Chaos, Lack of Communication Frustrates Families of Missing People as Wine Country Burns

Ellen and Bob Pearson's family has been searching for the couple since they were last seen evacuating from their mobile home in Santa Rosa, preparing to leave in their purple Pontiac as flames lurked in the distance.

But five days later, no one has heard from the couple, both in their 70s. And the family is growing frustrated with the Sonoma County Sheriff's office, where phones lines are busy or out, and other agencies that seem to have different databases of the missing.

"It's been challenging trying to figure out which agency or which number to call," said Tiffany Couto. She was raised by a grandmother who always checks in. "People are trying to help so much, but it's a chaotic time and so it's a challenge to understand exactly how to handle this."

Chaos has marked a disaster that spans several counties and cities, adding to the frustration of hundreds of people searching for loved ones. The release of information is disjointed with the public relying in part on separate media updates throughout the day broken out by county and agency.

In Sonoma, the county sheriff's office announced Thursday it is searching for missing people and bodies. Napa County continued to direct people to search for missing through a website hosted by the American Red Cross.

"It really calls into question a better response," Sen. Bill Dodd of Napa said about the handling of missing person reports. "Maybe there's some best practice when we're done with this that we can try to make sure that there is a better clearinghouse."

The Governor's Office of Emergency Services is also directing people to the Red Cross website rather than any state database.

In an interview Thursday, director Mark Ghilarducci said all agencies were coordinating well in a large-scale disaster that is going to have "zigs and zags."

"But there is an organization in the chaos and that's how we are facilitating response to this, that's how we're adding additional resources, that's how we know where to place those resources, and to address all the needs in the shelters," he said.

Gov. Jerry Brown has kept a low profile, speaking at one press briefing but otherwise letting state emergency officials take the lead.

Ken Pimlott, director of California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection, described the Democratic governor as "very engaged in what is going on" and proving support.

Pimlott also said it's the job of local sheriff-coroners — not the state — to account for the missing and dead.

While sheriff's deputies focused on active evacuations this week, individuals and families were left to search on their own. Many turned to social media with plaintive cries for help. They hit up hospitals and evacuation centers, hoping their missing loved one is simply unable to tell people who they are or without a working cell phone.

More than 48 hours after a woman told her daughter on a phone she was trapped by fire, a Santa Rosa man digging through the ruined rubble found her remains.

"My mother's remains have been found at her home at Journey's End. May she rest in peace, my sweet Momma," Jessica Tunis wrote on Facebook.

Sonoma County Sheriff Robert Giordano said Thursday there were about 400 people on his county's missing person list, although it was unclear how many are duplicates or even people who are actually safe.

The elderly cousins of Garret Clark's mother, for example, were found safe Wednesday after fleeing their Santa Rosa home Tuesday in a hurry. Neither Rick nor Leslie Howell own mobile phones, making it difficult to let friends and family know they were safe.

Still outstanding is the case of Norma Zarr, whose Santa Rosa neighborhood was evacuated Tuesday evening. Nobody in her family has seen or heard from the 61-year-old woman since.

Charlene Baumunk Allen said sheriff's deputies visited her mother's house on Wednesday, but didn't find her or her silver Honda CRV.

The sheriff's office has been helpful, says Allen, who lives in Eagle Mountain, Utah.

"I don't know if she's under a rock or if she's ok," she said. "This is a trying time."

Couto, the granddaughter, said her family reported her grandparents' distinctive purple Pontiac, but she doesn't know whether officers were ran the license plate numbers in their search for missing people.

"I'm at a loss and I'm not sure what steps to take to find them," she said. "We're all confused. We're not sure how to be productive."

Copyright AP - Associated Press
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