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Forgotten in Rio Dell

Months after quakes rocked the small town, recovery proves elusive

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Eight months ago, Jacqui and Shane McIntosh were getting ready to celebrate.

With an offer in hand, the couple's Rio Dell home was set to enter escrow Dec. 20, marking the beginning of a new chapter in their lives after they put in years of sweat equity to afford a new house closer to their jobs a 45-minute commute away.

Then the magnitude 6.4 earthquake struck at 2:34 a.m. In a matter of seconds, the McIntoshes' hopes came crashing down around them as their Painter Street neighborhood shook with the third highest intensity ever recorded in a California earthquake.

Her husband, Jacqui McIntosh told the Journal, "thought those were our last moments."

"It just kept going," she said. "It felt like it wasn't going to stop."

After the initial shaking subsided, the couple made their way downstairs and began to grasp the extent of the damage. Jacqui McIntosh said she remembers being sprayed in the face by a broken gas line before stepping outside in those first frantic moments to find their porch pitched up higher than the front door.

Their 100-year-old starter home, the one they moved into just days after marrying in 2019, the place they invested their nest egg into to build a better future, had been thrown off its foundation by the quake and shifted 22 inches to the east.

"It was like everything was falling into place, and then everything blew up," Jacqui McIntosh said.

Later that day, images of their white-trimmed tan house with the slanted porch surrounded by yellow police tape, the For Sale sign standing in the lawn, were seen on television screens and newspapers across the country — becoming the indelible portrait of the earthquake's destruction in the Eel River Valley town.

"I thought help was going to come," she said, "and it hasn't."

The bleak reality is Humboldt County simply wasn't able to reach the $65 million damage threshold needed to trigger a Federal Emergency Management Agency response under a matrix that is based on the value of the property damaged, not how much property loss there was.

Even with major impacts to 25 percent of Rio Dell's housing stock and nearly $26 million in damage to the city's vital infrastructure, damage totals across the Eel River Valley, including the grandstands at the Humboldt County Fairgrounds in Ferndale, still fall $30 million short of that FEMA mark.

That has left many residents largely on their own, as inequities built into the federal relief system leave local and state officials with few options for providing assistance to rural, economically challenged communities following a natural disaster. And most of what is available is geared toward low and very low income households.

Unable to qualify for those programs due to their income, Jacqui McIntosh said she and her husband are facing the possibility of foreclosure despite navigating a labyrinth of paperwork and countless phone calls. Taking out a low-interest loan just to fix the foundation — not even touching the other extensive repairs needed to make the house livable — would leave them $100,000 underwater, she said.

And, she said, she's frustrated that most of the aid available is allocated based on income and not the extent of damage — or at least some level of balance between the two — leaving residents in situations like theirs behind.

"It's sad because we put our whole lives into that house," Jacqui McIntosh said. "It's sad because we didn't do anything wrong. It's sad because we put a lot of love into that house and it's just fallen into disarray. It's sad because the house has a lot of history, and it survived a lot, and I don't know if it will survive."

The McIntoshes aren't the only one still trying to pick up the pieces months after the initial earthquake and 5.4 aftershock on New Year's Day left hundreds without a place to call home, especially in Rio Dell, which bore the brunt of the earthquakes' force.

Of the around 90 residences in the city deemed unlivable in the aftermath, 55 remain red-tagged, according to the latest number available from the Humboldt County Office of Emergency Services, and 220 others are still yellow-tagged for restricted use.

Next door to the McIntoshes on Painter Street, the damage at Sharon and Steve Wolff's house wasn't as severe but they still face a long road back to normalcy.

The couple had been putting final touches on a downstairs remodel, including the office where they produce the Rio Dell Times, when the earthquake struck, sending items around their home crashing to the floor, causing large cracks in newly painted walls and separating the recently installed wood flooring inches from the wall.

"We were," Steve Wolff said, "just so close to finishing."

"It looked gorgeous the night before the earthquake," Sharon Wolff added. "A lot of plans changed that day."

Months later, she said she still hasn't put anything back on their kitchen's upper shelves.

Like many in the town, with sections of their home cracked open and exposed to the elements, they faced challenges trying to stay warm during this year's fierce storms and brutal cold.

One night, Steve Wolff said, he woke up to find something furry on his pillow and started screaming, "There's a possum in the bed!" That possum, "Snuggles," as the marsupial came to be known, was captured and relocated to an area by the river after its several repeated attempts to stay inside.

"These are some of the problems you never thought you'd face," Sharon Wolff said.

Around town, she said, "there's a lot of stress."

The lack of a FEMA response also doesn't sit well with the couple who raised five children in their historic house that — like the McIntoshes' — was moved to Painter Street after being floated across the Eel River from a former sawmill site in the 1930s.

"It shouldn't be like that," Steve Wolff said. "It's not equitable."

Sharon Wolff agreed.

"It's so maddening because you think FEMA is going to be there if a natural disaster hits," she said. "But they're not there for us."

They said there was a "really nice outpouring of support" in the initial weeks after the quakes — from the free cooked meals and hot showers to food distributions and access to porta potties — but much of it disappeared as quickly as it arrived as the town's recovery was just getting started.

"It was like, 'OK, bye,' and that was the end of it," Sharon Wolff said.

Across town, Lance Nally said he thought he was doing the right thing by taking out a loan on his credit card to pay a contractor to make immediately needed repairs on his red-tagged home on Belleview Avenue, which the quake left teetering on its foundation.

Later, when he tried to get reimbursed, Nally said he was told there was no aid available for already completed work, something he said was never conveyed at community meetings or when he first reached out for information about assistance, leaving him feeling "left out in the cold."

There were signs all over town cautioning residents to only hire licensed contractors, he said, but not a word about how getting work done before going through the grant application process would leave them footing the full bill.

The foundation of their house might be solid now, but Nally said he and his wife Lydia are "being penalized because we took care of the problem that they wanted us to take care of," leaving them essentially on their own to find a way forward while putting a child through college and continuing to work on more repairs.

Their home, he adds, is all they have.

"Why," Nally asked, "isn't anyone helping us?"

Humboldt County's OES Director Ryan Derby said he understands people are frustrated.

"We were in an unfortunate situation where, as devastating as this was to our community, it still didn't reach that threshold for a federal declaration," Derby said. "And, in the absence of a federal declaration and federal individual assistance, there are only certain avenues that the county and the state can go through to connect people with recovery resources."

Back in April, the county shifted from an emergency response to a long-term recovery mode, facilitating an agreement between Arcata House Partnership, Changing Tides Family Services and the Humboldt Eel River Valley Long-Term Recovery Group — a coalition of government agencies, nonprofits and businesses — to provide disaster case management services.

Derby said he knows people have fallen through the cracks, and some are still staying with family all these months later. He said he also realizes there was a misconception in the community early on that FEMA dollars would become available.

"It's a tough message to basically say the assistance you need isn't coming from the federal government but we are doing everything we can through disaster relief management and the long-term recovery group to connect people to the resources they need to at least get back on their feet," Derby said.

While most of those loan and grant programs target low to very low income households, one exception is loans available through the Small Business Administration. Derby said there may also be other options those in need can access by calling the disaster case management line at (707) 382-5890.

"I would really encourage anyone who is not finding the resources they need through the loan programs or the grant options to reach out to that disaster case management line, to plead their case and hopefully get contacted with some resources," Derby said, adding that could include aid from area nonprofits or the donations that came in after the quake hit.

Rio Dell City Manager Kyle Knopp had a similar message, saying that without a FEMA response, which brings a "really special piece" of the long-term recovery puzzle via individual assistance for impacted homeowners, what's primarily left are pre-existing programs that can take months to access and include lengthy application processes.

Knopp emphasized that the disaster management hotline is the entry point for accessing the long-term recovery group's services to address the myriad of problems and difficulties people are still facing in the quakes' aftermath, including help in navigating those arduous applications and assistance with language barriers.

"We have to act based on the cards dealt us and it does mean a steep hill to climb, no doubt," he said. "I understand and I'm frankly heartbroken over the whole situation for a lot of our residents here, and it's not fair."

Like 90 percent of Californians, many of those hardest in Rio Dell lacked earthquake insurance. The reality, Knopp said, is coverage can be cost-prohibitive for many people and most policies come with high deductibles in the $30,000 to $40,000 range, or about what many foundation issues would cost to repair.

Moving forward, Knopp and others would like to see changes to how that FEMA formula works, as it currently leaves poor, rural areas to struggle while places like Marin or Malibu — where median home prices range $1.5 to $3.3 million, respectively — would qualify for federal aid with property losses at just fraction of the number of homes damaged in Rio Dell.

"All of our elected officials have been great and have been responsive and understand the situation here and how inequitable it is," Knopp said. "Hopefully, this can translate to broader reforms as far as FEMA, so this doesn't happen again."

North Coast Congressmember Jared Huffman made clear he wanted to see FEMA's formula reworked to be more equitable.

"FEMA's thresholds in rural areas often leave small communities without important federal aid even when they are disproportionately impacted during disasters," he said. "It's a serious problem, especially in the West, and I know many of my colleagues have seen this in their congressional districts. I have urged FEMA to be more flexible in order to address these inequities — but unfortunately it appears we'll need statutory action to make that happen. This will undoubtedly require a major congressional effort. I will be a part of that endeavor and am looking at all options to address this issue."

Meanwhile, slowly but surely, the recovery continues.

The Wolffs said they did reach out to that long-term disaster management line but were often left waiting for calls back or found there was simply no one there who could help them.

In the end, they also didn't qualify for any of the grant programs and were instead approved for a nearly $60,000 Small Business Administration loan to fund repairs, but that's been a bitter pill to swallow and they're trying not to use the full amount.

According to the county, $7 million in SBA loans have been approved in connection with the earthquakes, with the vast majority — $6 million — going to homeowners and the remainder to businesses.

"It's still a loan you had no intention of taking out before the earthquake," Sharon Wolf said. "You don't want to have to take out a loan that's not of your choosing."

And, Steve Wolff added, "You can't just borrow money every time there is an earthquake."

Nally said he also reached out to the disaster relief line but was told there was nothing that could be done to help pay for work already completed.

He said he became frustrated with the lack of assistance while trying to go through the process for other work their house needed and all the hoops they were told to jump through. For example, he pointed to the Habitat for Humanity grant program's requirement that applicants get two contractors to give bids on repairs. Eventually, he said, he just gave up and withdrew their application.

Instead, Nally said they have gone into credit card debt to pay for the work themselves while living on a fixed income. And there's still more to be done — from cracked walls to fences that won't shut.

"I'm an ordinary guy, I'm retired," Nally said. "I'm on Social Security. It would have been beneficial if we got some money, even a loan."

He said he did appreciate the support that came at first, the free food, the gas cards, the hot showers. But where's the support now?

"We wanted our house fixed, that's what we wanted, but we're pretty much on our own," he said.

 

Back on Painter Street, Jacqui McIntosh said they're still waiting to hear back from the mortgage company about what might happen next, whether that's proceeding to foreclosure or some other alternative.

On top of everything else, she said, some kids broke into their vacant house at one point and vandalized the walls with spray paint. Worst of all, she said, was what happened to the rope swing hanging in the yard.

Made for her when she was a little girl, the swing had somehow survived the Paradise Fire five years earlier but someone cut it down, leaving the rope sitting on ground in their Rio Dell backyard. The tire, Jacqui McIntosh said, was found a few blocks away.

Even if they were somehow able to break even or help finally arrived, she said she doesn't see moving back to the place where all their all their hopes dashed just as they seemed to be coming true.

"I don't know that I could ever live in it again, because of the trauma in the house," Jacqui McIntosh said.

Kimberly Wear (she/her) is the Journal's digital editor. Reach her at (707) 442-1400, extension 323, or [email protected].

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