Storm-Battered O.C. Residents Meet Clinton

TIMES STAFF WRITER

President Clinton held Teresa Sarabia's bruised hands for a moment Saturday, and told the survivor of this week's mudslides in Laguna Canyon, "Bless you, bless you. . . . You have your life. Remember that."

Clinton, on his way to a Beverly Hills fund-raiser for Sen. Barbara Boxer (D-Calif.) spent half an hour in a tiny hangar at Los Angeles International Airport listening to people battered by the punishing El Nino rains and crushing mudslides Monday.

"I know it was hard for many of you to come here, after what you suffered," he said. "But I thought it was important for me to hear this firsthand."

He listened to 14 people from across Southern California, many of them bandaged, badly bruised or cut, several of them in wheelchairs. Next to them sat their rescuers.

Teresa Sarabia and her husband, Carmelo, wept as the rescue of their 9-month-old daughter Tiffany was described to the president. Carmelo clutched the baby tightly as he listened.

"I took two steps, and picked up a baby while screaming for my own children. I didn't do anything special," said Gary Segraves, a Laguna Canyon resident who plucked Tiffany from the mud after a landslide blew apart the family's apartment.

Minnie Lee Rodriguez, 83, of West Hills in the San Fernando Valley, told Clinton the heavy rain woke her at 2:30 a.m., and she looked outside. "I saw this big black hole, and I said, 'That used to be my garage. Where'd it go?' "

Rodriguez said she dragged her husband of three decades, who suffers from Parkinson's disease, down the stairs to safety. The mud and rain severely damaged the house. "We've lost everything," she said. "We can't find a place to rent. . . . We have no car and no home, so I really don't know what we're going to do. . . . We're too old to start over."

Clinton interjected, "And the insurance situation?"

"Oh no, they do not write policies to cover this," Rodriguez said.

Clinton promised her and the others the government would try to help.

"I cannot believe what people in Southern California have lived through," Clinton said. "Earthquakes, fires, floods and mud. I don't think anyone else in America has suffered as much."

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Mudslides killed two people in Orange County and injured at least nine. Estimated total damage in Ventura, Los Angeles and Orange counties from Monday's storm is $20 million according to Federal Emergency Management Agency staff, with the total storm damage since Feb. 9 rising to at least $475 million in the state. There have already been 15,000 applications for help filed, said Dorothy Lacey, FEMA's regional coordinating officer. About 3,300 have been processed and $5 million has been mailed out.

Orange County firefighter Frank Ybarra brought a present for Tiffany, whose mouth and nose were clogged with mud until he administered CPR. He also brought a firefighter's hat for Clinton. Not to be outdone, Ventura County Fire Capt. Tom Law handed his hat to the president.

Megan Cole, 14, of Granada Hills, and Jennifer Simpson, 14, of Sunland, giggled and then fought tears as Cole described how they lost their shoes in a flood channel, then were sucked in when they tried to retrieve them. Using a helicopter, Los Angeles firefighters hoisted the girls from the rushing water with a rope.

Some people in the hangar had mixed feelings about the Clinton visit.

"I think they're making a big deal out of a tragedy; they're hyping it," said Segraves' son, Roddy. But Roddy's sister Jennifer told Clinton about the heroic efforts her fiance Glenn Flook made to save a family from a mudslide before it killed him. "I feel better," she said afterward.

"It's a once-in-a-lifetime . . . hopefully," said firefighter Ybarra, watching the television crews, Secret Service agents and police swarm across the tarmac as Clinton walked out.

On Thursday, Clinton had a similar meeting with community leaders in the San Francisco Bay Area to discuss their El Nino troubles and unveiled a package of federal assistance for the state.

The aid will include:

* Declaring Los Angeles, Orange, Stanislaus and Trinity counties disaster areas, giving residents and businesses access to an array of federal assistance.

* Making the state and local governments eligible for federal financial assistance for removing debris and for efforts to mitigate the hazards presented by the storms.

* $1.5 million from the Department of Agriculture to pay for watershed repairs in San Mateo and Santa Cruz. This doubled the financial assistance the agency has granted the state over the last three weeks.

* $20 million from the Transportation Department to repair roads damaged by storms and flooding that occurred this month. This doubles the amount of emergency funds the state has received from the agency this year.

The president began his five-day foray out of Washington by visiting storm victims in Florida. He spent a few hours viewing the devastation and talking to residents of a tornado-ravaged mobile home park.

The president spent the weekend with his family at the Deer Valley resort in Utah. His wife and daughter skied while he stayed inside, reading and playing games.

To request FEMA help, call (800) 462-9029.

Times staff writer Elizabeth Shogren contributed to this story.

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