No-Brand Nudo

Helping People Pick Up Their Lives After Disaster

Recently, I’ve been going through an old box that contains many of my past published write-ups. The musty newspapers and magazines within this old box include letters to the editor, essays I submitted, by-the-numbers sports articles, and personal profiles.

Like many who look back on their writings, I’ve seen some cringe-inducing horrors, especially the letters to the editor. Did I have nothing better to do in the prime of my life than complain, many times over topics I took to heart but weren’t that important? Other letters and essays at times sound overly idealistic and haughty.

The good news in looking at all these past pieces is that I’ve pared down the content within the box. It won’t be so heavy when I lug it back up to the attic. The cringe-inducing write-ups went into a pile of newspapers we’re saving for a friend, who just got a new animal she’s trying to potty train by using newspapers. Perfect.

My old write-ups weren’t all bad or meaningless, though. I rediscovered a profile piece I wrote for the Piatt County Journal Republican, which was published on December 19, 2007. The article highlights the work of a woman named Mary Ann Johnson, who at the time worked for the Office of Emergency Services for the governor’s office in California. Johnson graduated from Buckley-Loda High School in 1974. Her parents lived in Bement, Illinois, at the time I wrote the article about their daughter.

I think it’s an interesting story that aptly highlights Johnson’s meaningful job. I love all the statistics that lead off the article, though shockingly, they are unattributed. I’m surprised the editors didn’t catch that, and I wish I knew better at the time one of journalism’s unflappable rules: Always show attribution when it’s necessary. My apologies for that bad oversight.

The story is titled “Johnson is in the business of helping people pick up their lives after a disaster” and talks extensively about wildfires in California. A day after rediscovering this article, I read a piece in The Wall Street Journal titled “Fires Force Evacuations in California.” Amazingly, it talked about Sacramento, where Johnson lived when I wrote about her. The third paragraph of the WSJ story reads:

“In California, thousands of people were under evacuation orders as the Mosquito Fire east of Sacramento grew, spreading to at least 23,000 acres by Friday morning, according to the Placer County Sheriff’s Office.”

So sadly, nearly fifteen years after I wrote the below article, not much has changed in the way of wildfires in California.

Johnson is in the business of helping people pick up their lives after a disaster

From Oct. 20 to Nov. 9, 23 separate wildfires raged across seven counties in Southern California, thanks to powerful Santa Ana winds that were unrelenting.

All told, 517,267 acres of land burned. The wildfires caused 321,500 mandatory evacuations – the largest in California’s history. Homes in upscale Malibu were destroyed as were houses on Indian reservations.

Overall, 3,204 structures were affected by the California wildfires, 2,233 of which were homes.

Several businesses were also hit hard, as were 966 “outbuildings,” unattached structures such as sheds and garages.

When the fires were finally contained, Mary Ann Johnson, an emergency services coordinator in the Office of Emergency Services (OES) for the governor’s office in California, did what she’s done since 1992 – she helped individuals pick up the pieces of their shattered lives.

“The fires are the hardest thing because when you go out to the areas that are burnt, there’s nothing left,” said Johnson. “You see remnants of someone’s life, someone’s home, and it’s heartbreaking.”

One ray of positivity amid such devastation is that more people affected by the wildfires were covered by insurance this time, compared to 2003, when wildfires also struck Southern California with a vengeance. That’s a good thing, according to Johnson, whose parents live in Bement, since insurance companies are much more able to assist people than disaster-assistance programs.

Originally from Loda and a 1974 graduate of Buckley-Loda High School, before it became Paxton-Buckley-Loda, Johnson has seen all types of disasters in her position. Since 1992, she has been involved with the recovery efforts of 24 major disaster areas, including the devastating Northridge earthquake in 1994 and Florida hurricanes Charley and Jeanne in 2004.

In the aftermath of a major disaster, often in California but sometimes elsewhere in the U.S., OES works closely with the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) to set up help centers. It also provides disaster-related information to people who need it and sets up long-term recovery committees, among many other things.

Johnson said the goal of her office is to take care of the numerous behind-the-scenes administrative functions after a disaster, assisting people but not burdening them with internal complications.

“We do a whole bunch of not only just federal-declared disasters but other disasters … on a smaller scale, so to speak,” she said.

Johnson’s job is an on-call position that, whenever there is a FEMA-declared major disaster, requires her to be ready to leave within a day or two and remain in the affected area until the recovery situation has stabilized.

The recent wildfires called for her deployment in San Bernardino County, where she has been stationed since Oct. 25. She returned home to Sacramento for one weekend in November and for Thanksgiving, and will get to go home permanently on Dec. 18 – until the next big disaster.

“It’s very, very satisfying because you’re able to help the real in-need [people],” Johnson said. “Working with the individuals, that’s the most satisfying job that you can have, I think. I look at it as these are people just like me. And if it was me, I’d want someone to not transfer me to another person. The thing I like least is when I can’t get them an answer.”

“I look at it as these are people just like me. And if it was me, I’d want someone to not transfer me to another person.”

Johnson says she is a “people person” and said her job as a waitress from “way back” helped prepare her for the intense services she has provided for desperate everyday individuals during the last 16 years. Assisting people on such a massive scale in her current job requires time, patience and the ability to truly care, Johnson said.

Working for the Office of Governor in California has put Johnson and OES in frequent contact with Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger, whom Johnson describes as a “personable, involved” and “hands-on” guy.

“If he hears about a problem, or stuff going on with disasters, he’s right on it, making sure things run smoothly,” said Johnson, who also noted that Schwarzenegger’s wife, Maria, also gets involved, assisting with preparing pertinent information that needs to be released.

Johnson is a parent of two daughters, ages 28 and 30, and a son, who is 17. She has three grandchildren and has been married for 32 years.

Despite the chaos, stress and sadness of the sites she visits, Johnson said her personal faith keeps her going. She views her work as a way of giving, and it fulfills her.

“She has been a go-getter from the get-go,” said Lyle Shaffer, Mary Ann’s father, who added he was impressed by his daughter’s work ethic. “She got along with everybody. When she was in the room, she more or less took over.”

Though there are times when she wishes she could have raised her children in a small town such as Paxton, Buckley or Loda, Johnson is just relieved her kids exited high school without major problems, and that Sacramento is a secure place to live from a disaster-related viewpoint.

“I don’t live in a flood zone, I don’t live in a fire zone,” Johnson said with a laugh. “I’m not moving from where I’m at. I’m perfectly happy.”

Photo in the newspaper is credited as a “submitted photo.”


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