Anaheim gym becomes 'one-stop shopping center' for O.C. fire victims
By By My-Thuan Tran
Nov 19, 2008 | 12:00 AM
When Jill Worthington peeked out the window of her Anaheim Hills apartment Saturday morning and saw flames beginning to jump into the edge of the Cascade complex, she had time only to scoop up her two cats and bird. As Worthington, 57, and her son fled, she ticked off what she'd left behind: medication, documents, photos, clothes.
Worthington returned to her home Sunday and discovered it was as she had feared: It had been destroyed by the Freeway Complex fire. Her apartment was red-tagged, meaning it was unsafe to enter, so she couldn't get in to see what was salvageable. Once again, she was left with nothing.
Worthington was finally able to get help Tuesday at the East Anaheim Gym, which had been turned into a "one-stop shopping center" for fire victims. Hundreds of people who stopped by found they could get all kinds of assistance, from navigating insurance claims to getting replacement driver's licenses.
The Red Cross set Worthington up in a hotel for three days. They gave her coupons for the grocery store and clothing stores. They refilled the prescription she had left behind. She got answers to questions about insurance claims.
"Everyone has been very generous," she said. "And it's nice talking to people who are in the same boat."
The Anaheim assistance center is the only one up and running to help Southern California fire victims, but another one should open in Los Angeles soon, said Kelly Huston, deputy director of the governor's Office of Emergency Services. Similar centers were opened after previous wildfires.
In Anaheim, fire victims lined up to talk to counselors from 30 public and private agencies.
Laurie Avina held her 1-year-old son, Troy, on the gym bleachers as her husband, Rick, waited in line to talk to the Red Cross.
"We're here trying to get assistance," she said. "We have nowhere to go. What we have here is what we have, for all of us."
Avina wore the same brown tank top and tan shorts she had left her home wearing.
Though Avina's Cascades apartment was largely spared from the flames, authorities said the apartment was uninhabitable because water used to douse the fire had seeped through the ceiling and smoke still clouded the rooms.
Avina was able only to enter her apartment for a few minutes Sunday, grabbing clothes for her son and 3-year-old daughter, Kailee.
At the gymnasium, Rick Avina was told by some agencies that he would be unable to get assistance until he provided documentation that the family lived at the complex. The Avinas had moved in May and had not yet updated their driver's licenses with their new address.
Rick Avina said he would try to get verification from the complex's leasing office, but he did not know if that would be successful because the office had been damaged in the fire.
"I'm in limbo," he said.
At a nearby table, Anita Allison filled out forms from the Orange County assessor's office.
"I don't know what to write here," she murmured, reading from the form: "Opinion of property value immediately following the misfortune." She frowned and wrote down a question mark.
Her home on Yorba Linda's San Antonio Road was destroyed, along with the antiques she and her husband had collected on their travels to the Middle East, Asia and Africa.
"Everything is gone," she said. "Everything."
At the gymnasium, she was able to get a temporary driver's license, because she had run out of the house without her purse the day of the fire. She also got the public utilities agency to turn off her utilities. The agency also waived her outstanding utility bills.
"When something like this happens to you, you have so many questions, so many things you never thought about," she said. "We're blessed to get so much help here."