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Saturday, Nov. 17, 2007 | A few weeks ago, 14-year-old Marisa Morrison had her own oasis: a bedroom, where she could retreat with her own bed, her own clothes — her stuff.
But all that changed in the early hours of Oct. 21, when Marissa, her two siblings and her parents had to hastily pack one suitcase each and flee from the onward march of the Harris Fire that was bearing down on their home on Deerhorn Valley Road in Jamul.
Now, Marissa is one of an untold number of children living out of a suitcase in a motel or hotel. Home is now a small suite in the Marriott Residence Inn in Kearny Mesa, a 40-minute commute from Marissa’s school and an hour from the charred remains of her home. Marissa has lost her privacy, the house where she was born and almost every single thing she’s ever possessed. At night she sleeps in a strange bed, crammed in with her brother and sister, the noise of the nearby freeways a far cry from the still nights of rural Jamul
And last week, Marissa made headlines after she claimed her teacher forced her to write a thank-you letter to firefighters for saving her home. Her father, Troy, took a break from clearing the rubble of his home to meet with the Oak Grove Middle School principal and eventually took his complaint to the local school board and to the local media. He said he’s still waiting for an adequate apology.
We sat down with Marissa on the couch in the small living room of her new, temporary home. We asked her about motel life, about how her friends are treating her since the fires, and about how she thinks her parents are dealing with the loss of their home and their possessions.
When you were leaving your house for the last time, evacuating from the fires, do you remember looking back and seeing any particular thing — do you have any particular image of your house on that night that has stayed with you?
I remember the last part of the house I saw: My parent’s room where their bathroom was and part of my brother’s room. I knew where the rooms were.
A lot of adults seem to think that kids can bounce back easier from tragedies like this. Do you think that’s true?
No. Because it’s just as hard for kids as it is for adults.
There’s the same things going through them, but they have to be with their friends who are still the same as they were always, who haven’t lost anything.
How are you liking hotel living?
I don’t like it.
What’s the worst thing about it?
Not being able to sleep in the same beds, because we have to rotate beds because they’re not very comfortable.
Is there one comfortable bed and one uncomfortable one?
What are the comforts of home you’re missing most?
Just being able to go into my room and have all my stuff that I can just go and grab, and having privacy.
When did you first find out that your house was gone and how did you find out?
On Tuesday [Oct. 23], around 10. My dad went up there because they were allowing SDG&E crews to go up there and he said he would call us and let us know because he was going past our house.
My mom got a call and the service was bad so all she heard was “gone.” But then he called back and he said “everything’s gone,” and then my mom told me.
How did you feel?
Horrible. I’d never felt that way before. I just remember thinking everything’s gone, not thinking about one thing, but just everything.
You’re with your parents all the time, so you’ve been watching them respond to all of this. How do you think this has affected them?
My mom cries a lot. There’s a lot of stress.
You’ve told me you were told to write a thank-you letter to the firefighters for saving your home. How did that make you feel?
And how about when you didn’t get the letter of apology from your teacher?
That didn’t bother me. It bothered my dad more, but my teacher actually came and apologized to me.
Most of the kids in your class didn’t lose their homes. Have they changed in the way they have been treating you since the fires?
They have been really helping me out. They hug me a lot and they just say that they’ll help us if we need help.
As you go through this whole experience, are you just putting trust and faith in your parents that they will figure it all out?
Partly. Partly I have to help figure it out. It’s not just them.