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In Porter Ranch, ongoing gas leak seeps the joy out of Christmas

Signs of Christmas along Danielle Rabadi's eerily quiet street have made her wistful for noel parties she has enjoyed in the Porter Ranch neighborhood, with families and neighbors sharing dinner tables and gifts.

"I think about it every day," said Rabadi, 29, a real estate agent, as she returned to her home this week to pick up unwrapped Christmas presents. "But this holiday, we're all living in hotel rooms or with relatives and don't know when we'll be moving back into our homes."

Rabadi is among thousands of Porter Ranchers who have moved out since Oct. 23, when a nearby Southern California Gas Co. natural gas well began leaking at a rate of 110,000 pounds an hour.

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SoCal Gas expects to have the leak fixed in three to four months. Until then, the company is paying to relocate and house residents and pets sickened by fumes that health officials and independent experts say can cause headache, nosebleed, nausea and other short-term ailments but pose no long-term health risks.

During Rabadi's stop at her house, she also gathered up important documents and family photos, fearful that burglars will see vacant neighborhoods as an opportunity. She took everything to the home of relatives she and her husband, Peter, 28, have moved in with, about 10 miles away.

Her own anxieties aside, in recent weeks Rabadi has been helping find temporary boarding for other Porter Ranch residents at a time when most nearby hotel and motel rooms and rental homes have been snapped up.

The shortage has pushed rental rates as high as $8,500 a month as landlords, who prefer leases of a year or longer, seek compensation for much shorter terms.

"My phone is exploding with requests from people trying to get the heck out of here," Rabadi said.

Porter Ranch is a 30-year-old master-planned community of 30,000 people, schools, businesses, parks and hiking trails tucked beneath the Santa Susana Mountains at the northwestern tip of the San Fernando Valley. It has survived wildfires, hurricane-force winds and a massive earthquake, but none of those matches the body blow dealt by the leak.

Ben Kaczor, who moved to Porter Ranch almost exactly 30 years ago, is hearing stories about declining property values and homes falling out of escrow — and it is changing his future. Kaczor is vice president of a women's apparel company and, at 62, he planned to take early retirement.

"A great portion of my retirement income was going to come from the equity in my home," he said. "But now, I'm not sure. No one can guarantee that another well won't blow, or a third, and we'll have to do this all over again."

Two weeks ago he was supposed to give the company's end-of-the-year speech at a downtown restaurant. Instead, he said he spent the day in bed with headaches and a nosebleed.

"Each year for the past 29 years, we've hosted Thanksgiving and Hanukkah celebrations for family, friends and neighbors," Kaczor said. "But this year, my wife and I couldn't bear burdening our loved ones with the gas."

Kaczor and his wife have relocated to an apartment at a cost to SoCal Gas of $3,500 a month. But they still pay for their mortgage, utilities, property taxes, gardening and homeowner association fees. "That's not fair," he said.

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Wendy Corell, 60, who is totally paralyzed with multiple sclerosis and shares her Porter Ranch home with two full-time caregivers, said she asked SoCal Gas on Oct. 25 to find her alternative housing because noxious chemicals leaking from the well were drifting into her home through ventilation ducts, door frames and windowsills.

"The smell put a sore throat, headaches and terrible nosebleeds on top of my disease," she said. "But the company never called me back."

On Wednesday, Corell and her caregivers and companion dog Benji moved into a Van Nuys hotel room outfitted to accommodate severely handicapped people. The accommodations were located and arranged by Corell's father and Rabadi.

"I still plan to live in my house for the rest of my life, then hand the property over to my daughter as a nest egg," Corell said. "But who would want to buy a home in Porter Ranch?"

The Southland Regional Assn. of Realtors has amended residential purchase disclosure agreements for the San Fernando Valley to advise that "there is no definitive time frame for controlling the gas leak."

Despite repeated assurances that the fumes pose no serious health risks, many residents are skeptical and say they have reason not to trust SoCal Gas. The company's formal summary of tests taken Nov. 12 in the community said that levels of hazardous sulfur compounds were "intermittent, very low" and below state standards.

That isn't true. The tests had found hydrogen sulfide levels of 183 parts per billion — six times the state standard for a chemical that can be poisonous.

The company said the hydrogen sulfide was released during an early attempt to stop the leak at the wellhead, one of several methods SoCal Gas tried before giving up and embarking on the lengthy process of drilling relief wells to intercept and plug the damaged well.

Lisa Larroque Alexander, director of technology solutions at SoCal Gas, described the omission in report as an "oversight" and said, "We are making the correction."

But the damage to the company's credibility has been done.

"Fear, uncertainty and doubt are leaking out of that failed well faster than methane gas," Los Angeles City Councilman Mitch Englander said. "The situation has ripped a sense of comfort out of people's primary investment: homes they bought to raise a family, pay for their children's college education and support their retirement."

Brian and Christine Katz and their five children spent their days before Christmas dealing with physical problems caused by the fumes and the hassle of relocating to a house that SoCal Gas has agreed to lease at a rate of $8,000 a month.

Their 21/2-year-old daughter, Ava, spent four nights in the emergency room of a local hospital for upper respiratory symptoms, her mother said.

A week ago, the family learned their Porter Ranch home was built near an idle oil well. "Do you think [we would have] bought this house if we knew there was an idle well a few blocks away?" Christine Katz asked while packing up personal belongings and gifts for the move.

Gonzalo Cerda, 54, a physical therapist who has lived in Porter Ranch for 21 years, said he "would prefer to see the gas company's facility shut down."

"The company says 'Calm down, these are simply annoying odors,' " said Cerda, who lives beneath ridgelines bristling with injection well derricks and scaffolding. "No one can guarantee what the long-term impacts of this disaster might be 20 years from now. They may shock us."

Rabadi would not argue with any of that.

"I didn't even buy a Christmas tree this year — how could I?" she said. "It just doesn't feel like Christmas."

louis.sahagun@latimes.com

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A version of this article appeared in print on December 25, 2015, in the News section of the Los Angeles Times with the headline "Joy seeps out of the holidays - Gas fumes in Porter Ranch force Christmas relocations" — Today's paperToday's paper | Subscribe
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