21 for ’21: How Loma Prieta recovery memories helped guide Ryan Coonerty’s 2020 leadership approach

Ryan Coonerty
(Kevin Painchaud/Lookout Santa Cruz)

Third District County Supervisor Ryan Coonerty was already having a difficult year before the August fires tested his skills at communications, logistics, and emergency management. A key question for 2021: ‘How are we going to help each other?’

Among other things, 2020 has been savage on Ryan Coonerty’s sleep life.

Working as a county supervisor is rarely conducive to a solid eight hours a night under normal circumstances. But the past year brought with it catastrophes that had the psychic reach to disrupt anyone’s dreamland.

As Third District Supervisor in Santa Cruz County, Coonerty was buffetted by threats and tragedies both wide-ranging and narrowly focused. The pandemic represented an unprecedented peril to the county’s public health and its economy, and it was Coonerty’s job to worry about that, and act on it.

Then, in June, Coonerty suffered a personal loss when his staff analyst and long-time friend Allison Endert — who also worked for Coonerty’s father Neal Coonerty when he was county supervisor — was killed as a pedestrian in a drunk-driving incident.

Lookout's 21 for '21

EDITOR’S NOTE: We’re profiling 21 individuals who made a difference in pandemic-and-wildfire-ravaged Santa Cruz County in 2020 — and how they’re looking toward recovery in 2021. Have suggestions about others we should pick? Email us at news@lookoutlocal.com

And all that was before the fires.

The CZU Lightning Complex fires of August burned more than 86,000 acres, a huge portion of that within Coonerty’s district, including the communities of Bonny Doon, Swanton, Davenport, and Last Chance. In this case, Coonerty’s sleeplessness wasn’t a result of anxiety or worry, but from a need to play a crucial role in real time with lives potentially on the line.

During the most dangerous nights of the fire, Coonerty was up all night at his Westside home, serving as a critical conduit between firefighters and his constituents. “I just sat in my kitchen,” he said, “trying to get information out to people as quickly and clearly as I possibly could.”

Like many others in Santa Cruz County, Coonerty was mesmerized by the dry lightning storm that preceded the fires. “I went down to the cliffs with seemingly half of Santa Cruz to watch it. It’s something that I had never seen in a lifetime in Santa Cruz

“I feel naïve now that, when I was watching, I didn’t connect the lightning with fire, at least the extreme kind of fire that we had. It was just so out of the blue. It just goes to show how rare these lightning strikes were that we didn’t have a context for what they would mean.”

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Within 48 hours, much of northern Santa Cruz County was threatened or already engulfed in a rapidly metastasizing wildfire. As a county supervisor, Coonerty’s authority was limited. The state, through CalFire, made the critical decisions of firefighting and evacuation. Coonerty’s primary role was to communicate — to relay to people in the threatened areas when and where to evacuate, and to keep CalFire informed of what he was hearing from his sources on the ground.

“The first challenge was just to help people get out to safety and off the mountain,” he said. “Then it became clear that people had a lot of animals in danger, and we needed to figure out somewhere to take them.”

Using mostly Facebook and texts, Coonerty contacted the county’s animal services to arrange for animals to be brought to the county fairgrounds. He stayed in contact with people in Bonny Doon, helping many evacuate even before CalFire issued official evacuation orders.

Of course, the CZU fire was only one of about 400 fires burning from those same lightning storms across California. That meant Santa Cruz County simply didn’t have the level of outside assistance it needed to contain the fire. Coonerty leaned on the region’s state and federal representatives for help.

Ryan Coonerty
Coonerty’s primary role during the fire was to communicate — to relay to people in the threatened areas when and where to evacuate.
(Kevin Painchaud/Lookout Santa Cruz)

The days following the fires would provide no relief from the sleepless nights. Communications worked well in Bonny Doon, but not so much in remote areas of Swanton and Last Chance where crucial communications infrastructure was destroyed in the fire. What’s more, smoke and fire threatened UC Santa Cruz and the Westside. More people were in need of more information.

Throughout it all, a seminal experience from more than 30 years ago kept Coonerty from slipping into panic or paralysis. He was a teenager in 1989 when the Loma Prieta Earthquake brought Santa Cruz County to its knees, and his parents Neal and Candy Coonerty were central players in Santa Cruz’s immediate and long-term response to the earthquake.

“In some ways, that was a helpful frame because I did remember how much the community rallied after the earthquake to take care of each other. And even though we were in the middle of COVID and the economic crisis when (the fires) were going on, it was reassuring, having been through (the earthquake) and come out the other side, to know that this community has that kind of caring and resilience.”

Even as the fire’s immediate danger began to wane, enormous logistical challenges remained in moving evacuees to safe spaces and determining when they would be able to return, in funneling donations from the community to places where they would help people on the ground. And when those problems were addressed, there remained the vexing question: What about next time?

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As he prepares to address the potential for debris flow disasters in the fire-ravaged regions with the approach of winter storms, Coonerty said that the community has to face the prospect that natural disasters will continue to shape everyday life in the region and to work to be on a better footing when it comes to preparation.

“We can build for rising seas and more intense fires, but it’s also about creating a mindset, among government yes, but among the citizenry too. How are we going to prepare ourselves?” he said. “And how are we going to help each other? We saw a lot of good after the earthquake in the relationships that were built and the trust that came out of that. And I think we’ll see it again now for whatever the future holds.”

As for the increasing threat of the pandemic, Coonerty is optimistic. “I think we’re headed for a couple of months of really difficult times. But there’s a light at the end of the tunnel. It’s just getting through the rest of the tunnel is going to be tough.”