I got a call about 2:30 am on Monday morning from our assistant city manager. She told me that there were fires, that Fountaingrove was being evacuated, that the emergency operation center had been opened up and she needed my authorization to declare an emergency.
It was the traffic and the explosions that let me know that this was bigger than ... a grass fire. Evacuations don't mean that things are burning down. But multiple explosions mean that there are big fires out there. And that's when I knew.
One specific job that is laid out in the charter for the mayor is to act as spokesman for the city. That came into play in a big way starting fairly early on Monday. That first week I probably responded to 200 media requests; everybody from the local papers, radio and TV stations to [outlets from] Australia, Canada, and the UK. And that was as much of an indication of how bad things were as anything else.
Nobody here had ever experienced something like this. If it had been an earthquake, it wouldn't have taken us by this much of a surprise.
By the end of that week, we had something like 7,000 firefighters living at the fairgrounds here from all over the West.
It was difficult to deal with the stress and the demands and the hours, and all that was going on. But at the same time, I actually felt pretty good that I had a part to play; there was a contribution I could make. In a disaster like this, everybody wants to help in some way. They ask, “Should I go volunteer at a shelter? Should I raise money? Should I do a food drive?” I didn't have to ask those questions. And that actually made it easier.
Sometimes I'm tired. Sometimes I'm frustrated. I mean the information...I would still like it to be better. It's one thing just to deal with the city bureaucracy but there is a lot going on.
I still feel pretty overwhelmed by how the hell we're going to deal with rebuilding 3,000 homes.
And the debris removal thing is critical. We have to get rid of the mess before we can start building anything.
I’m concerned we will lose a significant number of people who lost their homes; I don't want to see that happen. Our economy needs them. Our community needs them. I think everybody contributes something to the city. I have concerns about whether people will have the means to rebuild based on their insurance and what FEMA can do to help them out. This is a hugely expensive place. Where are we going to put 3,000 displaced families? Those are the big things on my mind right now.
I was proud that at the first council meeting after the fires, we adopted ordinances that are specifically designed to get people back in their houses as soon as possible with minimal bureaucracy.
There isn't anybody in the leadership ranks of the city who thinks we should drop the other priorities we had before the fire [especially when it comes to] affordable housing and homelessness. We still need to build additional housing, not just replace what we lost. So, the feeling is not that we have a different job in front of us, but that we just have a bigger job.
This community has always risen to the occasion when people need each other. We have an amazing volunteer ethic — I think it has been ranked one of the top counties in the nation for volunteering. People are generous; they care about each other.