Yolanda Bundy speaks with compassion and empathy when talking about Woolsey Fire victims and their efforts to rebuild their Malibu homes.

Bundy was hired in October 2019 to help expedite the rebuild process nearly a year after the 2018 blaze. In a phone interview with The Malibu Times, Bundy, now the city’s environmental sustainability director/building official, gave an update on the rebuild process.

Of the 1,643 homes lost in Los Angeles County’s most destructive wildfire, 483 homes were destroyed in Malibu leaving roughly 1,000 citizens displaced—most of those desperately trying to rebuild. It’s been a painstakingly slow process made even worse during the coronavirus pandemic that still has Malibu City Hall operating by appointment only (though that will change on Monday, June 28).

In February of 2020, right before the pandemic arrived in California, only two homes had been rebuilt in Malibu. Bundy recalled, “By March, everything stopped.” However, in the last 15 months, families have been able to complete 38 homes, bringing the total number of fire rebuilds to 40. The planning department has approved 308 plans and 191 permits have been issued.

Bundy said it’s taking roughly a year-and-a-half to construct the average rebuild.

Construction during the pandemic really slowed the process.

“Not only the city, but different design professionals were trying to figure out how to navigate a virtual permitting process,” Bundy said. “One of the biggest challenges for the city was, ‘How do we continue performing when we don’t have contact with the public?’ So, we went from a jurisdiction that was completely through paper to converting everything to electronic submittals. It took a month-and-a-half just to figure out that portion. We didn’t have electronic software to provide those capabilities, but we were able to strategize and find a way of submitting a pdf, reorganize and also share that information with the design professionals. The city was never prepared for something like that.”

Although most workers stayed remote, Bundy was present at City Hall most days because “inspections didn’t stop.”

“I haven’t stopped coming in,” she said. “When COVID struck, we had 40 permits issued. So, there was construction moving forward. We needed to facilitate the inspections.”

Bundy and a handful of other employees used masks, gloves and as much social distancing as possible to carry out their assignments.

“It was pretty scary because at the time we didn’t know a lot of information,” Bundy said—national, state and local rules were all up in the air. “The city came out with specific guidelines (concerning) construction. We continue moving forward.”

Bundy noted that “things slowed down because it was a global pandemic” as well, with challenges including accessing essential building supplies.

“For a few months, people were not able to get concrete as readily available as they used to have it. Then the prices of timber tripled. There was a lot of challenges in construction,” Bundy said, adding, “Materials for construction spiked. The supply chain made it difficult for a lot of homeowners—for their budget—because they were not budgeting for a price of reconstruction this high. We are hoping, and I’m keeping an eye on materials. It seems like the prices of timber are slightly going down,” Bundy sighed, adding, “but it’s going to take time.”

While speaking on Friday, Bundy was optimistic that in-person interaction would soon resume, which would include walk-ins to the building counter, planning counter, environmental services and geotechnical counter. On Tuesday, the reopening was announced (details are available on page A3).

“Being able to have face-to-face interaction is going to be critical for us to continue moving diligently to expedite every rebuild project. At the end of the day, the commitment is still there,” Bundy said. “I’m so looking forward to seeing people again and helping them with any challenges they’re going through. What I’m hearing a lot now is insurance has been a big issue because the payments for insurance are not coming on time or their rental agreements are going to be ending. There’s a lot of anxiety. I’ve been trying to help homeowners by writing letters to insurance agents letting them know through COVID it’s been difficult working with a minimum staff. We’re trying to give insurance information on why it’s taking so long to rebuild.

“Helping our fire family victims is critical,” she continued. “With more in-person, we’ll be able to answer questions. It’s easier than email going back and forth. We’ll be more efficient in person. I’m looking forward for that.” 

Track rebuild statistics online at malibupermits.ci.malibu.ca.us/WoolseyRebuildStats

Woolsey Fire survivors from unincorporated Malibu: Get in touch and let us know how your rebuild is (or is not) progressing. Email emily@malibutimes.com or call our office at 310.456.5507.

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