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No Rest for Weary Who Live Near Freeway Rebuilding

Nobody would do anything about the noise outside. Until they started making noise from the inside.

That’s the way Vicki McGee feels these days about life in the fast lane--the frenetic Santa Monica Freeway earthquake repair zone.

McGee is one of hundreds of Westside residents who live a few steps from where platoons of construction workers are racing to rebuild a pair of collapsed freeway bridges.

For nearly two months their lives have been punctuated by the pound-pound-pound of pile drivers, the clink-clink-clink of concrete chippers, the beep-beep-beep alarms of trucks and skip-loaders backing up.

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The spongy former swampland that their neighborhood is built upon--the kind of geology that probably caused the freeway spans to bounce loose and fall--vibrates when heavy equipment rumbles past.

Darkness becomes day when huge floodlights used by the construction night shift crew shine into their homes. Workers on scaffolding shout to each other. Dust from the trucks and the demolished concrete pavement and pillars is everywhere.

“It’s miserable,” said McGee, an administrative assistant at UCLA who has lived 11 years on David Avenue, about 100 feet from the freeway. “Nobody can sleep--you get so tired that you doze off at stoplights when you’re driving.”

On nearby Chariton Street, Al Aguilera stands outside the auto repair shop behind his home. He wears a weary look. No wonder.

“The sound goes clunk, clunk, clunk, clunk,” he said. “It goes on all night. And the lights drive me crazy.”

To make matters worse, Aguilera’s Spanish-style home burned down a few hours after the Jan. 17 earthquake. To keep thieves from looting his garage behind the ruins, Aguilera moved into a house next door and has been afraid to leave ever since.

A block to the east on Cadillac Avenue, Myrtle Hamilton is planning to leave--away from freeways and earthquakes. She is headed for Virginia.

“There’s been no rest from January to now,” Hamilton said. “You manage to blank out the noise and finally get to sleep, and at 3 in the morning a different noise wakes you up. I’ve tried earplugs, but they don’t work. When I get out of here I’ll probably sleep for a week.”

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On the south side of the freeway, Ena Guadron can see the construction from the door of her Dauphin Avenue duplex. She can feel it from inside the house too.

“Sometimes, my children feel the shaking when the machines go by and think it’s another aftershock,” said the mother of three. “They get very frightened.”

Caltrans says it has heard the residents loud and clear.

When the freeway neighbors grumbled that they could not sleep, the agency contracted with three Culver City hotels to offer them free rooms. So far, said Jerry Baxter, regional director for Caltrans, officials have paid for 1,600 “room nights.”

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For those who did not want to move to a hotel, the agency installed 30-foot-high temporary sound walls to muffle the noise. When families with children complained that hotels were difficult and the walls were not enough, Caltrans arranged to move them into two-bedroom units with kitchens at the nearby Oakwood Apartments.

A temporary bypass road was built for apartment dwellers on David Avenue, which has been taken over by construction trucks. Guards were brought in to watch over apartment units that have been vacated by those moving into hotels.

When some residents reported feeling stressed out at work because of the disruptions, free counseling was arranged at a mental health center. When some reported that the dust was making them ill, officials set out to find a mobile health clinic to visit the area.

The agency has also arranged for an ombudsman to work with residents. She is Lois Hill Hale, and her staff attends construction meetings daily and issues periodic updates to residents about the project’s progress and traffic rerouting. The reports are hand-delivered to 200 nearby homes and apartment units.

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Maps have been given to residents to show them the quickest way in and out of their neighborhoods. Special ID placards have been issued to allow residents past street barricades. A hot line (800-306-HELP) has been set up to take residents’ complaints.

Baxter said his agency will have spent up to $500,000 helping the freeway’s neighbors by the time the $21-million rebuilding project ends. This month, officials said they would reopen the freeway in May, a month ahead of schedule.

“We have an unusual situation we’ve never had before,” Baxter said. “Government doesn’t have the right to adversely affect people if it can be avoided.”

The state’s response to the earthquake has not fallen on deaf ears, even in the Santa Monica Freeway repair zone.

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Some residents say they are impressed by copies of internal memos they have been given that indicate noise complaints are being taken seriously. They show that the contractor has ordered workers to knock off the yelling, loud music and the gunning of their cars’ engines during shift changes.

“Caltrans has been very, very nice,” said apartment building owner Steven Stewart, who admits to initially being worried that his 16 tenants would be driven out.

“I think Caltrans has done everything it can to help. They put in the new road, they got the trash people to get in here and keep the place clean. They put in new street lights. They put in the sound wall. They’ve given us 24-hour security. They’ve sent anyone who wanted to go to hotels. They’ve done everything except give pure cash to people.”

Chariton Street apartment renter Jaime Bitong said things have quieted down significantly since the first few weeks of the project. He said the nighttime construction is probably worth the headaches.

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“I just want them to get the work done,” Bitong said.

Orville Swanston, who has lived on the street for 17 years, agreed.

“The noise is a problem. But without the freeway, you’re doomed. So we’re all in this together.”


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