It was blustery in Pescadero on Thursday when Olma O’Neill arrived at the elementary school. She had been in the process of purchasing her Whitehouse Canyon home when the CZU August Lightning Complex fires tore through, and in just a matter of hours, it — and everything else in the vicinity — was gone.
“It was our home,” O’Neill said. “We were expecting to go back, so we don't have anything with us. We didn't pack anything.”
Now, O’Neill, among others, was trying to get help with recovery.
San Mateo County opened the Local Assistance Center at Pescadero Elementary School on Sept. 2 to aid wildfire victims. The center, which is open from 10 a.m. to 7 p.m.
seven days a week, is being run by the Federal Emergency Management Agency in collaboration with the San Mateo County Office of Human Services.
Health checks are being administered at the entrance to the center, which is set up like a resource fair with tents and stations for each department. Visitors first register with FEMA, get assigned a case number and have a consultation about their file to better understand what departments they may need to follow up with or what long-term assistance they may need. Once registered, residents will receive regular follow-up with FEMA.
“It’s what we call one-stop shopping,” FEMA Manager Judy Gonsalves said. “We try to give them as much help as we can.”
Inside the Pescadero Elementary School gym, representatives from numerous agencies — including the county’s Aging and Adult Services, Veterans Services Office, and Behavioral Health and Recovery Services — were ready to answer questions and help residents fill out applications for help, or just to be a listening ear.
“We’re here right now in case anyone just needs support,” said Ally Hoppis from BHRS. “We’re here just to be someone to talk to.”
Walter Mayeda from the Farm Services Agency was onsite helping residents get information about applying for federal assistance due to agricultural losses, and Deborah Leedy-Zamorah was helping business owners who needed an extension on their tax return, relief of penalty or help recovering lost business records.
Each of the providers said they hadn’t had much traffic in the first days after opening but expected more residents to trickle in as word spread about the resources available. Puente de la Costa Sur staff were also available at its office next door, where staff are coordinating with HSA to keep track of cases and assist residents in need.
O’Neill said for evacuees like herself, initially, it felt like no one was there to help.
“We didn't get an evacuation order,” O’Neill said. “By the time anything was posted on a CZU site, it was too late. It just seemed like nobody was coming.”
But after getting connected with the American Red Cross and Puente at the evacuation center, O’Neill said she was able to find a safe place to stay and regular meals, and with the help of her case manager and mental health resources, she feels like she can begin the process of navigating disaster relief. She came on Thursday hoping to get more information.
“These centers that they’ve set up, this kind of thing, is super helpful,” O’Neill said. “When you’re in this state of mind, we feel like zombies walking around. It helps for someone to tell you, ‘OK, this is what you need to do,’” O’Neill said.
The Red Cross was set up in the gym distributing N95 masks and taking in names and contacts of people to be assigned to a case worker who will follow up regularly. Public Information Officer Dave Wagner said in the near term, the Red Cross helped replace medical equipment and prescription medications and provided housing for 4,000 residents across both counties during the evacuations.
Many residents, especially on the San Mateo County side, have returned home but are still in need of help, Wagner said, so the Red Cross has vans that drive around assisting people with personal hygiene and cleanup. For those like O’Neill whose homes were destroyed, the Red Cross will help direct them to FEMA and other agencies who can help.
“We are engaged until everyone gets to a stable place,” Wagner said. “Until their home is repaired or rebuilt.”
O’Neill said she is planning to rebuild her home, and so are most of her neighbors.
“We’re all in the same thing together,” O’Neill said. “Our goal is to rebuild that neighborhood.”