HMB HS Evacuation Center
Puente staff and volunteers have been integral to the success of an evacuation center, first at Pescadero High school and then at Half Moon Bay High School. Adam Pardee / Review

Where there’s smoke, there’s fire. And where there’s fire, there is Puente de la Costa Sur.

Puente is the South Coast nonprofit that’s been helping to lead the relief efforts after the CZU August Lightning Complex fire began burning outside of Loma Mar, staffing and organizing the evacuation center and gearing up to support evacuees in the long term, well after the wildfire crisis is over.

Although it may come as a surprise that a local nonprofit, as opposed to local government, would head important aspects of emergency relief efforts, Puente Executive Director Rita Mancera said the organization has been ready for this day. Puente staff receive extensive emergency response, mental health, shelter and disaster training.

“We actually have done a lot of work on emergency preparedness,” Mancera said. “But this one is much bigger than anything we could have imagined.”

If you ask a local what Puente does, the answer is usually “everything.” The nonprofit is the core agency serving South Coast residents with programs that are community-led and designed to meet the needs of the greater Pescadero area. During the COVID-19 pandemic, the group has been working to provide meals, school supplies and financial relief to families affected by the crisis who weren’t otherwise able to access aid.

At the head of it all is Mancera, who has been serving as Puente’s executive director for the past four years after joining Puente in 2006. Mancera said she never expected her tenure to include such a cocktail of crises.

“I’ve done my lifetime of emergencies,” Mancera said.

Working alongside Mancera and her team is the San Mateo County Human Services Agency, the American Red Cross and two other local nonprofits, Coastside Hope and Ayudando Latinos a Soñar. Coastside Hope Executive Director Judith Guerrero said when she got the call from Mancera saying that the evacuation center was moving to Half Moon Bay and more help was needed on the ground, she didn’t blink an eye.

“I didn't hesitate, not only because it's Rita, but because it's our neighbors, and we want to be part of the solution providing relief,” Guerrero said.

Guerrero sees her organization’s role during this crisis as supporting Puente and Rita anywhere help is needed, filling in the gaps. She said the fact that local nonprofits are at the head of emergency response helps residents feel safe during a traumatic event.

“I can’t imagine a knock on the door, a strange face,” Guerrero said. “… It provides reassurance that you’re going to be OK, and says, ‘You needed to leave your home, but we’re here for you.’”

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