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Healing from Community Trauma : In the Wake of the Thomas Fire

Santa Barbara Beach_Abby Rappoport

My heart goes out to our community members who lost their homes and livelihoods to this tragedy. I can only imagine the magnitude of your suffering right now. I wish I had words for you, but all I have is an open heart...

I am one of the lucky Ones. My home and my family are safe. We we had an easy place to land when we were displaced. Our home was not *really* ever in eminent danger.

But this morning, when it was time to wake up, I was exhausted. You know, the kind of exhausted where you can’t open your eyes and your body feels like lead. I turned to my husband “I think I’m getting sick or something, I don’t feel right”. “No”, he said, “your nervous system is finally cooling off. Your body is finally coming down”.

For two weeks I was stuck in fight-or-flight. I was on high alert ready to “run from the bear”, or in my case, the fire, at any moment. Even for those of us, like my family, who were able to get out of town, out of the pea-soup fog-like ash and smoke that filled our city like a chimney with no flu, I was still on high alert. Checking my phone every hour to see if the air quality had improved. Checking my phone first thing in the morning to examine the current borders of the fire, to see if it was still raging toward my home, or if its pace had slowed down. It was an unsettling two weeks, to say the least. It was (and currently still is), one of the largest fires ever recorded in California history. I was, nay, we all were, scared.

But we are home now. Though parts of the fire are still burning, they are far from our city now. The evacuation orders have been lifted. We are able to be home. And even through all the ash and soot, home never felt so good. It is REALLY hard to be displaced. To be forced out of your home not knowing when, or even if, you will be able to return. My family was fortunate to be able to stay with a cousin in Northern California. One morning he said “it seems like you guys are stuck on Gilligans Island”. That was so true. I left town on my “three hour tour” thinking I would be away for a few nights, not assuming I would be displaced from my community and scared for my home for 2 weeks.

So here we are. Whether we left town or not, we all have our own version of the hell of surviving this fire. We are SO LUCKY. Only about 800 structures were lost, and in my city, only 8. We are forever indebted to the amazing work of the nearly 9,000 firefighters that saved our home. And we know it. We cry every time we see, or even think about a firefighter. We walk like zombies through town as the trauma of our displacement drains out of our nervous systems, ash still falling on our heads. We all saw what happened up north in Santa Rosa, and that first night of this fire down on Ventura, and we feel incredibly blessed that our homes were spared. But we can not disregard the trauma that we are all now recovering from. This trauma is real. This trauma is deep.

And just because things turned out “ok” in the end, does not mean that you did not suffer trauma throughout this ordeal. Though it was more intense for some than others, do not let the outcome of your story dictate the lens that you view your emotional state. Do not allow you emotions to be displaced.

In order to heal, we must recognize our individual and communal trauma. We must talk about our experience without identifying with it. We must face it head on, and let it pass through us. This trauma will disperse, and we will all persevere.

So, hug your family. Hug your neighbors. Hug your friends. See the spirit that dwells deep inside one another, and give each other space to be heard, and recognized. Though you may still be recovering, you are not alone. Do not be afraid to reach out to one another. Even if you don’t know your neighbors well, do not be afraid to reach out. We are here for each other. We are a small community, and we are all here for each other. And because of this, we are incredibly blessed.

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