California on the brink

The richest state in the richest country in human history is on the edge of physical, fiscal, and moral collapse

The cold open to a horror movie

In the movies it’s called a cold open. The film jumps directly into the story before the title sequence or opening credits. In horror movies the cold open is often a familiar scene in which something or someone is slightly off: The haunting figure walking down the street in an otherwise picture postcard small town, the eerie sound emanating from the woods at the edge of the idyllic farm.

A man named Ronaldo was the cold open of what I have come to call my journey to the fire. I met him on side of the highway near Madera on November 23, 2018. I was driving up Route 99 through California’s central valley on my way to Paradise to survey the Camp Fire burn zone and potentially interview survivors. I didn’t know it yet, but the three-day trip would change my life, my career, and my perspectives on what’s happening in my beloved home state. In many ways my encounter with Ronaldo set the stage for everything that followed.

It was the kind of dreary, drizzly morning that in most people triggers the hibernation instinct, the desire to curl up at home with a book, a cup of coffee, a loved one. Instead, Ronaldo was slogging through mud and undergrowth along the side of the highway holding a slapdash bindle as if it was 1930. The ground fog muted his orange shirt; he looked almost spectral amid the washed out colors. Which in a way is appropriate: California has long treated its poor and homeless as less than afterthoughts, like ghosts who occasionally cross the aetheric plane to manifest briefly in real life.

Like the trip itself, I don’t know what compelled me to pull off at the next exit, backtrack, and pull to the shoulder to offer him a ride. He seemed not even to notice me as I walked up to him while cars, buses, and eighteen wheelers roared past. I couldn’t imagine walking a few hundred meters along that road much less whatever distance he had traveled already by the time I encountered him.

Ronaldo, somewhere outside Madera. Photograph by Christopher LeGras

Approaching him I noticed a construction site a half mile or so away. It was a viaduct for the planned California bullet train. The project is more than a decade behind schedule and tens of billions over budget, and has for many become a symbol of all that is broken, corrupt, and dying in the Golden State. What should have been a paradigm shifting infrastructure project has devolved into a brazen special interest feeding frenzy, consultants hoovering tens of millions from the public fisc while producing nothing for the people. Less than nothing, when you consider how those millions could have been better spent. Indeed, the backdrop was grimly appropriate: A construction site for California’s $90 billion train to nowhere rising through the polluted air like some post-apocalyptic industrial wasteland, framing a homeless wayfarer whose life could be transformed with a few thousand bucks and decent services.

I offered Ronaldo $20 to take his picture. He agreed. Afterward I gave him a ride to the next town. In the car I tried striking up a conversation but it quickly became clear that he was developmentally disabled. So I let him be, driving wordlessly as together we watched the scenes of decline and decay pass outside while a haunting tune called “Paris, Texas” by Ry Cooder played on the radio.

I let him off at a truck stop near Madera so he could at least get some food and maybe someplace dry to sleep. Hopefully. As I eased toward an onramp I glanced in the rear view mirror. Ronaldo had made it all of 20 feet, laying down on a bus bench and pulling his tarpaulin over his head as the mist swirled around him. It was the last I saw of him.

This is life in the wealthiest state in the wealthiest nation in human history. Outside of war it’s difficult to recall a great civilization that careened toward total collapse so fast.

A long, strange trip

I didn’t know what was pulling me to the raw wound of the Camp Fire, what woke me at 4am and set my course 400 miles north. To this day I still don’t. I had no friends in the town, no connections except as a Californian and a human being. I’d yet to publish anything as a journalist and didn’t have a press badge – I was hoping my California bar card and a little blarney would get me into the burn zone itself.

Along with millions of other Americans, for days I had watched video after video on social media of people fleeing through the flames, a binge watch in a hellish alternate reality. By the time firefighters and Mother Nature snuffed the last of the flames 153,000 acres had burned along with some 19,000 homes and buildings. 52,000 people had evacuated and three towns had been wiped off the face of the earth. At least 88 were dead, some having succumbed in or near their cars when evacuations ground down into gridlock.

The place tugged at me like something supernatural – which is how many of the survivors I would meet described the fire itself. The night before I made the spontaneous drive north I watched two particularly powerful videos on Facebook. The first was posted by a man named Mark who filmed the sheer chaos of the evacuations from behind the wheel of his pickup. Gridlock and confusion – including intersections where overwhelmed police officers constantly changed the directions they sent people – forced him to reverse course numerous times, until he was repeating over and over, “This is it, man, this is it. I’m a goner.” Fortunately he survived.

The second was filmed by a woman named Avalon Kelley. Avalon, her husband Rocky, and their cat Loki drove through a sea of flames hundreds of feet high. As Avalon narrated the four minute video something in her voice – an almost inhuman combination of terror, grief, and disbelief – lodged in my mind like a red hot spike. She sobbed as she watched the inferno devour her friends’ and neighbors’ homes in minutes, sometimes even seconds, while Loki mewed mournfully in the background and Rocky, a Vietnam combat veteran, offered what reassurance he could from behind the wheel. I was as moved by the sound of Avalon’s voice as I was shocked they made it out alive. Their home, needless to say, did not.

I didn’t know what I was going to find in the ashes of Paradise. Nevertheless, the 72 hour journey would transform my view of the place five generations of my family have called home. Or, perhaps more accurately, it brought into consciousness and stark relief truths that had lurked in my subconscious for years.

The death of hope, the triumph of despair

Home sweet homeless. A makeshift shelter sits next to train tracks on the shoulder of Highway 99. Photograph by Christopher LeGras

Driving half the length of the state that November day I didn’t cover more than a handful miles at a time without passing a homeless camp, a tent city, a shantytown. People relieved themselves in broad daylight, shamelessly exposed toward the highway as families in cars and minivans passed. Others lay on the hillside shoulders as still as the dead. Given the numbers of homeless people who perish in California every year it’s entirely possible a couple of them were.

I stopped for a fill-up and road snacks on the outskirts of the agricultural town of Turlock. Behind the gas station convenience store was a neighborhood of decaying single family homes whose backyards were occupied by campers, trailers, and RVs. I wandered over to the fence and sure enough families were living in them. Children played in the mud amidst decomposing garbage. The scene was reminiscent of a refugee camp in a war-torn country, or a survivalist camp after an extinction-level event, which made its entirely quotidian aspect all the more horrifying. It’s how millions of people eke out their lives in the Golden State these days.

Families live in these RVs in a Turlock backyard. Photograph by Christopher LeGras

At 18.2% California’s poverty rate is the worst in the nation except for Washington DC. There are 151,278 homeless people in California, nearly half the nation’s total in a state that accounts for 12% of the population. Those are the official numbers, the kind of too-precise calculations that obscure more dire realities: According to an independent 2014 analysis by The National Center on Family Homelessness at the National Institutes for Research as many as 500,000 children experienced some form of homelessness in California in 2013. That was seven years ago, before the crisis truly began to spiral. Many other studies bear out similar conclusions. Suffice it to say, if half a million children experienced homelessness in a single year, the official number of total homeless is worse than meaningless. It’s catastrophically misleading.

As many as 15% of the students in the Los Angeles Unified School District experience homelessness in a given year – roughly 75,000 kids. Kids who when the 3pm bell rings go to emergency shelters, motels, even cars and RVs. That number has jumped by 25% in the last three years. Many of those children will grow up to lead lives not all that different from Ronaldo’s. Or worse. As a whole California’s schools, once the envy of the country, have like so much else descended into decay. Today California has some of the worst public education systems in the country, with nearly half of the lowest performing individual schools. Meanwhile teachers’ unions rake in millions in dues and dole out millions in campaign contributions to politicians content with an educational system that by any reasonable standard should qualify as a crime against humanity. In 2017 barely a third of students the the LAUSD met or exceeded math standards and fewer than 40% did so in English Language Arts.

Those same teachers unions, who never miss an opportunity to blame “systemic racism,” are responsible for educational outcomes in predominantly Black communities like Compton, where the rates were 6.6% and 11.8%, respectively. It’s easier to blame people who have been dead for decades or centuries than to do the hard work required to help young people succeed in the present. The state’s high schools routinely graduate thousands of seniors who are functionally illiterate – young adults starting their life’s journeys without the ability to so much as fill out a fast food job application. It’s enough to make you wonder who the real racists are in the Golden State – graduates of failed public schools go on to become lifelong dependents of the very bureaucracies whose campaign contributions help sustain the dominant party. At the very least it’s food for thought.

No matter your politics, when you consider the numbers and these realities, California’s homeless crisis, and Ronaldo’s plight, become easier to explain.

Failing the future

When I started tutoring Leon* in February 2019 he was living with his mom, older sister, and two older brothers in a nondescript homeless shelter in Inglewood. He was 14 and going into seventh grade. Despite the fact that he was reading at a third or fourth grade level and couldn’t do multiplication beyond the number five his school routinely awardeded him honor roll status. His school is among the lowest performing in Los Angeles, which is saying something.

Leon loves music, computers, and video games. He dreams of a career as a music engineer. I quickly learned he has a mischievous side and is a bit of a prankster. He also loves history. Whether Genghis Khan or Easter Island, the American Revolution or the Industrial Revolution, he couldn’t get enough during our all-too-brief weekly sessions. He has a remarkable ability to focus: Give him a set of math problems and the world vanishes until the last one’s solved. It’s a thing to behold. One day I gave him a set of 10 problems on the computer. After nearly ten minutes I asked him how many he had left. “Eight,” he replied. My heart sank until I glanced at the screen and realized I’d made a mistake: I’d given him 30 problems, not 10, and he was grinding away with fierce determination.

A scene not far from Leon’s shelter. Photograph by Christopher LeGras

Leon’s ability to focus is all the more remarkable given the deafening noise in his world. He and his siblings take different routes to school everyday because patterns are dangerous in the neighborhood. He speaks with a pronounced stutter that started after he witnessed his best friend get gunned down in a random drive-by when they were both eight. They were playing in his friend’s front yard when a car pulled up, two men leaned out and sprayed the lawn and front door with bullets. Leon says he didn’t actually see the bullet hit his friend as they dove to the ground, but what difference? The killers were never found, his friend’s murder joining the nearly 50% of homicides that go unsolved each year in Los Angeles, the majority in South L.A. Leon would talk about the demons he sometimes sees at night. They crawl out of the air ducts and window cracks in the small two room apartment he shares with his family. He said they’re the ones that killed his friend. He keeps them at bay by praying.

After six months working together, through no fault of his own Leon broke my heart: His mom got a part time job in the baggage department at Long Beach Airport and the family moved away. I arrived for our regular Thursday session to learn they were gone. Of course my grief was selfish, yet the experience exemplified another persistent issue: California children with no sense of place, much less the kinds of stability and security that are essential to development and learning.

In a very real sense the state’s political class has abandoned millions of children (not their own, of course, who are safely ensconced in $50,000 a year private academies that are not so much educational institutions as today’s equivalent of Victorian era finishing schools). In the process they have abandoned the future to broken lives and government dependence – which may be the very point. Children like Leon grow up to be adults like Ronaldo – that is, if they don’t end up in prison. Either way their broken lives are extremely profitable for what many call the Poverty Industrial Complex.

The stark reality is that California’s political class depends on suffering and human misery. It is their sustenance. If they were to save our schools and solve our homeless crisis many thousands of government bureaucrats – not to mention armies of lawyers, consultants, nonprofits executives, and other white collar professionals making comfortable six figure salaries – would have to find real jobs. And we can’t have that.

Fleeing the fire on broken roads

Forty miles north of Sacramento you hit Yuba City. From then on you’re in mountain country, though the mountains themselves are another forty miles to the north and east. It’s one of those invisible California thresholds where little changes except the feeling, and maybe the air. You start to see more heavy agricultural equipment both on the roads and working the fields, a few more Bible passages on billboards and shunted tractor trailers beside the road.

On this trip Yuba City also functioned as another kind of break point, one that marked the edge of the fire zone. What had been occasional whiffs of smoke over the last hundred miles became a permanent sort of suffocation as the air slowly became a sickly brown-grey miasma.

Yuba City was where I saw the first RVs, campers, and overloaded cars filled with families fleeing the fire. A slow trickle quickly became a flood of vehicles of every imaginable sort. Some of the refugees flew defiant American flags, others flew San Francisco 49ers or Sacramento Kings pennants. Many had home made signs in their windows with home addresses and lists of family members’ names. A battered and charred blue F-150 pickup had a sign in the rear window with a single word: Gone.

I use the word “refugees” advisedly, for these folks were no longer evacuees. Evacuees are temporarily displaced people who fully plan to return home. In contrast, refugees know that all is lost. As a Californian I had seen evacuees over the years: From previous fires, floods, or earthquakes. My own family once evacuated our home in West Los Angeles in 1983, when I was eight years old and a fire threatened the canyon where we lived. The difference between evacuees and refugees manifests on people’s faces: Evacuees appear terrified and alert, refugees look defeated and resigned.

The conditions of the roads didn’t help their escape. Along with our schools and our social safety nets California’s infrastructure is collapsing. A May 2019 report card from the American Society of Civil Engineers gave the state an overall C-. The report also noted, “Googling ‘water main breaks’ in California will unfortunately yield a very long list of infrastructure failure stories covered by the media, and many more occur every day that don’t receive media attention.” Meanwhile, California – birthplace of the freeway – has some of the most decrepit roads in the country despite the fact that the majority of the state is spared the sorts of extreme weather that batters roads in regions like the Great Lakes and New England. Driving on those roads costs Californians $61 billion annually in congestion-related delays, gasoline, accidents, and increased vehicle wear and tear. It will cost $150 billion over the next decade just to to bring the system back to a state of good repair. Yet instead of spending money to mend the roads on which 40 million people rely cities and the state are spending billions on trains and buses no one rides and bike lanes that satisfy the lifestyle choices of a vanishingly small cohort of overwhelmingly young white men.

Meanwhile, state testing has revealed high levels of lead and other contaminants in the drinking water of 17% of public schools. According to a previously undisclosed report by senior officials at the California State Water Resources Control Board more than 1,000 water districts, accounting for more than one in three statewide, may be failing to deliver potable drinking water. These reports come on the heels of stories last year out of South Los Angeles, where the Sativa Water District in Compton became California’s very own Flint, Michigan. At least 678 dams are considered to be high-hazard potential. In February 2017 the Oroville Dam collapsed, forcing the evacuation of more than 180,000 people.

Don’t drink the water: A section of the California Aqueduct flows through Littlerock, California. Photograph by Christopher LeGras.

Human beings have been building and maintaining roads, bridges, and dams for millennia, yet here in the wealthiest place on Earth officials can no longer accomplish those basics of civilization. In California, potable water increasingly is a luxury. As I neared Chico and the flood of refugees became a veritable tsunami all of those potholes and cracks felt like insults added to the grievous injuries Camp Fire survivors already had experienced.

Apocalypse Now

I soon learned that the survivors fleeing south were the luckier ones: They had somewhere to go. Thousands of others were less fortunate, relegated to campsites like the one in a field behind the WalMart in downtown Chico. Hundreds of tents and other makeshift shelters turned the rough ground into a literal refugee camp, the kind of scenes you’d expect to see in places like Cameroon, not California. Yet again my attention was on the children. They played muddy games of soccer and tag in the smoke filled air (in yet another insult, as the field continued to fill with families in tents a light rain converted the ground into a sticky mud). It is unknown how many Camp Fire refugees remain homeless today.

In yet another sign of the times the camps at WalMart and elsewhere already had attracted criminals and vagrants who preyed on the helpless. Suffice it to say the local police and Highway Patrol were otherwise occupied, leaving the refugees at the malcontents’ mercy.

Here and there were a few bright spots, if they could be called that. In contrast to the myriad failures of the state’s political class, private companies, charities, faith groups, and organizations like the Girl Scouts were providing food, clothing, shelter, and other essentials. Some were from out of state: A truck loaded with clothing sported Oregon plates, and a van full of food had tags from Oklahoma. In the ashes of one of the worst disasters in California history the only sign of government activity was a FEMA trailer.

As I pulled onto the aptly-named Skyway Boulevard and began the final climb to Paradise, the Spotify app played “Nowhere to Run” by Martha Reeves and the Vandalls. Hauntingly, the computers seemed to know where I was headed: The soundtrack to the rest of the afternoon included the Stones’ “Gimme Shelter,” Norman Greenbaum’s “Spirit in the Sky,” and “Ticking Bomb” by Aloe Blacc.

Nowhere to run to, baby, nowhere to hide

Five miles up Skyway I saw the first burned out cars. I kept thinking of that sign in the pickup’s window: Gone. Amidst the devastation the atmosphere, and the world, felt a hundred times heavier. Everything pressed in, the air, the smoke, the sights. Even the sound, or rather the lack of it, seemed to have a physical presence. Time and space seemed somehow contorted, folded upon themselves. There’s an almost complete absence of color in burn zones, everything washed out in sepia: The ruins of buildings and houses, the burned-out cars, the hills, the trees, the sky.

Then there was the smell: Along with the people who lost their lives many thousands of wild and domestic animals perished in the fire, leaving behind the hideous, unmistakable odor of death. It would hang on my clothes, my skin and hair, and inside my car for weeks after I returned home.

We’re from the government, and we’re here to help

Ronald Regan famously quipped that the nine most terrifying words in the English language are “I’m from the government and I’m here to help.” Perhaps the biggest revelation from my journey to the fire was learning the role the California state government, the Butte County Association of Governments, and even some leaders in the town itself played in creating ideal conditions for people to become trapped as they fled. The Camp Fire was not the first time fire evacuations had bogged down in these mountains. During the 2008 Humboldt Complex Fire, evacuations in many parts of Paradise and the neighboring town of Magalia similarly gridlocked.

The situation prompted an investigation and report by the Butte County Grand Jury. Among the Grand Jury’s main recommendations were that the county widen the shoulders and turnouts along existing evacuation routes, of which there are only three, clear vegetation the Skyway between Chico and Paradise, and add a new evacuation route to the north by paving an existing gravel road from Magalia to Butte Meadows.

Inexplicably, in September 2009, the Butte County Board of Supervisors called the grand jury report “not reasonable.” A couple years later the county actually narrowed dozens of miles of roads throughout Paradise. Without a hint of irony officials named the initiative “Livable Streets.” The three major evacuation routes, Skyway Boulevard, Clark Road, and Pearson Street, all were narrowed in places. The county also installed center medians, sidewalk bulb-out’s, bollards, and other traffic obstacles throughout the city, supposedly in an effort to make the streets more inviting for bicyclists and pedestrians.

After the fire officials implausibly claimed that the reductions – called “road diets” and obstacles had no impact on evacuations. Then Mayor Jody Jones told the Los Angeles Times, “I don’t believe that [the changes] really mattered.”

The survivors I spoke with had quite a different take. An emergency room nurse who described fleeing on foot when traffic came to a halt said, “Even before the fire we wondered what in the Hell they were thinking.” Many people said that traffic in town had gotten so bad after the changes that they started calling it “Paradise’s 405” in reference to the notoriously congested Los Angeles freeway. During the frenzied evacuations many of these new choke points became what one Cal Fire captain described to me as “kill zones.”

Far from learning the tragic lessons of the Paradise road diets California is imposing hundreds of similar changes to evacuation routes statewide, part of an effort to combat climate change by discouraging people from driving. Some call it a war on cars. This summer, as another swarm of fires engulfed the region, the roads remain narrowed. Indeed, a recent picture in the L.A. Times showed traffic bogged down on the Skyway during the current fires (the picture, shown above, has since been removed).

It’s impossible to know how many people in how many towns are being put at risk because of these ideologically motivated projects. A study conducted by a San Francisco-based traffic analytics company called StreetLight Data has identified dozens of communities statewide that already have limited evacuation routes relative to their populations. Many are considering or have implemented road diets already. For example, in the Marin County city of Mill Valley plans to replace two of four lanes on part of a main evacuation route, East Blithedale Boulevard, to make way for bicycle lanes, widened sidewalks, and other obstacles. In the even of a fire thousands of people will have to negotiate the new obstacles as they evacuate.

A map created by Streetlight Data shows locations in the Bay Area and environs with limited evacuation routes.

California is a time bomb

Virtually no one I spoke with in Paradise that November weekend, and no one I’ve spoken with since, believes the official death toll of 88 from the Camp Fire. Most people believe it is substantially higher, perhaps by several times. When I asked a Cal Fire captain back in Chico about it later that Friday evening, he just shook his head and said, “I can’t talk about it,” before walking away. His thousand yard stare said everything. A survivor named Patricia Clark, an emergency room nurse who presumably had seen it all before the fire, broke down in tears on the phone as she described seeing at least three people burn to death in their cars as she ran through the flames. A survivor named Chuck Keogh posted a video to Facebook showing at least five charred bodies in and near cars (warning: graphic content, viewer discretion highly advised).

The Camp Fire was triggered by faulty transmission facilities. Pacific Gas & Electric, the region’s quasi-public energy provider, recently agreed to a $25 billion settlement with victims, cities, and insurance companies related to the Camp Fire and others.

But these fires are going to happen no matter what. So far this year some 4 million acres have burned, by far the worst fire season on record (though an average year by historical standards – before white settlers arrived as much as 12 million acres burned annually). While the political class blames climate change the fact of the matter is their own policies are as much to blame. Environmental radicalism so dominates policy that logging and other vegetation thinning measures are little more than quaint memories. Old fashioned greed also plays a central role, as lawmakers and officials continue to encourage and even subsidize development in wildland urban interface zones, placing millions of Californians at risk. And the political class’s obsession with bicycles and mass transit means more and more evacuation routes will be severely limited in coming years.

A reckoning

A reckoning is coming to California. More than half the state’s residents (and nearly two thirds of young people in the state) say they would leave if they had the chance. If not for immigration the state would have lost population over the last 20 years. Unchecked spending, particularly in the form of generous pay, benefits, and retirement packages for government employees, has put the state on the hook for some $1.5 trillion in unfunded future liabilities. That means it’s only going to get more difficult, if not impossible, to spend the money needed to save our schools, repair our infrastructure, and prevent mass casualties in future fires and floods. Forget about planning for the future: California increasingly is sliding toward a pre-industrial state of anarchy.

Every bad policy decision, every ounce of corruption, and every example of rank incompetence from California’s political class was on full display during my journey to the fire. As I traveled back south, joining the endless caravan of refugees, I wondered if my beloved home state already is beyond salvation.

These days California infrastructure projects come pre-graffitied. Photograph by Christopher LeGras

Passing through Fresno I scanned the highway shoulders for Ronaldo. He was nowhere to be found. Like a million other Californians he had simply vanished into the abyss. On the other side of the freeway an elevated bypass for the bullet train was under construction. It was already covered in graffiti.

I couldn’t make out the words, but it occurred to me that only one would have made sense: Gone….

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