After fleeing California’s devastating Camp Fire, Victor Marino set up a tent in behind a church in Oroville, where he slept last week even as the temperature dropped into the 40s.
He posted a plea for help on a Facebook group for survivors, and a stranger paid for him to stay in a motel for a few nights this week. But he can only stay there until Thanksgiving — and he has no idea where he’s going to sleep next.
Marino, 26, is one of more than 13,000 evacuees in Butte County who have applied to FEMA for disaster assistance to help with housing and other basic needs after the worst fire in California's history, which left at least 83 dead and 563 possibly missing as of Wednesday night. Like many of those who were displaced, he is still stuck in limbo and scrambling for a place to live.
“There are so many people displaced out of their homes — where’s everybody going to go?” said Marino, who worked as a handyman and property manager at a trailer park in Magalia.
FEMA told Marino on Wednesday that he would receive $847 for one month of housing assistance, he said. But since he doesn’t have a bank account, FEMA said it would have to send the money directly to his mailing address — at the trailer park that he had to flee. “I’m very grateful for the money they are going to help me with, but I’m going to have to jump through hoops all over again,” he said.
The Camp Fire destroyed 13,500 homes, and FEMA says that it has given out $4.95 million in housing assistance in Butte County so far, which includes money for temporary housing in hotels, rental apartments and Airbnbs, as well as home repairs. The assistance aims to give evacuees a more stable place to live beyond the emergency shelters, which have experienced outbreaks of norovirus, among other challenges.
Let our news meet your inbox. The news and stories that matters, delivered weekday mornings.
Fire survivors can apply for assistance at a disaster recovery center FEMA set up at the shopping mall in Chico, where people can also connect with private disaster relief efforts. The California Community Foundation, for example, has raised $5 million so far for wildfire survivors' housing, medical assistance and other basic needs.
The FEMA application process can be bureaucratic and confusing, residents say. Nichole Jolly, 34, had a rental property in Paradise that was destroyed, and she is also displaced from her home in Magalia, which has smoke damage that she's waiting for her insurance company to assess. She said FEMA denied her request for displacement assistance since she has insurance coverage and a home to return to, even though she told them she can't go back yet.
FEMA says its mission is to focus on assisting those who don’t have homeowner’s or rental insurance. The agency offered Jolly a low-interest disaster loan, but she said she can't afford to take one out. "We don't want to go into debt," she said.
“There are so many people in the same boat," said Ron Zimmer, pastor of Chico’s East Ave Church, which is sheltering survivors. "The lines are so long, it takes most of a day just to register with FEMA and nobody knows exactly what FEMA is supposed to do for them." Marino said FEMA denied his initial application for help replacing the motor home he lived in since the vehicle wasn’t registered under his name in California.
Those who receive housing assistance will still need to find a place to stay in a region that was already facing a serious housing shortage even before disaster struck. “There aren’t a whole bunch of vacant homes to be rented or thousands of hotel rooms at that scale,” said Amie Fishman, executive director of the Non-Profit Housing Association of Northern California, which advocates for affordable housing.
"It's not the typical renting time right now. You get all excited and you find something, but then you call and they say you're number 150 on the list," said Monica Evans, 44, a Paradise resident with three daughters who is searching for housing.
FEMA is working with state officials to develop a plan for bringing manufactured housing and trailers to the area, “evaluating each survivor’s housing needs” to determine how many units are needed, according to FEMA spokesman Bradly Pierce.
In the meantime, the agency is encouraging evacuees to look farther afield for somewhere to stay. “We realize there are availability issues in Butte County, so survivors having difficulty locating rooms there have the option of staying in Sacramento and surrounding cities as well,” said Pierce, pointing to a website with FEMA-approved hotels.
But Sacramento is 90 miles away from Chico, where many Camp Fire survivors are staying. For evacuees like Marino who lost their vehicles, even getting across town to another shelter or to pick up donated supplies can be daunting. “The biggest problem is transportation because everything is so spread out,” he said.
Jessica Kester, 29, applied through FEMA’s website for rental assistance and heard on Friday that it was approved. She’s now planning to move into a townhouse in the town of Willow with her husband, 18-month-old daughter, and two nieces. Her monthly rent will be $350 more than she was paying in Paradise, so the assistance “was really, really helpful,” she said. “No one normally just has that extra money.”
Zimmer, the local pastor, worries about what will happen to those who can’t find a more stable place to live soon. “How many of these people living on the cusp already will become a new wave of homeless?”
Marino has a GoFundMe page that’s helped him raise $200 to buy a new RV. But he’s more concerned about other families from his trailer park that he is trying to help, with children as young as 2. “One of them is a family of five, and they’re sleeping outside,” he said on Wednesday. “And it’s started raining today.”
Suzy Khimm is a national reporter for NBC News, focused on investigating federal agencies.
Kalhan Rosenblatt is a reporter for NBC News, based in New York.