Disaster Relief Efforts: Bringing Life Back to Communities Devastated by Fire
When a historic fire season raged through Oregon in the fall of 2020, no one could have imagined the forest fires would raze entire communities to the ground. Particularly hard hit were the small towns and rural communities like those in the Santiam Pass and along the McKenzie River east of Eugene. Rebuilding will take considerable effort and time.
Otak has a long history of working with rural school districts managing bond programs and capital improvement projects and has developed relationships with school principals and super- intendants (often one and the same in smaller districts). So, when the McKenzie School District (MSD), which serves 220 K-12 students, was caught in the fires, it struck home for Stephen Wasserberger, Senior Project Manager at DAY CPM, an Otak Division.
“Just driving through there is mind-boggling, absolutely mind-boggling,” Stephen stated when describing a recent visit to the area. “And then as you start to get to the areas where the residences are burned and all the buildings are gone, it’s just heartbreaking.”
Destruction Outside the Scope of School Bond
The MSD was already seeking approval of a 15 million dollar bond when the forest fires came through, leveling many homes, businesses, and community centers. The McKenzie High School lost the grandstand to the football field, a storage building, and a concession stand—structures outside the scope of the bond, which means any replacement funds are going to come from insurance money, FEMA, and state emergency grant money. With an understanding of replacement values and insurance, Stephen knew it was going to be a struggle to replace the structures, let alone fully fund new structures with updated designs and materials to match current building codes and standards.
“This is when I knew we could help. We could help the district get things off the ground and if we did this work pro-bono, we could save the district considerable costs, and really make a difference,” Stephen stated. “This is a community that’s been completely traumatized. They lost about four hundred homes. Teachers lost their homes. Obviously, students and families lost their homes. So stepping in to help was about doing the right thing, supporting a community, and supporting people who are in a really bad spot.” This goes to the heart of what Otak is about and the work the firm does transforming communities, so it was no surprise that Stephen was able to garner support for a pro bono project from his team and the rest of Otak.
Reconstruction: Otak and Contractors Stepping up to Help
For the past two months, Stephen has been acting as Owner’s Rep for MSD on the reconstruction project, working with district leaders guiding them through the whole design and construction document process, as well as cost projections and funding, and securing contractor bids through an RFP process. Stephen has also taken the time to dive into various aspects of proposed designs, working with Soderstrom Architects and contractors to keep costs down while delivering new structures that will best serve the district and the community. Many of the contractors involved in the project had personal ties to the community and they were eager to be involved. Soderstrom, who has also provided pro bono work on the architectural plans for the grandstands, had already been working with MSD to provide facilities assessments for the bond.
The next step is garnering all of the necessary permits to begin construction. Although Lane County has waived permit fees, the process still takes time. Completion of the new grandstand, storage shed, and concessions stand—all of which will be constructed of non-combustible materials—is projected for the fall of 2022. For a small community like McKenzie, that day cannot come soon enough. “They want their grandstands back,” Stephen expressed. “Sports is a galvanizer and Friday night football is part of the community. It brings people together and in a time where, you know, things aren’t so great, it’s a positive thing. Giving the kids and the families a chance to get out, to just do something fun—every community deserves that.”
We will chronicle this journey as work progresses along with feedback from the community. Stay tuned for the next installment.