On a cold day in late February, footsteps imprinted in an inch of snow over a makeshift pedestrian crossing connecting 32 Harmon Gulch households to the rest of the world is a reminder of how much power a natural disaster can wield.
The bridge, a metal sheet anchored by concrete blocks extending over the banks of a creek, stands where an asphalt road used to sit. The section of roadway was washed out during the historic January storms that wreaked havoc on Santa Cruz County infrastructure and brought President Joe Biden to the region.
Lack of access to heating fuel has been the most serious of several problems. Propane delivery trucks usually make the rounds to fill residents’ tanks, but that hasn’t been possible due to the road damage, leaving many residents without heat—or rationing it—for nearly two months.
“Everyone’s freezing cold,” Rebekah Uccellini, a Harmon Gulch resident who’s become the point person for the community, says. “Most people’s central heating—and their water and their stoves—all run off of propane, and that ran out in January.”
Uccellini and neighbors have been calling for government agencies to improve disaster-response procedures. They asked for a drivable temporary bridge for weeks until they found a permanent solution. But county officials say the residents’ plight is complicated because they’re served by a private road, meaning they’re in charge of its upkeep.
It’s also unclear how a government agency, like FEMA, might be able to assist.
According to the residents, FEMA representatives have been trying to find a solution, but cumbersome paperwork and meeting no-shows have frustrated residents.
“Most people get a denial,” Uccellini says, noting that some Harmon Gulch residents could already count eight contacts with the agency. “Half of us got denied because the inspector wasn’t willing to walk up the road to people’s houses.”
Harmon Gulch is about as rugged as Santa Cruz Mountains routes go, twisting its way up the hillside with ruts and rivets, past gnarled trunks and dense foliage.
When asked if it was confirmed that inspectors may have decided to skip the mile or so walk from Bear Creek Road to the rustic sites, a FEMA spokesperson said it’s entirely possible.
“If they cannot assess your home, they’re going to write in your form that they were not able to get to your home,” says Tiana Suber, a public information officer.
The safety of the contracted inspectors comes first, she adds.
Meanwhile, residents say there’s been a series of glitches and headaches along the path to receiving assistance as they struggle to access the outside world daily.
“It’s taking way too long,” Uccellini says. “We still have people who are displaced and have nowhere to go. We’ve got someone dying right now from cancer—and they’re not even covering for his hotel yet.”
FEMA officials are now getting up to speed with how best to help people who live on private roads; Stubber says it wasn’t discussed much at the federal agency before 2017.
“As things continue to change—and disasters become more prevalent—we’re taking the steps to learn about different situations and how to go about it,” she says. “Things that didn’t happen before are happening now. FEMA’s preparing for each one of those situations.”
FEMA will provide financial assistance to repair privately-owned routes, including driveways, roads and bridges. Multiple households that share a single access road can pool their assistance towards restoring it. However, this involves additional coordination and paperwork.
Harmon Gulch residents have found accomplishing this is easier said than done.
Some say they had to fill out the same FEMA paperwork multiple times. At least one resident has reported someone else’s information somehow ended up in their file.
“There’s a way to make it much more efficient from the beginning,” Uccellini says. “Are they open to figuring out a better way to do it?”
Suber says strict laws govern how to award disaster relief, and laws would have to be updated for any changes to the application process in many situations. But she says the agency has been working hard to make the process easier for storm victims, bringing in DMV and IRS reps to help residents fill out paperwork.
Disaster victims can also be served by a mobile intake team or visit a disaster recovery center. FEMA also has teams that go door-to-door checking on people to see if anyone, who might have otherwise been missed, would like to apply for emergency help.
“It’s more convenient for those who just can’t make it out of their home,” Suber says. “We have a lot of ways where we try to reach different communities. The process is not difficult but it can be long—we always ask for a little bit of patience.”
Kim Markey, one of the Harmon Gulch residents, says she’s trying to be patient; she’s finding out if the residents can organize to direct their individual assistance amounts towards paying for road repairs. But connecting with a FEMA inspector at her house took persistence.
One FEMA inspector she was assigned missed their scheduled meeting on Feb. 4.
“I have been pushed back and redirected today,” he says. “Can we move over to a time tomorrow, Sunday, by any chance?” The resident suggested 11am.
At 11:05am Sunday, Feb. 5, the Harmon Gulch resident checked in with the rep.
“We are here,” she texted. No response.
Finally, at 3:04pm, the rep replied. “En route,” the agent reported.
The inspector had taken so long to reply that Markey had already gone. In the end, the employee finally met her that night; however, others expecting a face-to-face with FEMA that day never got one.
Since a private road serves Harmon Gulch residents, the county believes it’s free of responsibility regarding repairs. Santa Cruz County spokesperson Jason Hoppin says the residents might want to consider forming a County Service Area (CSA). Rural residents could then ask the county to look after their access infrastructure in case of future road damage.
The problem with that, Uccellini says, is that it might take $200,000 worth of work—aside from the bridge issue—just to upgrade the road to the point where the county would be willing to sign off on the CSA.
The county currently manages 36 CSA road groups that want increased maintenance of their local roads. They’re funded through an annual Benefit Assessment.
Uccellini is looking into the idea. What she’s learned is that some people are happy with their CSA, while others gripe about how expensive they can be—with households sometimes having to kick in thousands of dollars a year.
“As a CSA, we’re an extension of the county organization, and we can get county support,” Jim Eckerman, head of CSA 51 at Hopkins Gulch Road, says. “I’m against CSAs because people should take responsibility for their own stuff. But let me tell you why I support the CSA. Number 1: FEMA won’t deal with private property.”
He adds that the county doesn’t have enough people on staff to find solutions for all the storm problems residents are facing this year, but the county was quick to purchase an order for some issues with their road after the storms hit.
“We went to the county and said, ‘We need an emergency PO,’” he says. “Within a day, they issued an emergency PO … If we weren’t a CSA, they’d say, ‘Go get a tractor.’”
He’s been following the news coming out of Harmon Gulch.
“To the county, Harmon Gulch is a private driveway to those homes,” he explains. “They need to do something.”
Garth D. MacDonald, a public information officer with the Small Business Administration’s Office of Disaster Recovery and Resilience, says Harmon Gulch residents could apply for a loan with the agency via Harmon Gulch’s road association.
“We do everything to make the process as smooth as it can be, but at the same time, we have to work as good stewards of the taxpayer money that is made available,” he says. “That is not always an easy task.”
To get a loan, the residents would have to prove they can repay it, for example, if there’s a healthy balance in the road association’s bank account.
“We can’t really evaluate how SBA can help Harmon Gulch with their private road issues until they make a decision to apply for a low-interest loan for us,” he says. “That would be their choice.”
On Friday, thanks to the efforts of nonprofit Coongie, of which Uccellini is executive director, funds from locals and a donation from the Santa Cruz County Community Foundation, Harmon Gulch finally got a temporary driving bridge in place—although the county won’t sign off on it and they had to get their own liability insurance. They still need it certified so they can drive heavier vehicles over it.
Markey says it was a relief to be able to venture out finally.
“The first thing I went to do was to put fuel in my vehicle and do a big grocery load that I didn’t have to carry over,” she says. “I felt a little normal again.”
As of press time, Markey was still appealing to FEMA, as the Harmon Gulch residents now set their sights on a more permanent solution.