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FEMA Freezes Quake Aid for Bottle Village

SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

Under pressure to reexamine its $455,399 grant to Bottle Village, the Federal Emergency Management Agency has formally frozen disaster aid for the junk-art shrine and sent inspectors to assess how much damage was actually caused by the Northridge earthquake.

Agency officials last week sent a letter asking the California Office of Emergency Services, which disburses federal earthquake repair money, to hold onto the Bottle Village funds until the agency has a chance to review the case.

The agency had already asked the state not to distribute any more of the Bottle Village money without checking with it first.

On Thursday, FEMA inspectors toured the site to determine what degree of damage and decay had occurred before the January 1994 quake, said Leland Wilson, the FEMA official in charge of Northridge earthquake cleanup efforts.

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Many of Bottle Village’s 15 structures--built of glass bottles, dolls’ heads and other flotsam cemented together--were deteriorating before the quake. Only repair work on damage directly related to the disaster qualifies for FEMA aid, Wilson said.

“We will pay for earthquake repairs, not preexisting damage or deferred maintenance,” Wilson said. He said he did not know when the agency would render a decision on the project.

The steps follow more than a month of criticism from Rep. Elton Gallegly (R-Simi Valley), Simi City Councilwoman Sandi Webb and area residents furious at the idea of using tax dollars to fix up what some regard as a dump with artistic pretensions.

Gallegly, who in January introduced a bill to block funding for Bottle Village, Friday praised the agency for giving the project a second look.

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“I am pleased FEMA has responded quickly to my concerns,” he said in a news release.

Daniel Paul, a volunteer with the Preserve Bottle Village Committee, said Friday that the FEMA money would go only to earthquake-related repairs. The notion that the committee would use tax money to spruce up decaying buildings, he said, was one of the misconceptions fueling opposition to the project.

“That’s the problem--they think it’s a restoration, and it’s not,” he said. “It’s earthquake repair. . . . FEMA’s . . . very exact and specific in how that money can be spent.”

Paul said he has collected about 800 signatures in support of the project, signatures he will mail to Gallegly, U.S. Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.), FEMA and the Simi Valley City Council. Webb, meanwhile, said she has 1,500 signatures on her petition to stop the funding.

She said she plans to visit FEMA officials during a trip to Washington. In addition to Bottle Village, she plans to discuss problems some Simi Valley residents have experienced with the agency. In particular, some people given money for earthquake repairs have later been told by the agency that they received too much and have been forced to return some of the cash.

Such problems, Webb said, are the real reason some Simi residents have become so inflamed over Bottle Village. “This was like the straw that broke the camel’s back,” she said.


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