After the Quake, What a Difference a Year Makes

TIMES STAFF WRITER

Early last Jan. 17, Scott and Kim Lee sloshed around their Aquarium Center in Santa Monica in the dark, picking their way through toppled tanks and rare and exotic dead fish.

A few days later, still mopping up in the red-tagged brick building, they tried to be philosophical in the face of tragedy heaped on tragedy: In the wildfires three months earlier, they'd lost their $400,000 Malibu home.

Now, the business they had worked nine years to build was also gone.

"I couldn't do anything but cry at first," Kim said after the quake.

Business had been good, until the recession. "I've been hanging on for the last three years," Scott said at the time. Then the fire, now this.

When they'd dried out, they found they had lost 90% of their fish, a $10,000 loss; shelves of supplies and equipment, and about 150 tanks. They had no earthquake insurance.

Still, Scott was able to joke. "Luckily, I didn't have a shark."

He didn't know how, or where, but he knew, "I got to keep going."

Kim, just thankful they were safe, hoped this "would be like a turning point for our family to lean to God more." A churchgoing Christian, she lamented that Scott would "fall asleep during the sermon."

The Lees, both 48, emigrated from Korea in the late '70s and for 17 years Los Angeles has been home. They would stay.

On June 1, with customers lending a hand, they moved into a bright new store, twice as big, in a former sports-car showroom four blocks West, at Ninth and Wilshire.

Now, they call themselves the Aquarium and Pet Center. In the fish room, plastic tanks are anchored to the wall. There's a bird room, a reptile corner, rabbits, rats and guinea pigs.

As Scott rings up a sale, a green parrot named Cookie nibbles at his ear. Two Pekingese pups romp in their pen. The Lees aren't exactly in the cat and dog trade yet. They're acting as agents for customers' puppies.

Kim, leading the way through the fish room, says the earthquake "really did become a positive turning point for us. We have a new store, and we're going to have a new home." (The insurer has settled; they'll start rebuilding in March.)

And, she adds, "My husband accepted Jesus and was baptized. He doesn't fall asleep now. I became much closer to God, too. I'm very happy now."

Daughter Gina, 20, a violinist, won a partial scholarship to London's Royal Academy of Music. And Nina, 16, a junior at Crossroads School, has put the tragedies behind her.

"I thank God for everything," Kim says. "And the government of America."

A long-term, low-interest Small Business Administration loan of $100,000 made it possible for the Lees to start over after they took a $100,000 loss.

"Things worked out great, for sure," says Scott. A year ago, he thought it was "the end of the world.

"I thought people wouldn't care about their aquariums and pets anymore." But most just bought new aquariums--from the Lees.

He laughs as he recalls customers telling him that during the quake they wrapped their arms around their fish tanks and held on. "I said, 'Are you crazy?' "

For a while, the Lees "baby-sat" customers' fish in the one tank that survived at the store. When they closed their doors, they gave the few left of their 800-fish inventory to customers.

"I got a lot of help from customers," Scott says. "Some throw in money and say, 'Pay back when it gets better.' "

He's learned, "People really care for each other. And people don't give up easy. I thought I was going to give up."

As for 1995, he says, "It's the pig year for all Asians." That means prosperity and happiness.

Adds Kim, "God wouldn't give us a hard time again."

Rebuilding From the Ground Up

On Oct. 19, a gregarious Dr. Alvin Rosenblum greeted 300 friends and patients at a festive "housewarming" party at his West L.A. dental office.

Nine months earlier, a despondent and admittedly shaky Rosenblum was pondering his professional future and wondering if he had one.

Gone with the Northridge earthquake was the six-story medical building at Barrington Avenue and Olympic Boulevard where he had practiced for 23 years, and with it his recently remodeled office and vital patient records.

At 58, he wasn't sure he had the stamina, and the resources, to start over: "It's overwhelming, overwhelming," he said. "Most of what I had in the world was tied up in that office." Briefly, he considered retirement.

He just wanted "to go home and hide under the covers."

But there were patients with emergencies. And seven employees counting on paychecks.

And he was chairing a committee of building tenants, quickly organized to explore legal action against the landlord and the city. Their contention was that the building was not irreparably damaged Jan. 17, and the city-ordered demolition five days later was what Rosenblum calls a "rush to judgment."

He was "mad as hell" about that and about tenants being denied entry to retrieve records and irreplaceable personal items, despite offering to sign a liability waiver.

Patients helped Rosenblum and his wife, Nancy, dig through five soggy dumpsters at the demolition site. After two days, one yielded his battered safe with patient accounts, addresses and phone numbers. It had survived a wrecking ball whack and a three-story fall.

Chasing paper blowing down Olympic, he recovered half of his 1,600 patient record folders, some of which "looked like they went through a trash compactor." The staff has spent hundreds of hours washing X-rays.

Recent mail brought a diploma from USC School of Dentistry, class of 1963, replacing the one he lost. He smiled when he saw that the signing dean had been only a year his senior at the school.

The tenants' committee is still exploring a class-action suit, but under a new chairman. "I needed my energy to do this," Rosenblum says, glancing about his cheerful, light-flooded dental suite.

Two weeks after the quake, at his lowest ebb, seeing only emergency patients in a makeshift space in Brentwood, he was counseled by a hiking pal, "Take your losses. Get on with a life."

Then came the turning point. Rosenblum noticed his staff "starting to look like it was hopeless." His resolve kicked in.

"By the end of the first month, we were moving."

After scouting dozens of sites, he found a 1,350-square-foot former fitness center in a medical building in the heart of a Japanese American enclave. Twenty years ago, he'd taken bonsai lessons at a nearby nursery and had "been infatuated" with the neighborhood.

On Sept. 1, Rosenblum and new partner Dr. Abdolreza Sameni, his former student at USC, opened the WLA Dental Center.

On the strength of the promise of a Small Business Administration loan of $187,000 at 4% for 30 years, he built a $250,000 state-of-the-art facility.

He also took a $250,000 hit at Barrington, where he had no earthquake insurance. "Before the earthquake," Rosenblum reflects, "for the first time in my life I was debt-free. I guess I'll never be debt-free again." Plans to update his 1940s Topanga house--sandbagged this week against flooding--are on hold.

So why is this man smiling?

Simple, he says: "I've never felt so appreciated in my life. I feel valuable. And I've learned I'm a lot stronger than I thought I was."

He adds, "I'm having more fun doing this than I ever did. I appreciate it more." He may never retire.

He knows 1995 "is going to be fabulous."

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