“All I could think to do was get to the coast,” one Sonoma resident who evacuated her home with little notice said. “I knew if we could get to the sea, we would be safe.” Her instinct was echoed by so many of the evacuees, primarily Sonoma residents, who ended up at the Marconi Conference Center, which opened its doors last week to families and their dogs displaced by the fires.
Local restaurants and food producers stepped in to feed the unexpected influx of people. The Marshall Store and Tomales Bay Oyster Company arrived in the evenings to prepare and serve dinner. Over the course of the week, their staff teamed up with volunteers to serve up barbecued ribs and chicken, grilled corn and salads, crab and shrimp mac ‘n cheese, soups, desserts and drinks. Additional food was donated by Cowgirl Creamery, Greenleaf, Straus Family Creamery and Whale of a Deli.
Staff from Marshall Store, after working a full shift at the restaurant, volunteered night after night to set up, prepare, serve and clean up a full dinner service for an ever-changing number of evacuees. One night saw over 80 people, but that number was always in flux as some left and new evacuees arrived. Hal Russek, who works at Marconi, served as a liaison between the conference center and the volunteers. “Marconi is glad to help, but this has been a community response, a community effort all the way,” he said.
Beverly, a Sonoma resident, arrived at Marconi with her three Russian wolf hounds. She was prepared to sleep on the beach rather than be separated from her dogs. The oldest of her dogs, Icarus, lay nearly motionless at her feet. “Icarus was born in France, and he’s been with me forever,” she said “He’s been so stressed through all of this, and he’s quite old. I’m afraid his heart will fail.” Originally from the United Kingdom, Beverly personified the famous stoicism of the British, until suddenly the tears started coming. “I’m fine, until you all are so nice to me. Then I can’t help but cry,” she said
Many others had this same response, holding themselves together bravely in the face of chaos and uncertainty, but breaking down at the outpouring of care and kindness from those who came not only to feed them, but to keep company with them.
Maria, a Santa Rosa resident who arrived with her husband and four children, said her two youngest were lucky to be too small to know what was going on. Older children are having a harder time; with the school year just started, many school-aged children, especially teenagers, are anxious.
Savannah, a Sonoma teen, celebrated her 16th birthday at Marconi last week. Her mother, determined to make the best of the day for her daughter, brought a large cake. Nadia, a Santa Rosa resident whose home had burned to the ground, also had a birthday. The two shared the cake, blowing out the candles together.
Joaquin, an evacuee himself, has been making visits to evacuation centers in Marshall and Point Reyes Station. A licensed therapist and fluent in Spanish, he said this crisis has brought up traumatic memories particularly for people from Central America, who fled their home countries for the United States to escape natural disasters and political unrest, often with only what they could carry. “One man told me he felt suicidal,” he said. Many of these families are particularly vulnerable; they have nothing to fall back on, and many feel stuck in a pattern of having to escape.
Last Friday, several families ventured back to Sonoma to check on their homes with the hope of being able to return. But later that evening, they were back at Marconi, experiencing a different kind of shock and anguish. The burned-out landscapes of communities that once surrounded them and the putrid air of entire neighborhoods reduced to ash and smoke left them visibly fragile and emotionally hollowed out. As graphic and relentless as the news coverage has been, nothing could prepare them for experiencing the devastation first-hand. The slim hope that kept them buoyant for days bottomed out, especially in light of the weather report, which at the time had them bracing for a weekend of high winds and exceptionally dry conditions.
This week, the evacuees had all left Marconi. On the last night there were only five, some of whom had been there from the beginning. The volunteers left their posts as cooks and servers to sit and enjoy their final meal with them, exchanging contact information and promises to keep in touch.
“The community response was overwhelming,” Jodi Stevens, who coordinated volunteers and food donations, said. Individuals and businesses made it clear that anything that was needed would be provided. Even after the evacuees were gone, volunteers continued to phone, asking what more could be done to support those whose homes had been lost.
The evacuees and the West Marin community that’s hosting them are resilient. The first wave of relief effort was needed so suddenly that there was no time to prepare for it, yet people stepped in to fill the need spontaneously and without hesitation.
Tolly Canon is a resident of Inverness and the publisher of EthicalFoods.com.