually stayed home from work if it was windy because they didn’t know whether their house was going to burn down. That feeling still continues to this day. The rains coming were a huge relief, a huge mental relief for us, but they also caused devastation so they were a mixed blessing. In this fire area, these rains have caused an enormous amount of erosion that folks are dealing with. So, it came as a mixed blessing. It was a relief that we didn’t have to worry about fire, but I also knew every time it rained that there was significant erosion going on and we’ve been helping folks. We helped a gentleman two weeks ago when it poured down rain whose house was literally almost getting set to fall off into a ravine because of the erosion and we went out and built a temporary retaining wall out of virtually the pine trees until something could get done.
So, we’ve had, in Bastrop, we’ve now had an enormous amount of flooding where flooding has never occurred. It’s interesting. Everything’s a mixed blessing, but there is significant survivor’s guilt and any of those emotions that survivors are having, they also need to seek help for and the more the community can seek help together, the better off we’re all going to be.
KUT News: You actually used – did you use pine trees to help kind of buster this house again erosion. That’s interesting. Did you use some of the trees that had fallen?
Files: We did.
KUT News: Wow. Can you explain that?
Files: I can’t explain it completely because I wasn’t there, but I know that we pulled a crew off of building a house on an emergency basis and sent them over to this property and they were able to shore up the background basically. It had gotten to within four foot of this house eroding down into the ravine and they were able to shore it up enough that the erosion stopped short of the house. One of the things that’s going on right now is TxDot, which is on Highway 71 and they’re cutting down the dead trees. One of my own board members came to a meeting yesterday and started bawling, but TxDot is now clear cutting the dead trees on the side of the road and then they will start clear cutting the trees in the median and even though they’re black sticks we were looking at, it still didn’t look as bare. Now, it looks bare and now people are going to be faced with what is going to be their new reality in the pine forest and that’s going to hard for a lot of people to handle.
And as the trees keep coming down and keep coming down and keep coming down, it’s going to get harder and harder. It’s going to get barer and barer and suddenly folks are going to have to be faced with the reality of this is what it’s going to look like for a while because it’s not going to be within my lifetime that this forest is going to grow back. It may be within somebody else’s lifetime, but not mine. It’s going to be a hard new reality for folks. They love the pines; that’s why they moved out there and even though they were sticks and black sticks, there were still trees there and now it’s going to be entirely open and that’s going to be very very difficult.
KUT News: How many more years do you see a group like yours being necessary here? I mean, this is – and the question of erosion kind of also begs that question because that indicates it’s not just the fire, there are hundreds of other residual things that kind of come after.
Files: Fortunately, I’m not in charge of the erosion part of this fire, but our organization will be around probably an additional four years. We’re looking at probably a five-year-long recovery period. I don’t know that we’ll have the funds to continue at the pace we’re doing things right now. If we don’t have those kinds of funds, then obviously we will slow down, but the pace we’re on this year, is a pace to build about 50 homes in one year and that’s pretty incredible for an organization that had no paid employees two months ago. We now have four full-time employees and then we have nine employees that we have gotten, full time employees that we have gotten from a national emergency grant program through the Texas Workforce Commission. That program is set to expire in September.
We’ve requested an extension of that program for an additional six months to allow us to keep those employees on who are virtually our case managers at this point and time. Keep them on until we can obtain enough funds to hire on our own. So, everything revolves around the almighty dollar here and we need the support of all of Central Texas. Just for comparison so that people know how big a fire this is, we lost 1,704 homes. The second biggest fire in the state of Texas lost 168 homes and that fire was at Possum Kingdom Lake last April. The third largest fire was 161 homes so this is a huge disaster. In a county of only 75,000, this is huge for us. It is the third largest fire ever to occur in the United States, but if you look at it on a per capita basis, it is the largest fire to occur in the United States so when I was looking at Colorado and I looked at the 350 homes that burned there, I knew it was serious, but I also knew how much more serious this was.
KUT News: Did you feel like the response in Colorado was different from the response in Bastrop or is it similar, just the federal response?
Files: I’m not familiar with what the response was in Colorado.
KUT News: I should just ask if there’s anything we haven’t touched on that you’d really like to kind of mention before we close up.
KUT News: Okay.
Files: Volunteers in Bastrop County are imperative to the recovery there. Through our volunteers, we’ve coordinated projects on over 1,400 properties and we’ve assisted literally thousands of fire survivors in their recovery. Volunteers working with our organization have put in well over 250,000 hours of volunteer work. They are the most important part of our staff. Just last – just this week, we had 260 youth volunteers in our county, 160 of those alone were from Mission Palooza which is an Episcopal mission that happens once a year across the State of Texas and they chose Bastrop County to come to help. I had the opportunity to have dinner with those folks Tuesday evening, with those kids and I asked them what the highlight of their day was. And there was a 12-year-old girl who turned to me and said we gave people hope. And that is what our volunteers are doing; they’re giving people hope and they’re lifting their spirits and without them, we could not continue to go forward in our recovery efforts.
KUT News: With the understanding that this is all just kind of estimate work, what kinds of things are you looking at that’s possibly expected?
Files: Well, early on we were working in conjunction with the San Diego County Community Recovery Center there and based on historical data from previous large fires, it appears as though one-third of the households that burned down will simply walk away and never rebuild, never look back, never come back. One-third will definitely rebuild and one-third will be kind of sitting on the fence deciding exactly what they’re going to do. Fortunately for us in Bastrop County, right now we have hit a level of about 50% of the households that burned down have actually applied for building permits to return and rebuild. That is a very good sign to us so we may not totally see an entire one-third of those households leave, but I think we’re still going to be close which is what we’ve based our estimates on. I told you that there were 747 homes that were under the poverty level and would probably not be able to recover on their own so we’ve based our estimates on similar numbers. We expect that at least one-third of those will not come back and so we’re looking a population virtually of 500 households that will definitely need our assistance depending on what the second one-third that’s sitting on the fence decide to do which is entirely dependent on how much we are able to get in funds.
KUT News: If people see houses going up on a street that maybe say doesn’t have any houses, they might be more inclined so there might be a kind of snowball effect.
Files: There is and we’ve been sensitive to that issue. We have actually tried to strategically place some homes on streets that have no other building going on with the hopes of getting some building going on, on that street. Now, on the flip side of that, we’ve had to be careful who we’re doing that with because we don’t want to stick a single elderly person out on a street where they’re all alone so it’s been kind of a juggling act for us trying to keep development moving, but yet trying to keep people safe also.
KUT News: Are there other things that I didn’t ask you about that you would kind of like to mention?
Files: The volunteers are the backbone of our organization. Early on, there were different faith based groups that made a decision and it’s a conglomeration of the Methodist, the Baptist, the Presbyterians, the Lutherans, the Methodist, all of those organizations grouped together and created Faith Village and Faith Village is literally a place of volunteer housing, place where volunteers can go and stay. They can house up to 40 volunteers at a time. Volunteers actually pay $20 to stay there. They get three meals a day; they have the ability to access showers and bathrooms and have a place to sleep so that has been instrumental to our recovery efforts.
Throughout the summer, we had been running anywhere between 150-250 volunteers per week. A lot of those have been youth mission groups coming in and I can tell you that from a personal standpoint, it has renewed my faith in the youth in this country. I thought they all sat around playing games on their phones or texting each other. These kids have been absolutely phenomenal and I had the opportunity to speak with a group of them the other day and one of them turned to me and the best part of her day was that she was giving people hope. That’s what these youth have done, but it has totally re-energized me and reinvigorated my opinion of youth in this country. During the school year, we primarily have adults that come out of varying degrees of skill levels and our volunteer coordinator, her office literally is covered with three walls of poster boards that coordinates all of the jobs that we have going on with the volunteers that are coming in. It’s an incredible process that we go through. It’s an incredible coordination effort, but kudos to our volunteer coordinator, Kate Johnson.
KUT News: That’s awesome. I was talking to one woman whose house was rebuilt and she said there were Amish and Mennonite builders. Are there people from that community out there, as well?
Files: There are. In fact, the Mennonites have been our primary builders and the Mennonites are in two groups. One is Mennonite Disaster Services and one is Christian Aid Ministries and they are both Mennonite groups. They will return again in the fall, in October and they will rebuild 30 homes for us.