Victims Still Recovering From Jolt to Their Lives : Aftermath: Residents are quietly trying to put things back together again as the four-month anniversary of the quake approaches.
As the four-month anniversary of the Northridge earthquake approaches this week, San Fernando Valley residents continue to struggle with the temblor’s invisible successors: bureaucracy, doubt and the longing for security.
While the rebuilding goes noisily on at downed freeways and heavily damaged apartment buildings, most quake victims are quietly trying to put things back together again.
Lucy Perez, whose Pacoima house has only been partially repaired, longs for a past life of normalcy--when her walls were free of cracks and she knew little about the workings of the Federal Emergency Management Agency.
Liquor store owner Daniel Whang has borrowed from relatives and his children’s college fund to help cover quake damage to his Northridge liquor store and Glendale apartment building.
Still, he says, things are looking up.
Steve Sadd expected to be back in his Sherman Oaks home in two months.
Now, faced with $200,000 in damage, he’ll be lucky to be back home for Christmas.
Only Joaquin Moreno has fully recovered, and is actually doing better than before the quake.
He has an apartment and a job.
Before he was unemployed and living in a trailer.
Still, each aftershock sends
his mind spinning back to that dark morning in January when his world would not stop shaking.
Huge cracks still splinter the outside of Lucy Perez’s home, nearly four months after the Northridge quake rattled her Pacoima house and threw her life off kilter.
But the 68-year-old widowed grandmother has a calm tone to her voice when she talks about recovering from the quake. And she has begun to express the hope that her life will fall back into place some day.
“It’s not going to happen tomorrow or the next day,” she said. “But it will happen.”
Perez’s optimism is in stark contrast with the anger and frustration she vented in the weeks immediately after the temblor caused about $44,000 in damage to the home she shares with her son and two teen-age grandsons.
Back then, most of her rage was aimed at federal emergency officials and others who she said moved too slowly to provide help for working-class people like her family and her neighbors.
But that was before workers patched gaping openings and fractures in her living room walls and ceilings--the first progress toward putting her home back in order.
“So far, that is where we are at,” she said. “Others haven’t even started (repairs) so I guess we are lucky.”
That work was made possible by a $3,450 grant from FEMA. But it is only a fraction of the $44,100 Perez says is needed to repair her home and replace damaged furniture and personal items.
Perez said the family used the entire grant, plus some of their own savings, to begin the inside repair work. Patching of the huge fissures in the stucco walls on the outside of her home will have to wait until they get more money.
And there is still a lot more work to be done.
Most of the family’s belongings remain in boxes in anticipation of the additional repair work they hope to launch soon. The bedrooms are still in disorder, so they must sleep on mattresses on the floor.
Because the kitchen is the next room to be repaired, Perez said, cooking utensils, food and other kitchen items have been packed away, making meal preparations nearly impossible. These days, she said, they eat out a lot.
But Perez retains some anger for FEMA and other recovery agencies, which she says are still moving at an apathetic pace.
“You ask them and ask them and they say ‘Wait, wait, wait,’ ” she complained.
Then her optimism breaks through again and she talks about how she knows things will somehow come out right in the end.
“We are going to make it,” Perez said. “Don’t worry.”
Daniel K. Whang
Five years from now, when he reflects on how the earthquake changed his life, Daniel K. Whang thinks it will barely register a blip.
This from a merchant who, while still recovering financially from property damage sustained during the riots, suffered an additional $83,000 worth of quake damage to his Northridge liquor store and Glendale apartment building.
The willingness of banks to grant loan extensions, and the fact that Whang was a man of means before the temblor, have made it easier for the store owner and his family to bounce back. During the past 10 weeks, lenders that held mortgages on his store, apartment property and home have allowed loan extensions of up to six months, giving him some fiscal breathing room.
Only his home lender is requiring that he pay in full several months’ back mortgage payments on June 1. The others are redistributing his debt over periods of 18 months to 23 years, freeing up cash he is using to restock his store and repair his buildings.
The Small Business Administration also has granted Whang a six-month grace period before it will require payments on the riot-recovery loan issued for his South-Central liquor store, which was torched by arsonists.
And in an unexpected quake windfall, a surge in neighborhood construction has sent a steady stream of workers to Whang’s Continental Liquor Store on Balboa Boulevard for beer, snacks and cigarettes.
“Things have turned out better than I expected,” Whang said as he counted out change for a customer. On a recent afternoon, money piled up in the cash register drawer--which Whang didn’t even bother to shut as he pulled down cigarettes and printed out lottery tickets for patrons.
Such bustling business does not pay all the bills, however. The merchant recently was forced to borrow $10,000 from his children’s college fund and $6,000 from his sister to pay for repairs to his market and apartment.
His store counter and the area behind it has become a staging area from which he tackles all the paperwork applying for loans entails. During downtime at work, he follows up on the status of his commercial and SBA loans using a phone and fax machine, and drafts letters for his brother-in-law to type and send.
Through it all, Whang has displayed an indefatigable, almost inexplicable, confidence in his future, an optimism which has been largely borne out so far.
As he rang up her purchases, a customer smiled at him.
“How are you?” she asked.
Whang smiled back and answered, “I’m fine.”
Steve Sadd is confident he has more than enough insurance to cover the $200,000 in repairs to his hillside home in Sherman Oaks, yet he’s thinking of walking away from it all anyway.
But parting company with his house may not be so simple.
Sadd is afraid he wouldn’t be able to sell it if he ever decided to because of the damage his neighborhood suffered. Even if he could find a willing buyer, financing might be elusive because half the nearby homes have been standing vacant since the quake.
“There’s an economic disincentive because of all the damage still around it,” Sadd said. “You won’t find a lender out here.”
It’s the latest in a string of realizations forced on Sadd, 48, since the Northridge earthquake sent his house on stilts twisting and sliding 10 inches down a hillside.
“I realize . . . I may be there for the rest of my life because I may not ever be able to sell it again, and that’s something I never thought of before,” said Sadd. “Even if I could snap my fingers and my house would be perfect, what kind of situation am I in?”
And so it goes for Sadd, a Century City attorney, who must decide whether to repair his home or settle with his insurance companies and take the money and buy a new house in an unscarred neighborhood with healthy property values.
Should Sadd and his wife choose to stay and fix their home, they face months of repair, which they would wait out at a Westside house they have been renting since the quake.
Initially, they expected their home to be ready in two months. That date came and went and they pushed their arrival date back to July.
“Now we’ll be lucky to be home by Christmas,” Sadd said.
But before Sadd and his wife can make any decisions, he says they must find out how much each of their two insurance companies owes them--though he says he’s confident that he has enough coverage between the policies to cover all the repairs.
They also expect to wait another two months for a structural engineer to complete final repair plans for their home.
One of the few things that remain clear to Sadd is that he and his wife have some tough decisions ahead.
“When you’re in a middle-age situation like I am, it makes you realize you need to re-evaluate everything, from where you work to where you live,” Sadd said.
The choice may be made for them should the final repair estimate exceed the current $200,000 figure.
“If it goes much above there I think we’ll just walk away and find a new home,” Sadd said. “I hate to say it ‘cause I love it there. Every time I go by I just want to go back.”
Joaquin Moreno certainly never wished for an earthquake to knock his mobile home off its foundation and leave him on the brink of homelessness. But he might be one of the few quake victims who is truly better off today than he was four months ago.
The day before the quake, Moreno, 29, was unemployed, and living in a cramped room in a Sylmar trailer with two roommates. Now, he has a job and a spacious apartment subsidized with federal relief funds. He even talks of saving enough money for a car or truck, something he hasn’t had in almost a year.
“I’m doing much better than before the earthquake,” Moreno said. “Now I have my own place. . . . The last time I had my place was two years ago. I have everything I need. And the bathroom is never busy.”
For the next 16 months or so, the Federal Emergency Management Agency will pay about 60% of the rent for his $425-a-month apartment in Panorama City. The one-bedroom place on a busy stretch of Van Nuys Boulevard seems luxurious to Moreno--it came furnished with two cream-colored sofas and a comfortable chair in the living room, along with a stove, a refrigerator, and a table and chairs for the kitchen. A bed and a big closet are in the bedroom.
Friends have chipped in to supply the rest: two telephones--one for the living room and one for the bedroom--a black-and-white television set and a microwave oven.
The apartment is also air conditioned, Moreno points out, handy for those summer days when the temperature is in the 90s and above. “This is very, very bueno,” he said of his place, speaking in his characteristic mix of English and Spanish. “I have todo. “
Though modest, the apartment is a big step up from the San Fernando Recreation Center, where Moreno spent several weeks after the quake, sleeping on a cot in a shelter run by the Red Cross.
“I really feel lucky,” Moreno said. “I feel really sorry for the people living without houses and things, because I know how that is.”
Moreno said he isn’t worried about what will happen once the FEMA subsidy ends. He tries to save money, he says, and is thinking about learning a trade: automotive repair, or maybe computer programming.
At the end of April, Moreno switched jobs, and now works at Century Oldsmobile on Van Nuys Boulevard in Van Nuys where he drives customer’s cars to the dealership garage for service.
Because he lives only 10 minutes from work, he takes only one bus, instead of the three he had to catch to get to his last job.
Still, Moreno wants a car, one that he considers “top of the line.”
What he means is that he’d love to get a Buick Riviera. Nothing fancy, he says, any year between 1979 and 1986 would be fine. After all, he can only spend about $1,500, which he doesn’t have yet.
But even without the car he’s happy. “I’m on the road again,” he said. “I got an apartment. A job. I’m back. . . .Really.”