Pastoral Care and the Santa Rosa Firestorm Disaster

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I have survived tornados in Iowa, hurricanes on the East coast, and mild earthquakes on the West coast; but this was my first wild-fire-storm that kept raging, destroying, and displacing people for two whole weeks! 

As a psychiatric nurse/pastor and a Community Emergency Response Team member I am grateful for all the disaster preparedness training and crisis counseling I have completed in the past because it came in very handy. People tend to flock to churches in disasters. Places of worship are expected to be sanctuaries to shelter God’s creation from the destructive chaos. So our church responded to those expectations by opening our doors at 3am on the morning of October 9th when two of our church elders literally ran for shelter with their families & pets as their houses went up in flames. 

My crisis response training taught me to switch off the emotions and switch on the emergency response mode in my brain. That worked most of the time, until I thought my home, too, was being destroyed by the fires while I was at the church. Then I allowed myself to get upset for a few minutes. For me it is easier to help others than to be aware of my own emotions. Adrenaline is always helpful in times of crisis. But eventually the emotions come back to the surface, hopefully, after all the immediate needs have been met. 

I was taking a break from the church shelter at my home 3 miles away when my own neighborhood was mandated to be evacuated. My brain began swirling as I was told to get out and drive away from the fires. I started turning in circles looking at precious china, precious keepsakes, photos framed on the walls, and then I became practical and grabbed dog and cat food, pet beds, leashes, crates, passport, check book, and my laptop. I threw some clothes and shoes into a suitcase, grabbed a sleeping bag, medicines, baby books and the disaster first aid backpack. I was blessed to have about 10 minutes to gather all that might be left of my “stuff.” Many of my friends and church family members woke up with the flames licking their homes. They had to flee with just the clothes on their backs and jump into their cars. One friend’s pickup truck started burning in the back while driving away, forcing them to abandon it and run on foot through the wind and the fire with their young daughter.

In 2010, I experienced the aftermath of Hurricane Sandy when three huge trees fell on my home and we opened the church in New Jersey as an informal shelter for a few days after the power went out in Morristown. Like the church in Morristown, the church here in Santa Rosa miraculously had power, heat, water, and the internet stayed on when most of the region was blacked out. The Church of the Roses was spared the flames and power outages allowing us to be a sacred sanctuary for all who needed us. 

So what did I learn from this experience as a pastor and evacuee? 

  • Pray unceasingly and go with the flow of the Holy Spirit as the disaster crisis evolves. A few hours into the disaster, I had the presence of mind to call our insurance company to find out if we were allowed to be a temporary shelter and they agreed we would be covered on our policy. However, we had fed 40 people by then and invited people into our doors as we figured the details out of how to proceed housing, and feeding and providing first aid to that many mostly elderly people and their animals. (The younger people and families fled farther away but the older adults were afraid to get too far from their familiar community. Some who didn’t driver were just dropped off at our church.

  • Many elderly evacuees arrived very disoriented and lacking ID and medications. We helped them call family members to be picked up as soon as possible or triaged them to see if they needed to move over to the larger Red Cross shelter at the fairgrounds where official medical personnel were setting up healthcare stations.

  • I began calling the vulnerable church members homes to see if they had gotten out and had a place to go for shelter. (Next time the Deacons plan to be ready to help with this process. It was very important to take an assessment of our church family and see how we could help them be safe. But it took two days to get through to all of those we didn’t already know about.)

  • Members and neighbors of the church started showing up and asking if they could bring blankets, towels, pillows, sleeping bags and food. We graciously accepted all of their offers. People showed up to cook and a nearby non-profit culinary school called to tell us they were bringing over a meal for the shelter residents. The food bank dropped off large amounts of canned and fresh vegetables and soups. A woman with a truck stopped by with face masks, toilet paper, paper towels, soap, shampoo, and animal food and crates. The Salvation Army stopped by to see what we needed for our shelter. Air mattresses were donated which were much more comfortable to sleep on than our skinny pews.

  • We converted a tile floored supply room into a cat care room. Dogs were allowed to be with their masters if they were tolerant of people and other dogs.

  • We learned to register people because so many were missing after the evacuations. The police came through periodically with family members searching all the shelters and the churches desperately.

  • We kept the police informed of the numbers of people we had sleeping in our church every night in case we had to be evacuated to another location. We were prepared to go to the much larger shelter in the nearby fairgrounds if needed. But we kept our shelter open because the senior citizens with us would have had a hard time adapting to the chaos of a large shelter, sleeping on cots in a big room with kids running all around. And their pets were not allowed in the larger shelter. Many would rather freeze at night in their cars than leave their pets.

  • Having a radio versus a TV was helpful. We circled around the radio listening to a local station that gave up to the minute reports about what regions were evacuated and what areas were people being allowed back into their homes. CalFire gave a report hourly on that radio station about how much of the fire was contained.

  • Our Director of Youth’s father is a retired Coast Guard officer. He became our main security guard and my right arm as we strategized the best way to organize the shelter. All of the rooms including the offices were opened so people could have some privacy at night. I was able to sleep at home a few nights thanks to this heaven-sent retired officer. The second Wednesday I woke up with symptoms of the Norovirus, I had to stay in bed a whole day feverish and weak. But God revived me and I was able to get up and carry on the rest of the week.

  • Having a worship service each night before the shelter’s bedtime became a very supportive spiritual experience for us all as we read scriptures, prayed, sang songs and shared stories. This community worship time became important to the shelter residents, most of them not our church members. Prayer provided peace that empowered sleep.

 

As expected, God provided all the supplies and donations we needed at just the right time for our shelter at church. In the end, twelve of our church family members lost their homes and most of their “stuff.” But as time heals and they gradually deal with the losses, we have disaster relief funds sent from all over the US to help these resilient families recover. They are so very grateful for the outpouring of care. All of our group had some insurance. So we are now focusing our disaster relief funds on helping those who had no insurance. In the larger community there were many people renting without renters insurance. The Boys and Girls club across the street had seventeen kids that didn’t show up for the after school program. They assume they had to move away immediately. Six of the Boys and Girls club families lost everything and had no insurance. Our funds are reaching out to help with their needs, too. 

 

As time goes by, the recovery will happen slowly but surely. Already, we can see signs of the Phoenix rising above the ashes. In the charred out areas, green grass is sprouting all around! Resurrection is real! 

But there are many Santa Rosans giving up hope and deciding to leave the area because the rebuilding process is so daunting. Some are wealthy who can’t stand the stress and uncertainty of these times. Others were living on the edge before the fires and it pushed them over emotionally and economically. 

My sermons have been about Rising Above the Ashes, How to Live Resiliently, and Waiting is Hard. I’m preaching the lectionary and finding messages in it that give people hope in the slow but good work of God over time.  Our outreach program is partnering with Habitat for Humanity to assist in the rebuilding and providing affordable homes for the laborers who are desperately needed to do the construction. 

Our church is continuing to support our twelve families emotionally, spiritually, and financially, while reaching out to others in our community in need. The city of Santa Rosa predicts it will take three years to redevelop the burned out neighborhoods and at least ten years for Sonoma County’s economy to recover. 

Listening is the greatest gift I could give people who went through the fires. Even those who had homes to return to are having nightmares about fleeing the flames and others who lost their homes needed to talk about the little things they were missing. Things like their favorite coffee cup, or their mother’s wedding ring. 

People at church have been reflecting on my crisis response organization. One person said it seemed I was called to be here at this time and place. Even the previous retired pastor who visited our church a week after the fires said, “This church is blessed to have you here at this time….” It was a blessing to me as well. The church session was flexible and trusting during the disaster response. They were willing to go along with my leadership and with the flow of the Holy Spirit to let the shelter provide what we could for as long as we were needed. A nearby church just stayed open two days so their people came to us when it closed. 

For our own recovery process we are getting estimates to replace the carpet, and making our bathrooms more accessible to people in wheelchairs. Our wonderful Brotherhood Mutual Insurance will be providing the funds since we were a temporary shelter and had insurance to cover that potential need. Our church membership is growing thanks to the shelter residents who so enjoyed our evening worship services. 

God is good all the time. Even our church members who lost it all have not lost faith because the church has been there for them in the healing. We are now identified by the community as a place of safety and comfort for all, including their pets. People who didn’t know we existed heard about us on the radio as a shelter that was still taking in evacuees during the second week of the fires. 

 

The scripture I relied on the most was: Psalm 57:1

“Be gracious to me, O God, be gracious to me, For my soul takes refuge in You; And in the shadow of Your wings I will take refuge, Until destruction passes by.”

Psalm 46: “God is our refuge and strength, A very present help in trouble.”

 

God was a very present help those two weeks and beyond. A week after the shelter was closed I was scheduled to go to the Women in Ministry conference at my alma mater: Princeton Theological Seminary. 

I had posted a few comments and photos of Santa Rosa’s fires on Facebook but didn’t have much time to read any responses. When I arrived at the conference I was immediately hugged by so many of my seminary peers and reassured that they had been praying for us during the fires. 

I told them their prayers had held me up and then I burst into tears! That was my first real release of pent up tension since the fires began. It felt good to get in touch with my emotions again although, when I was walking the labyrinth in Scheide hall, the wind came up outside the windows. The fires began with a windstorm that sounded like a tornado that knocked down two of my backyard fences. So when the wind picked up and blew the trees around outside of Scheide, I felt my heart racing and adrenaline pumping again. There is some internal healing to do, too. But I trust that will happen over time. 

Overall, I am grateful for the healing I received from being around the Women in Ministry conference organizers and attendees. The female fellowship was very helpful in my personal recovery! I felt grounded again and empowered to return to the devastation that remains in Santa Rosa physically and emotionally. God is good but it is up to our church to remind those who lost “everything” that God’s love still remains when the physical things are gone. 

 

This video gives you a sense of what our county went through and how we are recovering: 

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=JZSQRq9ylIk&t=74s

 Here is a prayer we shared in the shelter worship services:

God of Creation,

We live in a world where both beauty and danger surround us. Receive our prayers for those impacted by, and living in fear of, the wildfires in our region and beyond:

  • for all who cannot find adequate food, safety, or shelter…

  • for all who have lost their homes, churches, community centers, and workplaces…

  • for all your glorious natural creation that have been destroyed and is in harm’s way…

  • for all things, places, and people that are in need of healing.

We pray and ask that you help heal the pain of all affected.

Strengthen with your presence all who are numb with fear and distress. Guide those who anxiously search or wait for loved ones. Be near those who are grieving, and bless them with your peace. In the midst of disaster we give thanks for moments of generosity and human-kindness.

Grant tenderness, strength, and wisdom…

to doctors and nurses, police and military, fire-fighters and emergency responders; to the wildlife conservationists and stewards of the earth; to all who minister to human need in our time of distress. We gather these prayers with the assurance that you already know our needs, and are always with us. Amen.

Eleanor Hewett