A small town in Oregon is trying to keep its residents from leaving after wildfires
Talent, Ore., is trying to prevent an exodus of residents after recent wildfires. The city is providing temporary trailers and other services to keep families from abandoning the small town.
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When a climate disaster hits, displaced people scatter, and many never return home. Reporter Katia Riddle has a story of a town in Southern Oregon that's tried to prevent this kind of exodus.
KATIA RIDDLE, BYLINE: Ask people in Talent, Ore., about the fire, and there's one thing you hear again and again. Until it happens to you, you can't understand.
DARBY AYERS-FLOOD: I'd liken it to standing at the Grand Canyon for the first time. You just can't reconcile what you're looking at.
RIDDLE: It's been 16 months since the Alameda Fire leveled this town. There were close to 7,000 people there at the time. Darby Ayers-Flood cries when she recalls seeing her burnt-down home for the first time.
AYERS-FLOOD: There was a piece of the picket fence left and the cement staircase that went to the front door. And, you know, that's the front yard where I had birthday parties and a life there with my children.
RIDDLE: She and her wife scrambled to pick up the pieces of their lives. Ayers-Flood also had much bigger problems to think about. That's because she's the mayor of Talent. For guidance on rebuilding, she turned to some people with experience.
AYERS-FLOOD: We listened to lessons learned from Paradise.
RIDDLE: The town of Paradise, Calif., is about four hours to the south. It was gutted in a fire several years previous. Paradise saw much of their community slip away forever. Ayers-Flood realized that FEMA's help would not be enough.
UNIDENTIFIED CHILD: I want a yogurt.
NATALIE GILBERT: You want a yogurt.
RIDDLE: Natalie Gilbert is the sort of person the mayor feared would suffer the most. Gilbert's feeding her 4-year-old son breakfast on this day.
UNIDENTIFIED CHILD: I'll open mine.
RIDDLE: When the fire hit, Gilbert's house was destroyed, but she didn't have proof of a rental agreement and didn't receive any federal assistance. The fire radically increased rents overnight.
GILBERT: The rent is two or three times what your income is.
RIDDLE: For more than a year, she and her four kids slept wherever they could find shelter. Until a few weeks ago, there were cramped in a tiny travel trailer on the outskirts of town.
GILBERT: Where we were at wasn't a doable situation.
RIDDLE: Then Gilbert heard about the city's new housing project for displaced fire victims. It holds 52 RVs. They're twice the size of that trailer and brand-new, walking distance to the kids' school. Gilbert's new home accommodates her whole family.
GILBERT: This couch also comes down and turns into a bed.
RIDDLE: City leaders used over $2 million from private donations to build this transitional housing. At 12, Sarah is the oldest of the children in this family.
SARAH: I like this area.
RIDDLE: She's sitting in her new living room. Having multiple rooms is a luxury.
SARAH: There's a couch, and there's the TV here.
RIDDLE: Sarah seems happy on this day, but she's been withdrawn over the last year, quiet.
TRACY KOA: For some kids, it's - you know, they shut down. They aren't interested in building relationships with friends or teachers or staff.
RIDDLE: Tracy Koa says many students here have endured a pandemic, a natural disaster and ongoing displacement. She coordinates social services at the school. There are at least 400 homeless students there.
KOA: I mean, there's families living in their cars.
RIDDLE: Koa is working this month to move more of these families into the new RV development. Still, Mayor Ayers-Flood estimates the town has lost at least 25% of its population. And she has a message for other communities facing disaster.
AYERS-FLOOD: You have to act fast to get people back home.
AILSA CHANG, HOST:
That was reporter Katie Riddle in Talent, Ore. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.