Dan Cuniberti never expected to be the victim of a natural disaster. But in the early hours of Oct. 9, 2017, Cuniberti, a Merchant Services account manager for Wells Fargo, and his wife awoke to their neighbor pounding on the window and ringing their doorbell. Wildfires in Northern California were quickly approaching, forcing his family to evacuate their home in Santa Rosa.
The fires ultimately burned more than 240,000 acres, destroying almost 9,000 buildings and killing 44 people, according to the Environmental Protection Agency (PDF). Cuniberti and his family lost their home of 16 years.
Fortunately, they received help from Wells Fargo’s WE Care Fund, which was established in 2001 to provide grants to team members experiencing significant financial hardship as a result of a natural disaster, family emergency, or other unexpected events.
“It felt good to know that Wells Fargo was there for me and they had my back when I needed it,” Cuniberti said. “It was definitely unexpected, but it was a welcome gift at the time, and it definitely helped us out at a time in need.”
From 2001 through November 2018, WE Care has awarded more than $18 million in grants to more than 11,000 Wells Fargo team members.
“There’s not a playbook for maneuvering through a crisis situation — whether it’s due to a significant weather event, house fire, illness, or other family situation,” said Carrie Wolter, Community Relations senior consultant for Wells Fargo and program manager for the WE Care Fund. “The WE Care Fund is a unique program — funded in part by Wells Fargo team members — to help fellow coworkers facing a crisis. By offering grants that do not need to be repaid, the WE Care Fund helps team members get back on their feet by providing for things like basic living expenses, home repairs, and medical expenses.”
‘There were flames a couple hundred yards away’
After being woken by their neighbor the morning of the fire, Cuniberti and his wife went outside, smelled smoke, walked a little farther, and were then hit by a wall of smoke.
“We looked up the hill, and there were flames a couple hundred yards away, and we knew what was going on,” he said. “At that point, people in the neighborhood were starting to come out of their house. About 10 minutes later, police were driving through the neighborhood with bullhorns telling people to evacuate.”
Cuniberti and his wife woke their daughter, who was 11 at the time, and their son, who was 8. They spent a few minutes grabbing two photo albums and journals they keep for their children.
“We told them, ‘There is an emergency. We need to go.’” Cuniberti said. “They each grabbed something.”
They had about 10-15 minutes total to wake and gather their kids, their dog, and the few personal items they could save before getting in their two cars and heading south. “Everyone was evacuating,” he said. “It was like rush-hour traffic. And I remember looking back at the neighborhood and kind of being in disbelief that that was the last time we’d ever see the house, and turns out it was true.”
Cuniberti and his family arrived at a hotel in San Rafael, California, around 3 a.m., only an hour after they had first woken up. For the next few hours, they were on social media trying to gather what information they could. Around 4:30 a.m., Cuniberti’s friend who had driven through the neighborhood called to tell him his house was gone.
“We expected it, but that was the final word we got,” Cuniberti said.
During their stay at the hotel, Cuniberti’s manager at Wells Fargo asked what she could do to help. Cuniberti said he wasn’t sure, but that he needed time to process everything. A day or two later, his manager told him about WE Care Fund and sent him the information needed to start the process, which includes meeting eligibility requirements, applying, an informal interview with a grant specialist, and providing any supporting documentation. After receiving the grant, the Cuniberti family used the money for short-term expenses associated with their evacuation. “I didn’t know Wells Fargo had a program like that,” he said. “The financial gift was important, but just as important was knowing that Wells Fargo and the WE Care Fund was there for us.”
‘Everything we owned was just in a pile of ash on the floor’
After spending a week and a half away from their home, Cuniberti and his wife were able to return to their neighborhood. “They used the term ‘like an atomic bomb went off,’ and it was,” Cuniberti said. “It was just gray dust everywhere, and all you could see was chimneys. All the trees were gone, and all the houses were gone. It was heartbreaking just seeing everything we had. We had lived in that house for 16 years, so everything we owned was just in a pile of ash on the floor. It was tough. Beth and I got out of the car, walked up the driveway, and as soon as we stepped onto the front porch, my wife just broke down in tears, and I probably followed her after that.”
He and his wife tried to sift through the ashes to recover family heirlooms, but they weren’t able to get much. They were grateful to find some ceramic coffee mugs their children had made them and cast iron pots that belonged to Cuniberti’s great-grandmother.
Because so many homes had been lost in the fires, Cuniberti said the local rental market was tough afterward. It took his family about four weeks to find a rental home on the other side of town. Today, they are renting a home close to where their previous home stood, and they are rebuilding on the same site where they previously lived. They hope to move into their new home by May 2019. “There’s a happy ending,” Cuniberti said. “Life is getting back to normal for myself and the community.”
And even though he has been with Wells Fargo for 16 years and already felt it’s a good company to work for, Cuniberti said receiving support from the WE Care Fund has confirmed that. “Going through something like this and receiving all the support that I received during the fires and after the fires, it definitely solidified how great a company Wells Fargo is and how much they are there to support us when we are in need.”