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After Another Deadly Disaster, A Call To Hit The Pause Button On Rebuilding


In the aftermath of disasters like the recent deadly wildfires here in California, one of the most basic human reactions for victims is to try to replace what has been destroyed. Local elected officials and community leaders often immediately pledge that they will rebuild their towns - after all, suggesting retreating is not going to go over all that well. But scientists who study disaster response say communities in high-risk areas instead should really hit the pause button. NPR's Kirk Siegler reports on how difficult that can be.

KIRK SIEGLER, BYLINE: Rick Mullen is a Malibu town councilman. He's also a full-time professional firefighter who fought the deadly Woolsey Fire last month. on a narrow windy road with harrowing steep drops, we're standing by someone's decimated house. It's a pile of rubble, chipped tiles and ash.

RICK MULLEN: It really has that sort of post-apocalyptic look about it.

SIEGLER: There's a question Mullen's getting a lot right now - should people be allowed to rebuild in high-risk zones like this?

MULLEN: Those are individual questions and individual risk management things that everyone has to ask themselves. Do I want to subject myself to even the chance of this? But I think for most people, as you can see...

SIEGLER: He's pointing to the dramatic ocean view.

MULLEN: ...The benefits may outweigh the risks.

SIEGLER: Mullen says Malibu can enforce smarter, more fire-safe building codes, but private property rights are ingrained in this country's ethos. So you're never going to really stop people from rebuilding, even in dangerous places.

MULLEN: We're very dedicated that - very sensitive to the fact that there are, you know, 400-plus people have lost their homes here in Malibu. And we want to support them as much as we possibly can to ensure that they get back to where they were.

KATHLEEN TIERNEY: Oh, it's a natural tendency to want to put things back the way they were.

SIEGLER: But behavior scientist Kathleen Tierney says communities shouldn't rush into rebuilding. She's an expert in disaster recovery at the University of Colorado.

TIERNEY: The recovery period after a devastating disaster is also an opportunity to rethink what you want your community to be like.

SIEGLER: Tierney says, increasingly, natural disasters are, in fact, not natural.

TIERNEY: They are the results of decisions that have been made by communities and by societies that contribute to the buildup of risk over time.

SIEGLER: Consider a town almost 500 miles to the north of Malibu, Paradise. It was almost wiped off the map by the Camp Fire. I'm sure people were drawn to the Sierra foothills for its natural beauty, but it's also cheaper. And many residents were lower income and older, priced out of coastal cities.

JODY JONES: In the end, you have human beings whose lives have been totally disrupted. And all they want to do is go home.

SIEGLER: Paradise town mayor, Jody Jones, says hitting the pause button isn't always realistic.

JONES: I represent those human beings. So, for me, I need to help them do that.

SIEGLER: Jones herself spent the past month living in an RV in a vacant lot in Chico with her husband and sister.

JONES: Paradise has been there since the 1850s. This never happened before. So it was a perfect storm. And it's not a reason to say, no one should ever live there again. Where can you go in the world that you have no risk?

SIEGLER: That said, Jones says Paradise has an opportunity to rebuild smarter. Ninety percent of the town's housing stock is gone. A lot of it was outdated, so the new homes can be fire wise and up to code. She wants to redesign streets so evacuations are smoother. Nobody knows how many people will rebuild here.

JONES: But we're going to build a town that's so attractive and so new that it's going to attract other people who haven't lived there before.

SIEGLER: Despite the future risks. So it's barely been a month since the fire, and there's already debate about what the new Paradise should look like. Jim Broshears is the town's emergency operations coordinator. He also sits on the local fire council.

JIM BROSHEARS: The community we build for the future probably shouldn't be as big as the community we had in the past.

SIEGLER: Broshears' home is one of a few in towns still standing, likely due to all the brush clearing he's done and its fire-resistant building materials. He says the Camp Fire shows this needs to be the norm in the West.

BROSHEARS: We have an opportunity to be a model, and I hope we take that opportunity. We can be a model community for what communities in the foothills could be like, should be like.

SIEGLER: And there's going to be a lot of attention on what they do. The next California wildfire could be even worse. Behavior scientist Kathleen Tierney says, every year, we keep seeing the deadliest, the strongest, the most destructive events. She says it's not sustainable. In the last month alone, FEMA has sent $41 million in aid to California.

TIERNEY: It's an unproductive use of federal dollars to constantly be engaging with the recovery of communities after disasters.

SIEGLER: Tierney says we'll never stop these unnatural disasters, but there are things to do to slow down their effects. Kirk Siegler, NPR News, Chico, Calif.

(SOUNDBITE OF AK AND SUBLAB'S "TRANQUIL") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Kirk Siegler
As a correspondent on NPR's national desk, Kirk Siegler covers rural life, culture and politics from his base in Boise, Idaho.