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COUNTY REPORT / The Road to Recovery : Brick by Brick : Quake-Torn Communities Continue Battle to Rebuild Shattered Homes and Lives

TIMES STAFF WRITER

Today, six months after the violent Northridge earthquake, Ventura County’s fault-line communities are still struggling to restore broken shops and shattered homes.

Damage has been counted, catalogued and hammered into pleas for aid. Governments, charities and neighborhoods have poured millions of dollars and months of labor into the worst-hit communities: Simi Valley, Fillmore and Piru.

People are working as if to erase the day that shook their very lives.

Yet while carpenters bang crooked roofs back into shape and therapists coax nightmare-stricken children back to sleep, many agree: Ventura County will never be exactly the same.

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“I just think that it’s a pretty desperate time,” said Marty Robinson, the county’s deputy chief administrative officer.

“People’s lives were totally turned upside down,” she said. “Their houses have been messed up, and their children have been frightened, and their businesses have been affected. . . . It’s amazing the impact on people’s lives this kind of tragedy has.”

The Jan. 17 earthquake killed no one in Ventura County, but it broke some communities almost as severely as it did ground-zero Northridge.

Simi Valley--where many buildings were built in the past 20 years under increasingly tough seismic standards--suffered damage estimated between $400 million and $500 million.

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Fillmore lost use of one-third of its business district.

Piru’s tiny downtown of fewer than a dozen shops remains fenced and dark to this day.

The tremor also disrupted public services that took days, weeks, even months to fix.

Parts of Simi Valley were without water for 3 1/2 days.

Damage to Simi Valley High School forced its students to squeeze into Royal High School for several months.

Some of Fillmore’s sidewalks remain cracked and skewed, and much of Main Street is fenced off because of unstable storefronts.

The popular Thousand Oaks Library--where the entire ceiling plunged to the floor and broken sprinklers soaked hundreds of books--was idled for two months.

And an emergency concrete patch job is the only thing preventing the man-made lining of the Arroyo Simi--Simi Valley’s main drainage canal and one of the county’s largest--from washing away in the next flood.

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Funding for the full $3-million repair job will have to wait for the Federal Emergency Management Agency’s approval, said county Public Works Director Art Goulet.

“We’ve taken some emergency action to keep it from washing out,” Goulet said recently. “That’ll work under ordinary circumstances, but if a great flood comes, that section of the channel is history.”

Six months later, signs of the quake are still visible, from plaster cracks in some Thousand Oaks tract houses to jagged fissures in Simi Valley’s quiet east-end neighborhoods.

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Simi Valley schools suffered at least $5 million in damages, officials estimated. And Conejo Valley Unified School District officials have upped their earthquake repair estimate to $8 million, citing “hundreds of quake-related repairs needed at 31 school district sites.”

The 6.8-magnitude earthquake’s jackhammer thrust knocked several thousand homes and businesses askew across eastern Ventura County.

Yet while hundreds have been rebuilt, hundreds more still wait for money from insurance companies or government agencies. Some owners are grappling with repair bills reaching six figures, and weighing whether they should fix the cracks or walk away.

The worst damage in Simi Valley hit the city’s east end, where the buildings are the oldest and nearest to the fault line, said city building official Gaddis Farmer.

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“The most important thing to us is that no one lost their lives in this thing,” Farmer said. “The buildings appeared to perform well enough to allow people to exit, and to protect them in the wee hours when the earthquake hit.”

The city quickly offered help by waiving permit and plan-check fees that could, for example, have cost a homeowner with $50,000 damage more than $700.

And it has continued to give support, bolstering FEMA grants and Small Business Administration loans by splitting a federal aid package into $5,000 grants to the poor and $20,000 repair loans to low- and moderate-income homeowners.

The city also reopened a free debris disposal site recently on Alamo Street just west of Tapo Canyon Road so homeowners will not have to pay to dispose of quake rubble.

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But with damage ranging from simple stucco cracks to collapsed roofs and broken structural joints, there is still much work to be done, Farmer said.

Fillmore, with just one-eighth the population of Simi Valley has suffered proportionately more damage.

By mid-February, engineers there had red-tagged 329 buildings and trailers, compared with 101 in Simi Valley. Yellow tags hung on 350 Fillmore buildings compared with 555 in Simi Valley.

Damage to Fillmore’s public and private property was estimated at $250 million, and the city’s business district suffered losses that could have permanently crippled it.

Yet Fillmore has bootstrapped itself back toward economic health through an extraordinary symbiosis between the city’s officials and its merchants.

The city quickly cashed in on an aid offer from former Laker basketball star A.C. Green, erecting an 11,000-square-foot tent and trailers as a makeshift business district for displaced shops.

It bought the partly collapsed 1915-era theater for $75,000 and is chasing a half-million-dollar state and federal grant to restore and strengthen it against future earthquakes, Payne said.

Fillmore also is working with Central Avenue merchants to save many of the badly damaged masonry buildings that could help reshape the city into the historic tourist attraction that merchants and officials dream of.

“We think that the downtown is the heart and soul of Fillmore,” City Manager Roy Payne said. “It’s important not only to the livelihood of these properties and businesses, but to the overall viability of this community.”

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Meanwhile, the city is still grappling with a damaged infrastructure, ranging from cracked sidewalks to a breached million-gallon water tank. The emptied reservoir left the city with an emergency water supply good for only two days in the event of another system failure and power outage.

Payne said the city is seeking FEMA money to buy emergency generators for the city water pumps, while trying to decide whether to repair the old tank or build a new one.

Payne said he cannot compare Fillmore to other fault-line cities of different size.

“But when you’re talking about one-third of your downtown that was hit, on a relative scale, one-third is one-third,” he said. “I think we got hit pretty hard.”

Piru’s tiny downtown was hit even harder.

Cyclone fencing and yellow tags still enclose the bulk of the business district, two rows of fractured brick buildings barely 100 yards long in the center of the tiny community of about 1,100 just east of Fillmore.

The quake yanked out two of the community’s cornerstones.

Citizens State Bank, badly broken when its bricks moved and its massive vault did not, probably will stay closed.

The bank’s officers decided to pull out of Piru, stranding hundreds of farm workers who used to snake in long lines from the bank door on payday, said Al Gaitan, president of the Piru Neighborhood Council. Now, he said, they must cash their paychecks elsewhere.

Also closed is Guevara’s Market.

Once a popular stop for boaters headed to Lake Piru, the store has been shoehorned into a faceless donated trailer one-third the original size.

Mary and Ignacio (Nacho) Guevara still sell produce, canned goods and the only fresh meat in town out of the trailer. But perhaps not for long.

“I might close the doors,” said Mary Guevara, selling food last week to a mere trickle of midday customers.

“My sales are nothing compared to what they were, and the electric bill’s $400,” she said. “Nobody comes by, nobody knows we’re here.”

The SBA denied the couple a loan to repair the brick building because the store earns too little, she said.

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Disgusted, Nacho Guevara said he is arguing over the mortgage with the man who sold him the building in October. The former owner, Guevara said, failed to show him a year-old letter from the county ordering the building be strengthened against earthquakes.

Guevara said he sank $20,000 in repairs into the building before the quake and now faces repair costs estimated at $115,000.

“Really, I don’t want nothing,” he added. “I just want the man to pay my money back.”

The town needs help, but none seems forthcoming, council President Gaitan said.

“We just don’t get the attention that all the other big communities get,” he said. “But look at our buildings. What business do we have? They (merchants) can’t stay down there in those trailers for the rest of their lives.”

County officials said most of Piru’s businesses either failed to qualify or refused to apply for federal earthquake aid.

Federal rebuilding loans might be available, said Nancy Bocovich, a program assistant to the county chief administrative officer.

But the repairs must wait for an engineering study, which in turn is awaiting approval of a $50,000 federal historic preservation grant, she said.

“It’s a scary proposition for these people that have been in Piru for generations,” said Bocovich, describing Piruvians as hard-working and self-reliant.

“Al Gaitan said they have three jars: one jar for necessities and food, one for entertainment and movies and a third jar for a car,” she added. “They don’t have a jar for an earthquake.”

As hard as the earthquake hit Ventura County’s property, it also battered the people’s psyche.

Children were especially hard-hit, said Sue Zeller, a family therapist working with earthquake victims in a federally funded psychotherapy program.

Therapists fanned out, trying to help parents calm anxious children who were losing sleep at home and misbehaving at school.

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Some of the youngest who understood what happened, those ages 4 or 5, suffered nightmares and behavior disorders. Some have slept fitfully for months, while others have been unable to bear leaving their parents’ sides, Zeller said.

Teen-agers also suffered anxiety, sleeplessness and behavior problems. Despite adults’ reassurances, the teen-age quake victims stayed stressed, she said, asking: “ ‘Oh my gosh, is this going to happen again? Is it going to get worse?’ ”

Children ages 6 to 12 seemed to recover the swiftest, she said, because they were old enough to have faith in their parents’ advice that the worst was past.

Six months later, parents of sleepless kids still call for help, and therapists have begun focusing on a different anxiety--getting used to new homes.

“We’re dealing with people who have to go into new homes because their home was destroyed,” Zeller said. “Now it’s working with kids and getting their comfort level up in their new homes and environment.”

Some elderly earthquake victims still need psychological care too, said Kenny Aragon, a county mental health worker.

“We’re still seeing quite a few people, and some of them are just starting to deal with their feelings,” she said. “It takes a long time to get over the trauma. Some are very angry, some are still depressed, some are very, very sad.”

Last month, FEMA gave the county Department of Mental Health a $4.2-million aid grant to hire more counselors to help quell the anxieties of earthquake victims. While some argued the money would be better spent on bricks-and-lumber repairs, department Director Randall Feltman insisted the program would help “normal people get back to their normal lives.”

Yet for all the tears and debris, for all the homes burst open and knickknacks smashed, the earthquake actually did some good.

Some businesses rebounded quickly and began to prosper.

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Realtors said that their worries of a housing market paralyzed by damage and fear never came true.

“The fear was that we couldn’t repair everything, and who’d want to buy houses in the rubble?” said Shanon Wolf, president of the Simi Valley-Moorpark Assn. of Realtors.

“About a week and a half after, we started getting calls from buyers in the San Fernando Valley,” who quickly followed through and closed escrows on numerous homes, Wolf said. “Even now, when I move through certain areas of Simi, we’re repairing and moving on. It just sort of shows how resilient human beings are.”

Companies fleeing shattered headquarters in the Valley settled in Thousand Oaks, including firms such as Packard Bell, Vivitar and Applied Compression Technologies.

The quake also put Fillmore on the map, said Steve McKinnon, owner of Fillmore Real Estate.

“People saw it on TV, and they saw how beautiful it was with all the orange groves and the mountains,” he said. “If there’s a house that was listed and came through the earthquake and got a green tag, they figure, what better proof can you get that it’s a good buy?”

Fillmore City Manager Roy Payne said, “For the first time in the five years I’ve been here, we’ve got developers knocking on our door.”

It also gave the sluggish building trades a much needed push.

Before, Dave Hall was thinking about chucking it all and going back to school to become a paramedic.

Now, the Simi Valley carpenter is doing earthquake repairs six 10-hour days a week and working nights at home to prepare for the new jobs that are piling up.

“Basically, all I’ve been able to do is demolish stuff that was dangerous (at home) and grab as much work as I can,” he said. “When the earthquake happened, I didn’t even have to look for work. People all around me needed work, and (I’d) get done and then their neighbors would need more.”

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Finally, the earthquake gave Ventura County--particularly the governments and emergency agencies everyone relies on in case of disaster--a taste of true havoc.

This was no drill.

It pushed all systems to the max and spurred better planning for future disasters, said Simi Valley City Manager Lin Koester.

The city will be buying a more earthquake-resistant internal telephone system and possibly buying more radios and cellular phones for key emergency workers.

It will be considering putting the Emergency Operations Center into a hardened structure that will not drop its ceiling all over the command center in an earthquake.

And it will be consolidating telephone lists from the YMCA, fraternal organizations and other community groups that helped city officials spread word of aid efforts quickly throughout the city, Koester said.

“What we learned by going through an actual incident is things that don’t occur to you when you’re going through an exercise for four hours,” Koester said. “One of the things we found out in the earthquake is we’re going to have to be more self-sufficient for a longer time.”

Earthquake Aid

Here is a list of services available to earthquake victims in Ventura County:

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* The Simi Valley Emergency Services Center is at 59 Tierra Rejada Road. Telephone is 579-8300.

* The Fillmore Emergency Services Center is at 552 Sespe Ave. Telephone is 524-7400. Both this and the Simi Valley center have a lending library with earthquake books, pamphlets and videos, some of them in Spanish.

* Counseling for children, adults and senior citizens is available countywide through the Ventura County Mental Health Department. A 24-hour hot line in English and Spanish can be reached at (800) 475-7779.

* Legal advice is offered through Channel Counties Legal Services from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. Mondays, Wednesdays and Thursdays at the Simi Valley center.

* Rebuilding loans of up to $20,000 with deferred repayment plans are available to qualified low- and moderate-income homeowners in Simi Valley through a city-run program. Visit or call the Simi Valley center at 582-7618 on Tuesdays and Thursdays, 4 to 6 p.m., or call the city Department of Environmental Services Rehabilitation coordinator at 583-6348, Monday through Friday, 8 a.m. to 5 p.m.

* Also, the Federal Emergency Management Agency has extended the deadline to apply for disaster assistance to Sept. 16. Applications may be filled out at the Emergency Services centers. Applicants may preregister for assistance by calling (800) 462-9029. People with questions about their applications may call Helpline at (800) 525-0321.

Voices

“To be honest with you, nobody lost their lives here. Everybody got out safe. This is a house, it can be rebuilt.”

--Mike Hernandez, on his red-tagged home in Simi Valley

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“We really had a lot of work to do inside. We almost had to gut the entire building.”

--Joseph R. Botta, vice president of operations of Simi Valley’s Whittaker Electronics

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“It’s a pretty tight community. There’s a whole lot of people left who say, ‘This is our town!’ They are making sure that it comes back to life.”

--Harvey Patterson, Fillmore hardware store owner

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“They fixed it so even a hurricane won’t take it. I try not to get too excited, but I’m already looking for carpeting.”

--Henrietta Zamaripa, Fillmore resident

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“I thought another empty building is not going to help us or anyone else. I see the downtown coming back, but like anything else it will be kind of a long process.”

--Jesse Segovia, Fillmore grocer


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