A Lookout View: ‘Build back better’ sounds great. But who is paying and when?

President Joe Biden and Gov. Gavin Newsom outside Zelda's On The Beach in Capitola Village.
(Susan Walsh / Associated Press via pool)

Editorial: Yes, Santa Cruzans are resilient, but this next recovery is fraught with challenges and questions. They begin with money, but now include lots of questions driven by climate change and equity.

Editor’s note: A Lookout View is the opinion of our Community Voices opinion section, written by Community Voices Editor Jody K. Biehl and Lookout Founder Ken Doctor. Our goal is to connect the dots we see in the news and offer a bigger-picture view — all intended to see Santa Cruz County meet the challenges of the day and to shine a light on issues we believe must be on the public agenda. These views are distinct and independent from the work of our newsroom and its reporting.

The number is hard to forget: $70 million.

That’s the amount the County of Santa Cruz says the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) still owes to help residents recover from the brutal storms of 2017 and the hellfire of the 2020 CZU fires.

That’s a lot of money for a county our size.

And not a promising statistic, as the county now seeks to wrangle new funds for the 2023 storms out of the feds. The still-missing money is instructive to all of us enmeshed in the 2023 New Year’s skyrivers-without-end crisis.

The lesson is a tough one: Recovery takes time, is full of bureaucratic hurdles and will run into as many blocked doors as open ones.

Ask the CZU families aiming to rebuild, as we’ve done, and you will see the kaleidoscope of issues the rebuilding process — a seemingly simple concept — unfurls.

We will bet on the resiliency of Santa Cruzans. Our community has proved itself again and again. Through floods and earthquakes and wildfires. Living on the edge of, or within, nature, we see ourselves tested time and again by nature’s heedless treatment of us encroaching humans. But we love it here, and we bounce back, and are used to doing so.

Resiliency alone, though, can’t drive rebuilding structures — and lives. That takes money.

Picture, for a moment, the rebuilding resident, a chainsaw in one hand and a FEMA form in the other. FEMA’s job is to expedite and fund rebuilding after natural disasters. It’s supposed to help pay for the wood (and labor) that will put that chainsaw to good use.

President Joe Biden’s recent visit to Capitola, Aptos and the skies above the Santa Cruz Mountains brought hope. He saw our mud and muck, our broken piers and the logs protruding through restaurant walls and listened to our residents talk of ruined lives and businesses.

That hope comes in the form of FEMA money.

But when? And again, what about the $70 million still owed?

Clearly, FEMA is not a fast-moving operation. Paperwork can take years to resolve.

Does that make FEMA the villain? Not entirely — that would be too easy, a knee-jerk blaming of the federal government, sowing unnecessary distrust. But it is worth asking what takes so long, if FEMA itself is underfunded and what those affected are supposed to do as they wait.

We have no deep knowledge of the agency, but local officials are quick to point out that FEMA itself needs a boost — especially in the light of the climate change-driven rapid increase in destructive weather.

Money — state money and federal money, and insurance money — and getting it into the hands of the right residents and property owners is just one of the big issues recovery raises.

Another is what building back actually means. Take two of the most-heard phrases now gaining currency.

There’s “Build Back Better,” a Bidenism borrowed from the president’s infrastructure effort. The idea: Don’t rebuild to the old standards or codes, but to what we now know about climate change-anticipating standards.

Sounds like a good idea, but who will pay to make it happen? Will FEMA foot the bill for “better” builds?

How long will it take to determine what “better” means? And how equitable will the decision-making be — will be less-monied voices of those living in the mountains and South County be heard fairly?

We are not optimistic, given the 2017 track record.

Then there’s “managed retreat,” a phrase that probably needs better wording, but which brings to surface a real issue: Does it make sense to rebuild in areas that are now clearly more susceptible to flooding, slides or fire?

In 20 B.C, the Roman orator Horace wrote, “Drive out nature though you will with a pitchfork, yet she will always hurry back, and before you know it, will break through your perverse disdain in triumph.”

Did he have it right? Should we retreat and look for new places to build? In an area such as ours where unused buildable land is at a premium, where would we retreat to?

Add to these the question of the many new building plans for housing now in the works. Presumably, they’re in “safer” territory, but with flood-plain mapping — it’s more than a 100-year-flood we’re concerned about — are they all being sited properly for the decades ahead? And do those flood plain maps themselves need rigorous updating, for those of us on lower levels than we thought we were?

Perhaps, the question that ties everything together: How will our city, county and state leaders, numerous ones who are newly elected, proactively collaborate to make this 2023 recovery plan as efficient as possible?

Those are among our top questions as Lookout launches our Storms 2023: Road to Recovery section Monday. What are yours?

Send us your thoughts, tips and intelligent solutions, for our Community Voices opinion section, our Letters to the Editor or for our reporters to look into.

We are on this journey to rebuild together.

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