Betty Britt returned home Wednesday for the first time in nearly a year to a house she’d never seen before.
Last year, the Erskine Fire ripped through her South Lake neighborhood in a merciless roar, robbing her of her house, her car and a lifetime of belongings.
It took the Arizona cypress trees that once shaded her patio and house from the afternoon sun.
It turned the rose bush at her front gate, covered with red blooms the last time she saw it, into a skeletal web of twigs.
And it made her a wanderer, living first with one of her three living children and then another.
But last week she got the keys to her new two-bedroom home.
“It’s not home if you’re living with somebody else,” she said.
Kern County Supervisor Mick Gleason walked her up the long steel ramp to the front door of the tall white trailer, moving slowly as she sauntered along behind her walker, her simple straw hat shading her face and the simple red blouse with the beaded lace at the neck.
Gleason, she said, was the first one to give her hope.
“I never expected to have another home here until you called me,” she told him.
Britt finally got the keys last Wednesday to one of the 27 mobile home units brought to South Lake through a unique partnership between the Federal Emergency Management Agency, the California Office of Emergency Services, the County of Kern and a host of giving businesses and nonprofit volunteers.
Together, Gleason, with his r-deficient New England accent, and Britt, with her gentle Kentucky drawl, went inside.
“It’s bigger than I thought it would be,” she said.
Driving through South Lake is still a bit like driving through the remains of a ghost town.
The Erskine Fire gutted the modest community of houses and mobile homes.
Here and there, new residences are rising from the ground. But the newest changes to the landscape are the stark white trailers, long, thin and tall, that have sprouted like shiny new teeth in spots along nearly every street.
For many residents who didn’t have insurance or couldn’t rebuild on their own, the fire was the end of their hopes of a home.
Then Kern County got lucky.
A small village of FEMA manufactured housing units were sitting unused in Northern California.
They had been intended as temporary housing for victims of another disaster.
Georgianna Armstrong, Kern County’s emergency services manager, said a deputy director at the California Office of Emergency Services named Nancy Ward pitched the idea of taking those FEMA “MHUs” and turning them into permanent housing for Erskine victims.
What came next, Armstrong said, was a unique project that danced through a spider web of bureaucracy, logistics, construction difficulties, contracts and complications to bring 27 families back home.
Cal OES, Armstrong said, made a deal with FEMA.
FEMA gave the homes to the state for free.
The state signed a contract with the County of Kern to bring the units to South Lake, and the county, powered by state funds, made it happen with the help of a passionate volunteer community in the Kern River Valley.
Geoffrey Hill, acting assistant county administrative officer for Kern County’s General Services Division, ticked off all the departments that chipped in to make the project happen.
His team coordinated moving the units down to the Mojave Air and Space Port where they were stored while the properties were cleared and prepared for installation.
The Public Works Department and the Environmental Health Division handled inspection and clearance of the homes once they were installed, making sure they were ready for people.
The Planning and Community Development Department worked with the residents to make sure that those who needed and wanted the homes the most would get them.
The Kern County Counsel’s office drew up the contracts that would, within three years, transfer ownership of the MHUs to the residents, free of charge, as long as they lived there until that time.
The federal Bureau of Land Management offered up some clean fill dirt for free when the county found out that some of the properties that were slated to get the MHUs had had massive amounts of earth removed for safety reasons.
Everyone pulled together to clear hurdles and make things happen.
There were delays and frustration, of course. But the job got done.
“This is how government should work. We worked cooperatively. We got all the stakeholders around the table,” Hill said. “We re-homed 27 and are helping to rebuild the community.”
WORK TO DO
But the job isn’t over.
Many more lots sit vacant and empty in South Lake and, just a month before the one-year anniversary of the Erskine Fire, the community is still struggling with fallout from the disaster.
The county will continue to play a role in helping the area recover, Hill said.
“The last part of a disaster is the recovery. We are in recovery mode,” he said. “This is rebuilding a community. This is not letting the community die.”
There’s a lot of work left to do, said Justin Powers, chairman of the nonprofit volunteer Kern Valley Long Term Recovery Group.
His team has been working to help people find places to stay while they wait for their situation to be resolved.
They’ve helped with deposits to get people into rental homes.
They are working with Mennonite Disaster Services, a nonprofit that will build homes for individuals if the recovery group can fund material costs.
And the recovery group is, the county said, working to pay for washers and dryers for the new residents in MHUs. Those were the only two appliances that didn’t come with the homes.
Many Erskine Fire victims still need help.
And the Kern River Valley is working, Powers said, to get them home.
Britt wandered through her new home last Wednesday with Gleason, a crew from the county’s television channel, and a gaggle of reporters and county housing workers in tow.
She took in the fully furnished kitchen, the small kitchen table, the couch and chair upholstered in warm brown.
There were beds in the bedrooms, a microwave, bedding and supplies of all sorts.
Britt pulled a bottle of dishwashing liquid out of a gift basket and chuckled.
“Oh, that puts me to work,” she said.
Then she put Gleason to work.
The kitchen table belongs in the corner, she said.
He hopped to move it with help from a KGOV technician.
There was more talk. Even a few tears. Then Gleason gave Britt a hug and he and the other visitors headed out, giving her room to move in the carload of her stuff waiting outside with her daughter.
“I don’t think about what I lost because it bothers me too much,” Britt said in a quiet moment amid the hubbub.
But, of course, she does remember.
“I lost all my pictures. I had three suitcases of pictures and I lost them all.”
She had a lifetime of collectibles, a part of her life she treasured.
“I’m not a collector anymore,” she said.
But she planned to move in over the weekend and begin the process of making the most of what she does have.
She is glad, she said, to be coming home.