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Houses Damaged by El Nino Eligible for Federal Buyout

TIMES STAFF WRITER

Federal and state officials Wednesday announced a $22 million program to buy up homes across California damaged beyond repair by landslides during last winter’s El Nino storms, including 10 homes in the San Fernando Valley.

The funding includes $2.4 million in grants to aid homeowners from West Hills, Northridge and Studio City. Another $860,000 has been set aside to help their counterparts in Topanga and Malibu.

The federal program will allow local communities to buy up homes made uninhabitable by El Nino damage. The homes will be demolished and future development on the land will be prohibited.

“The goal of the program is to remove the property from risk and to not allow it to get back in that condition again,” said Paula Schulz, a state hazard mitigation officer with the Governor’s Office of Emergency Services. “It tries to solve the problem once and for all.”

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It is the first time California has applied for funds to eliminate landslide-prone houses through the Federal Emergency Management Agency’s Hazard Mitigation Grant Program. Funds were previously used to buy out owners of flood-prone homes.

“This is the first time we’ve used mitigation dollars to acquire properties affected by landslides, due largely to the devastation we saw and to the fact that people really needed help,” said FEMA spokeswoman Eliza Chan. “El Nino caused a lot of problems we had never faced before in California, which homeowners insurance did not cover.”

Locally, the city of Los Angeles and Los Angeles County applied to the reimbursement program. Now that the projects have been approved and funding levels have been set, city and county officials will make formal offers to the homeowners, who can either accept or reject the buyouts.

At least one homeowner whose property qualifies for the grant money remained skeptical Wednesday that the buyout offer would be generous enough. Minnie Rodrigues, whose West Hills home was damaged last winter, said she remains undecided as to whether she and her husband, Floyd, will take part in the buyout program or attempt to fix their home and the hill it sits on.

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Rodrigues said the city has appraised her house at $240,000, which is $40,000 less than she believes her home is worth. Additionally, she said federal funding covers 75% of the expense and it is unclear whether the city is going to foot the bill for the remaining 25%. (FEMA officials are also awaiting word on whether HUD or the SBA could provide the remaining funding.)

“Nobody knows what it’s like to be put out of your house and not be able to get back in,” said Rodrigues, who has been living in a Chatsworth apartment. “We’ve been on a roller coaster for the last nine months.”

Rodrigues’ former neighbor, Richard Magdaleno, said the office of Rep. Brad Sherman (D-Sherman Oaks) notified him Wednesday that the grant money had come through. Magdaleno said he will not decide whether to take a buyout until he sees what the offer is.

“If I were able to walk away from the disaster with somewhat of a fair market price it would be a real relief,” Magdaleno said. “If the money is right, we’ll sell and relocate, but I’ll miss the house.”

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The Los Angeles City Council also approved money for landslide damage Wednesday, awarding a Porter Ranch couple a $500,000 settlement for property damage to their Calle Vista Court home.

A river of mud cascaded over the couple’s backyard and swimming pool during an El Nino-driven storm in February, rendering their home too dangerous to occupy. The city agreed to settle their claim for damages because the mudslide apparently swept down from the steep incline of Palisades Park, a city-owned property, said Deputy City Atty. James Axtell.

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Times correspondent Sue Fox contributed to this story.

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* EARTHQUAKE INSURANCE: Straight talk about loss assessment coverage. B6


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