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Weiner writes: "When disasters like the Camp Fire strike, as they do with horrifying regularity these days, these are often the stories you hear: Regular people taking on enormous responsibility with no training or experience."

Hurricane Harvey. (photo: Getty)
Hurricane Harvey. (photo: Getty)

The Grassroots Movement to Transform Our Broken Disaster Relief System

By Sophie Weiner, Splinter News

23 November 18


t would have been a beautiful autumn day in Oakland, if not for the haze. Standing in a parking lot next to the iconic Lake Merritt, the smoke hung over everything, turning the sky a bluish beige and blurring anything more than a few hundred yards away.

A few volunteers and reporters milled about in the lot. We were there to see a 26-foot truck deliver 50,000 N95 particulate masks from Southern California to the organization Mask Oakland, a collective started by two people to address the toxic smoke in the East Bay that resulted from the fires in Sonoma County last October.

“There were just so many people outside walking through visible haze. It was gnarly, you know? You could taste it sometimes,” Mask Oakland co-founder J Redwoods told Splinter on the phone last week, remembering the fallout from the devastating Tubbs Fire last year. Redwoods, who identifies as non-binary, looked around then and saw thousands of homeless people walking around without masks on, breathing the toxic smoke. They went to the store and spent $100 of their own money to buy masks. They began visiting Oakland’s innumerable homeless encampments, handing them out to whoever wanted one. By the time the smoke cleared, Redwoods and local organizer Cassandra Williams, who became Mask Oakland’s other co-founder, ended up using a few hundred dollars in donations they received on Venmo to buy and distribute 4,000 masks.

The Camp Fire has now surpassed the Tubbs Fire as the most destructive and deadly fire in California’s history. It has burned 151,000 acres, destroyed 17,000 buildings, and killed at least 81 people, with hundreds still missing. The recovery process for communities like Paradise, which was almost totally destroyed by the fire, and the neighboring city of Chico, will take years, maybe decades. In the process, the air in Northern California has become the most toxic anywhere in the world. Every day since the fire, the air quality in most of Northern California has been rated “unhealthy” or worse, prompting school closures and cancellations of outdoor events.

The smoke drifting down into the Bay Area from the Camp Fire is particularly dangerous to anyone spending time outdoors. The fire destroyed thousands of homes, letting all kinds of pollutants into the air. The smoke is full of toxic particles known as PM 2.5. These minuscule pollutants go straight through both the body’s defenses and through most conventional masks, where they can irritate the lungs.

“What’s in the smoke from wildfires is, milligram per milligram, more toxic than tobacco smoke,” Matt Kadlec, a toxicologist with the Washington Department of Ecology, told CNN this week.

These particles are why N95 masks are so important. They are one of a few kind of filters that can keep out the tiny toxic particles that have filled the air in the last week. But governments are not providing nearly enough of them for their citizens.

Reliable numbers are hard to find, but cities like San Francisco and Oakland had reportedly given out about 1,500 masks each as of this week. Many locations ran out in minutes. In Sacramento, where the air quality is much worse, the state government had provided about 67,000 free masks as of a few days ago. San Francisco and Oakland have a combined population of about 1.3 million, while Sacramento has a population of around 500,000.

Breathing the hazardous smoke from these fires is bad for everyone, but the dangers are particularly severe for children, the elderly, and people with conditions like asthma.

The air is also especially dangerous for homeless people. Homelessness has skyrocketed over the last several decades in the Bay Area, as the tech boom has made the area one of the most expensive housing markets in the world to live. The crisis has worsened in recent years, with nearly 3,000 people living on the street in the city of Oakland alone, a 25 percent increase from two years ago, while Alameda County is home to more than 5,600 people without regular shelter. There are at least 7,500 people living without shelter in San Francisco.

Age alone makes the homeless population more at risk to the dangers of wildfire smoke. A 2016 study found that 50 percent of homeless adults are over 50, compared to 11 percent 30 years ago. Most of Oakland’s homeless live in camps outdoors, where they are exposed to air conditions outside 24/7.

On November 9, when the smoke from the Camp Fire began making its way down to Oakland, Redwoods said they immediately started receiving texts asking if Mask Oakland was responding. They threw up a tweet asking for donations, expecting a few dollars.

The tweet, carried by the trending #CaliforniaFires hashtag, was seen by 100,000 people. Over 12 days, Mask Oakland received over $80,000 in donations through their Venmo account and distributed 40,000 masks. When Northern California hardware stores and construction supplies distributors were sold out, Mask Oakland organized a delivery of 50,000 more masks from Los Angeles, and called on a friend of a friend to drive them up to Oakland. “I feel weird solidarity whenever I see anyone else wearing a mask now,” Redwoods said.

Redwoods said that the city of Oakland has reached out to the organization and begun talks about how to collaborate. “We’ve had some contact from some government offices, it’s like the very beginning of those conversations,” they said. “It takes a second year for you guys to even start discussing that maybe you should do something? Where was the emergency action plan, why are we all in this cloud of denial?”

When disasters like the Camp Fire strike, as they do with horrifying regularity these days, these are often the stories you hear: Regular people taking on enormous responsibility with no training or experience. From Superstorm Sandy to last year’s Hurricane Maria, ad hoc organizations often deliver more essential support to victims than government entities like FEMA or massive, multinational NGOs like Red Cross. While government officials drag their feet, blaming the disasters and their failed relief efforts on everyone but themselves, some activists are developing a model of disaster response that looks more like Mask Oakland than the stumbling federal bureaucracy we’ve all come to know.

Mutual Aid Disaster Relief (MADR) is a loose, national collective of activists who came together after multiple large scale natural disasters. Organizer Jimmy Dunson described the group to Splinter as “a people powered, decentralized, liberatory disaster relief effort based on the principles of solidarity, mutual aid, and autonomous direct action.”

The modern concept of mutual aid was first outlined by Russian anarchist Peter Kropotkin in his 1902 book Mutual Aid: A Factor of Evolution, in which he discussed a natural impulse towards cooperation among animals and humans. MADR’s definition of mutual aid hews closely to Kropotkin’s original ideas. Dunson defines mutual aid as a “voluntary, participatory, reciprocal exchange among equals. It’s not powerful givers of aid on one end and powerless receivers on the other. Instead, we’re all in this together we all see our common humanity and shared struggle.”

This ideology is the opposite of the disaster capitalism described by Naomi Klein in her book The Shock Doctrine. Instead of taking advantage of traumatized communities for profit, activists involved in MADR believe in using disaster recovery as an opportunity to bring people together for the shared goal of survival.

“We see disasters as different in degree but not in kind from the daily disaster of economic and social inequality and injustice in society,” Dunson said. “We address people’s needs as they exist after a disaster, but if we are serious about a just recovery after a fire or flood or hurricane or earthquake, that recovery has got to include everybody, not just people who were OK before the storm or disaster.”

That’s where MADR stepped in, aiming to create a model that would allow local communities affected by disasters to jump right into helping each other after a disaster, without going through a national bureaucracy to figure out what should be done. Dunson said that their goal is “not to supplant or replace spontaneous local mutual aid efforts but to complement them, and to have a national network for them to tap into.”

On November 10, the day after the Camp Fire began, Chico, CA-based organizer Miles (who prefers to be identified by his first name) posted calls on social media for a gathering to address the developing situation. He told Splinter that the meeting that night at Blackbird, a Chico anarchist bookstore and cafe, was totally packed.

“We had about 100 people there,” Miles said.

As it happens, MADR had traveled through California just weeks before this year’s fires broke out, teaching workshops on their model to the very communities that are now in crisis. Because of their training, when the fire broke out, Miles and others knew what to do immediately.

Other local leftist organizations have similarly embraced the methods of mutual aid and direct action. The Chico Democratic Socialists of America isn’t a fully recognized national chapter, and has only a handful of regularly active members, but they mobilized immediately around the fires. Like Mask Oakland, they seek to include everyone in their activism, rather than focus only on fire victims who were doing well before the disaster. (I am a member of a different DSA chapter.)

“There’s this huge push to collect all these donations, supplies for the people who were evacuated and lost their homes, but we already had a large refugee community in Chico, around 1,500 to 2,000 people that live in public spaces,” Erik Apland, a Chico DSA member, told Splinter. “The people who were already homeless, they’re still in the same parks where they normally sleep, but [in the aftermath of the fire] it got way colder, and the air quality became horrible.”

Now, Chico DSA, aided by DSA chapters in Sacramento, the East Bay and San Francisco, are both addressing immediate needs—in some cases working with groups like North Valley Mutual Aid—and thinking about long-term implications of the fires. This includes addressing California’s pre-existing housing crisis with strategies like a proposed rent strike, and organizing against the region’s dominant energy utility, PG&E. That last one could be especially important. PG&E’s downed line may have caused the fire, and it has been repeatedly protected from accountability by state government; even now, lawmakers are scrambling to bail it out and shield it from any potential liabilities it may incur as a result of the disaster.

The objection that MADR other activist groups have to governmental organizations like FEMA, and international NGOs like the Red Cross, is both practical and ideological. Both organizations have had huge, public failures over the last few years, whether it was Red Cross’ corruption in Haiti after the 2010 earthquake, or FEMA’s famously inept response to Hurricane Katrina. FEMA doesn’t seem to have learned much since then—they’ve also struggled in response to more recent disasters, like last year’s Hurricane Maria.

Mutual aid organizers argue that this is nearly always true when it comes to efforts by large organizations to respond to disasters. How could a massive government agency, or international NGO, know the intricacies of a community they’ve probably never visited?

In their report on the aftermath of Maria, FEMA even mentioned mutual aid as one of the foundations of its strategy for the future. They also discussed the need to simplify FEMA structure to eliminate bureaucracy. One of the report’s recommendations for the future was to “work with whole community partners to improve risk management.” They acknowledge that when many disasters happen at once, as they did in 2017’s hurricane season, it’s unrealistic that one big governmental organization will have the means to respond to all of them.

On the NGO side, things are a little bleaker. Every disaster now seems to come with an article about how the Red Cross failed to live up to expectations. One problem is how hard it is to measure how effective these responses are. Bills proposed by Congress to place more oversight on the Red Cross haven’t yet made it into law.

“We’ve seen from Katrina onwards that the official responses [to disasters] are really ineffectual and a lot of times actually harmful,” Miles told Splinter. “The idea of this big, bureaucratic, one-size-fits-all authoritative system. People flying in who have no connection to our communities at all telling us what we need and just as quickly leaving. We’re trying to create a different model, bottom up, that’s run by the people that are impacted the most.”

Anarchist mutual aid organizations, and leftist groups like DSA, see disasters as a brief window of opportunity, when communities must come together, and are therefore more receptive to alternative ideas about how they might interact to help each other. For some, that just means going out and talking to people on the ground, encouraging the idea of communities helping themselves, building networks that will hopefully last beyond the fires.

For others, it could mean pressing the government on issues that existed before the disaster, but that are now an even bigger concern. Chico DSA put out a statement days after the fire started outlining their positions on everything from climate change to the California housing crisis. Bay Resistance, one of the organizations working with Mask Oakland, also released a list of demands, including providing free masks to everyone and pushing back against oil companies causing pollution and climate change.

DSA’s approach combines using strategies like direct action and mutual aid with pushing for change through electoral means and traditional protest and activism, while organizations like MADR eschew any interaction with conventional hierarchies. But both groups see disaster recovery as a respite from the isolation and disempowerment that often feels inescapable for communities living under capitalism. As climate change creates more frequent and intense disasters, many of these activists believe that mutual aid is the only way out of our worsening political and ecological conditions.

“[A]t the same time that there’s all this devastation and loss and suffering, people are able to work outside the dictates of the market and come together to meet each other’s needs,” Dunson said. “It’s almost like a spell has been broken. There are often these walls that divide us, and when disaster hits, those walls crack. Through the cracks, we can see each other.”

In the Oakland parking lot, a yellow, 26-foot truck pulled in, driven by a young woman wearing a patched jacket and beanie. Everyone cheered. J and Cassandra pulled open the back and began to unload the 50,000 masks that they would distribute to local organizations and volunteers. For a few minutes, it was unclear who was a journalist and who was an activist—while everyone was wearing a mask, we all looked the same.

Standing on the back of the truck, Redwoods addressed the dozen assembled people. “It’s bittersweet,” they said. “This is people power, this is what we believe in. But also people are dead, houses are destroyed. We are helping people who have been neglected for so long.”

Amid the flurry of activity, a man with a boombox blasting ‘80s R&B strolled by on the way to a small enclosure of tiny houses built for the homeless behind the imposing Oakland Auditorium.

“Hey, you want a mask?” Redwoods called out. “Yes!” the man, who we learned was named Dexter, replied. Redwoods instructed him on how to use the mask effectively as journalists, back in reporting mode, snapped photos. Redwoods fastened the mask around the man’s head.

“Much better!” Dexter said thankfully.

Redwoods gave him 30 more masks to distribute to his neighbors. “We need ‘em,” Dexter said. “A lot of people are staying inside because they can’t breathe. This is Lake Merritt! We want to go out and see the lake and the birds.”

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