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To Some Flood Victims, Shelter Was Like Family : Disaster relief: Seal Beach Red Cross center closes today. Leisure World retirees say they’ll miss the companionship and camaraderie.

TIMES STAFF WRITER

When an American Red Cross shelter in a Leisure World clubhouse finally closes its doors today, its last few residents will leave, some of them a bit reluctantly.

For 11 days now, since rising floodwaters forced more than 200 residents of this sprawling retirement village from their homes, Red Cross volunteers have cared for a population that started at 69 but dwindled to five by Friday.

Residents like Rose Kessler, 89, said that despite lingering trauma from the Jan. 4 flood, not everything about the experience has been unpleasant--in fact, far from it, said Kessler, a tiny woman with a straightforward manner.

“Everybody’s been exceptionally nice here, the food’s been delicious and you know, we old ladies just need help every once in a while,” said Kessler, who was carried from her home through swirling, waist-high water that first, frightening night.

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“Besides, we’ve really got nothing to go home to except the house.”

In more than a week of shared laughter, tears and inconvenience, the shelter had become a community of its own, residents said, a place that already was comfortable because of its location in a familiar Leisure World clubhouse.

With emotions heightened by their common experience in the flood, several storm victims said they formed bonds with one another--and with shelter volunteers--that they hope will become lasting friendships.

Bill Rudolph, 87, said he has enjoyed the free hot meals, the conversation with fellow residents and the camaraderie he developed in late-night chats with several of the center’s volunteers “after all the younger people were in bed.”

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Rudolph said he will be reluctant to leave the comfortable hospital bed that he and other shelter residents were provided by the Los Alamitos Medical Center during their stays.

Even so, he said, “there’s no place like home for relaxation.”

Michael Lauzon, one of several managers of the shelter, said the Red Cross has tried to ease its elderly charges’ return to independent living by helping arrange for their sodden homes to be cleaned, and even by taking several of them back to their dwellings this week for brief visits.

“These (experiences) are very draining, and it takes a little bit of working through to get back to where they feel comfortable again,” Lauzon said. “We’re trying to ease them gently back into normal life.”

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Residents interviewed at the shelter this week expressed gratitude for the efforts of the Red Cross, saying the volunteers were exceptionally caring. Not only did the agency provide food suited to its elderly clients, but volunteers dispensed liberal doses of hugs, smiles and kind words throughout the week, residents said.

“Everybody here was exceptionally kind,” said a robust 90-year-old woman, who asked that her name not be used. “In fact, the whole experience was illuminating to me. I’ve never thought of kindness as being part of a catastrophe.”

Added Verna Lee Pugh, 79: “I think I’ll stay forever. You just can’t beat the food and the hospitality.”

Judy Tuohey, a Red Cross nurse who was the shelter’s mental health officer, said she was impressed with the resilience of most of the residents, many of whom suffered major losses in the flood.

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“I found very little of the ‘why me?’ attitude that you see in some of these disasters,” Tuohey said. “And these were people who had lost pictures of dead spouses, their wedding albums and other things of major significance to them. They were really remarkably resilient.”

But for those who have been worried about leaving the shelter, often expressing anxiety about more rain to come, Tuohey said she has held counseling sessions to convince them their concerns are normal, but that they must return to their lives in the community.

“It’s OK to be scared and OK to cry,” said the nurse, who has worked in disaster relief efforts around the country as a mental health coordinator. “Heaven knows, they were hurt in this flood, but they’re really remarkably brave people.”

The reluctance of many to leave the safety of the shelter may have been exacerbated by the rain that continued falling intermittently throughout their stay, officials said, and which weather forecasters said was likely to extend into today.

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Forecasters were predicting fog and partly cloudy skies this morning, with increasing cloudiness as a new storm front approaches sometime during the evening. Light to moderate rainfall is expected overnight, turning to showers by Sunday morning, according to WeatherData, Inc., which supplies forecasts to The Times.

“Central and Northern California may get some heavy rain, but for Southern California, we’re looking at light to moderate rain,” WeatherData meteorologist Kris Farnsworth said. “You may get an inch along the coast and range up to 2 inches in the mountain areas.”

The storm-battered county received some good news late Friday with a decision by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers to bear the estimated $1.4-million cost of a major flood-related repair job.

Bill Reiter, the county’s public works operations manager, said the federal agency has agreed to administer the work and pay the costs of fixing a collapsed section of Beach Boulevard in Buena Park and the badly damaged Fullerton Creek flood control channel.

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Reiter said the work may start by today, with the street expected to reopen within two weeks.

Despite the predictions of more rain, Red Cross spokeswoman Judy Iannaccone said the agency will go forward with plans to close the Seal Beach shelter today. She stressed that the shelter could be reopened at any time.

Since Jan. 4, the Red Cross has opened 10 shelters for flood victims throughout the county. The Leisure World shelter is the only one that has operated continuously.

Inside the shelter’s cavernous central room last week, Kessler patted the hand of another of the shelter’s long-term residents. “Now you have to come visit me after we’re all back in our homes,” she said. “We’ll go out to lunch.”

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