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From Government, They’re Here to Help : Aid: Fire victims’ spirits rise at encouraging words on disaster relief from county, state and federal officials.

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TIMES STAFF WRITER

Stacy Johnson, 31, arrived at the Disaster Application Center Saturday at 12:55 p.m.--five minutes before it opened--to stand in line for her mother, Joan Collins, whose Mystic Hills home was reduced to ashes in Wednesday’s wildfire. She was first in line.

The two women emerged relieved and reassured 2 1/2 hours later, after visiting six different tables where they collected forms and promises of money to rebuild. Collins’ registration form was temporarily lost along the way, and no one had actually revealed how much money they could expect, or when it would arrive.

But at least they’d done something .

“There’s so many pieces of paper to read and you have to keep your head clear when your head’s not clear,” Collins sighed as she emerged from the noisy, crowded room in City Hall where the county, state and federal officials had set up shop. “If I remember even one quarter of that stuff they told me, I am really lucky.”

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“It’s like going to the dentist,” said Collins, a kindergarten teacher. “But it’s a very necessary experience. I’m glad I did it. It’s terrific. It’s reassuring to know that you’re not going to be out on a limb.”

During the disaster center’s first day of operation Saturday, 85 people snaked through City Hall’s recreation room, applying for emergency aid grants and loans to rebuild the homes they lost in Orange County’s worst fire. Though lines moved slowly, spirits were high as residents learned of the various aid programs.

“Someone just told me to go downtown at 1 o’clock. . . . I’d like to get some counseling,” said Kristen Nesselrod. “They marked all these things off for me and sent me station to station. . . . Emotionally, it’s helpful.”

Center Manager Philip Manriquez said the day went smoothly and that streamlined forms had improved the disaster aid process since the Loma Prieta earthquake in 1989.

Johnson and Collins’ odyssey through the system began with a simple identification form and then the first of many lines. There were only two chairs near the entrance for about a dozen people, so Johnson and Collins stood against the wall.

Gov. Pete Wilson and Insurance Commissioner John Garamendi, possible rivals in the 1994 gubernatorial election, caused a brief ruckus as they shook hands with victims amid a throng of television cameras in separate visits.

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A county mental health worker passed around a bucket of M & Ms. On the table in the center of the room sat a brandy snifter filled with hard candy and a box of tissues.

It was 1:25 p.m. before Collins was served.

“Would you take this woman here?” one Federal Emergency Management Agency worker said to another, grabbing Collins’ form and making her No. 23, instead of No. 1. “I forgot her.”

Finally settled at a table, Collins and Johnson started to field the questions: Name. Address. Age. Work phone number. Names and ages of dependents. Annual income.

“I need a brief description of the damage to your property,” FEMA’s Aurora Bolding said.

“It’s gone,” Collins laughed. “Totaled.”

Johnson, who flew in Friday from San Francisco to help her mother recover, added: “I think the briefest description would be: ‘Dust.’ ”

By 2 p.m., Collins had learned how to report her losses on next year’s income taxes and had been sent to a room where the line was forming for loans administered through the Small Business Administration but available to homeowners. There, she met fellow teachers and learned of their union’s plans to help fire victims.

“It’s not the house so much, it’s the home,” Johnson said to her comrades in line. “You lose the roots, you feel upended. We need each other.”

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It was 3 p.m. before they were summoned to the next station.

“I can see why it was important to get here early. . . . Even if you get here early, you’re going to be here forever,” Collins said.

At the SBA table, Bill Potter had good news, and he delivered it fast. Homeowners such as Collins are eligible for low-interest loans: $100,000 to rebuild, $20,000 to cover damage to personal property and $20,000 more for improvements to stave off future fires.

All this is on top of whatever the insurance company pays.

“I’m sorry this happened to you, first of all,” Potter said before producing a packet of pamphlets about his programs. “Now we need a phone number where you can be reached right now, because we’re going to get you some money right away,” he said.

Encouraged, Collins and Johnson shuffled down to the next station to hear about the Individual and Family Grant Program, which offers $22,200 in state and federal grants for people whose costs exceed the SBA loans.

Then it was on to CALDAP, the California Disaster Assistance Program, the “last resort.” If the money from everywhere else doesn’t cover rebuilding expenses, CALDAP can provide a $30,000 loan.

It was 3:15 p.m. Time for the exit interview.

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