The doors to seven disaster relief centers opened at 10 a.m. sharp Friday, as hundreds of riot victims, clutching receipts and documents, vied to be among the first to seek government reparation for ruined businesses and livelihoods.
From Long Beach to Watts to Koreatown, the victims lined up as early as 7 a.m. in search of some kind of monetary relief to ease the pain of riot-induced tragedies, small and large.
A foster mother asked for money to replace her refrigerator, blown out when electricity surged into her neighborhood. The owner of a lawn mower shop wanted an $80,000 loan to reopen his looted, burned business. A couple whose auto shop was destroyed requested welfare assistance--for the first time--to make ends meet.
As they entered crowded gymnasiums across the city, many people appeared confused and frustrated over the long, often complex application process that involved deciphering the acronyms for a myriad of government programs--FEMA, SBA, SCBA, DUA, CAWP.
For many, it will be weeks before applications are processed and a government-issued check arrives in the mail.
"But I need something today," said Darren Wilson, 30, whose tuxedo rental shop in the Crenshaw district was cleaned out by looters. "I'm filling out all this paperwork and leaving in the same situation I was in yesterday. What about right now?"
The opening of the disaster relief centers came five days after President Bush announced that the federal government will make available about $600 million in loans and cash grants to help repair riot damage. Last Saturday, Bush declared Los Angeles a disaster area.
Federal, state and local government agencies responsible for distributing aid--including Small Business Administration loans, unemployment benefits and crisis counseling--have united under one roof in hard-hit areas, turning gymnasiums into bazaars of assistance programs.
The crowds were generally orderly and workers encouraged victims to make an appointment for a later date rather than wait in long lines. The centers will be open for as long as needed, and victims do not need to rush to be served, officials said. By 3:30 p.m. Friday, 711 people had filled out applications citywide and hundreds more had made appointments.
At one of the busiest centers, at the Harvard Recreation Center on West 62nd Street, a state worker shouted out a dizzying round of instructions to about 80 people in line.
"Who has a control number for an SBA loan? . . . Stand in this line. . . . If you don't know which line to stand in, wait here. It's going to be a long process."
Inside, applicants took seats at folding tables, where a worker explained the various programs and then dispatched them to other tables offering specific services.
Most sat quietly in folding chairs, staring at their applications. Now that the chaos of last week had ended, the losses had begun to ripple through their everyday lives. Without income from a business, how do you pay the rent, or buy food? Overnight, proud business owners had gone from haves to have-nots.
Now, a government check would be their last resort.
"I'm kind of a little embarrassed," said Doratriz Equihua, 28, breaking into tears as she waited to apply for welfare assistance. She and her husband lost their South Los Angeles auto repair shop. "We couldn't afford insurance. We don't have any savings. Now our future depends on whatever help we can get."
Assistance includes up to $500,000 in low-interest loans for a small business, up to $11,500 in grants to a family unable to meet household expenses and help in calculating losses on federal and state income tax forms.
Federal officials said it will take up to two months to process small business loans, but that family grants could be made within a week if applications are properly filled out.
Small business loans will be evaluated much like a bank loan, with credit ratings, debt, repayment ability and the overall health of a business to be taken into consideration.
Officials who inspect the damaged businesses will make final decisions on how much money is loaned.
At the Ardmore Park Recreation Center in Koreatown, harried victims shouted pleas for directions, clarifications--help--in Spanish, Korean and English.
"We're not eager about having to go through all this," said Daniel Ju, 34, owner of a convenience store sacked by looters near Avalon Boulevard. Ju spoke in Korean as he filled out a general relief registration form.
"But we're not ashamed. What were we doing that was so shameful?" Ju said. "We were minding our own businesses, and we got hit."
Some victims emerged grim-faced from business loan tables and criticized the lengthy process.
"The government is doing a show. But it's not real," said a Long Beach man who lost a Los Angeles food market. He complained that the aid programs were too complicated. He did not know what he would do next.
"Don't have a place to turn. Even the government cannot help," he said, declining to give his name.
Los Angeles Legal Aid Foundation representatives criticized a decision by the U.S. Department of Agriculture to deny the county's request to initiate an emergency food stamp program that offers lenient qualification requirements for those who are in need because of the riots.
A USDA spokeswoman said the department rejected the request because local social service offices have not reported an overwhelming number of applications for food stamps since last week. And, she said, food stamps would be of little help in riot-torn neighborhoods where few grocery stores are left. She also said that a plentiful amount of food is available through charitable organizations.
Brad Stevens of Legal Aid decried the official explanation.
"One of the biggest problems is that people are not getting food," Stevens said. "People have been afraid to leave their houses to apply for food stamps. There is a food crisis out there, and information about this program has been withheld."
But others praised the operation, despite the lines, the applications that must be filled out in triplicate and the uncertainty over how much money will be received.
"Very helpful, very organized, painless," said Steven Chiu as he and his parents headed for home with their loan application.
Only the walls of the Chius' Long Beach store, Hanson's Market, were left last week after looters and arsonists got through with it. The family had just celebrated its 26th anniversary at the Atlantic Avenue market, which it plans to rebuild.
For Van Huynh and his family, the test will be how soon the government writes an assistance check. "I'm satisfied with the help," said Huynh, whose family lost its Long Beach pool hall. "But we'll wait to see how long it takes to get the loan. That's the bottom line."
Times staff writers Bettina Boxall and John H. Lee contributed to this story.
The Federal Emergency Management Administration has opened several centers for people filing claims for federal funds to pay for riot damage. Most centers will operate seven day s a week from approximately 10 a.m. to 7 p.m. :
Gonzales Recreation Center, 10943 Herrick St., Pacoima
Harvard Recreation Center, 1535 W. 62nd St. Los Angeles
Hollywood Recreation Center, 1122 Cole Ave., Hollywood
Ardmore Recreation Center, 3250 San Marino St., Koreatown
Watts Senior Center, 1660 E. 99th St., Watts
Roy Campanella Recreation Center, 14812 Stanford Ave., Compton
California Recreation Center, 1550 Martin Luther King Jr. Ave., Long Beach
* For more information, call (800) 525-0321