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A cracked road to recovery

Times Staff Writer

Downtown looks as if a wrecking ball smashed through it.

Bricks and glass shards are strewn along Front Street, the city’s historical district. A fence barricades what’s left of the Bulls Head Saloon. A neon cowboy presides over the “El Rancho Hote-" -- the L has toppled over -- and a breeze rustles yellow caution tape.

A 6.0 temblor rocked this city in February, leveling four homes, severely damaging 35 buildings, and cracking and denting dozens more, city officials say. But the total of uninsured damages, which federal officials pegged at $778,600, wasn’t large enough to qualify for aid from the Federal Emergency Management Agency.

Since Wells has relied on volunteers for much of the cleanup, pockets of this pit-stop town remain trapped in that snow-dusted morning.

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Apartments in the uninhabitable El Rancho are bedecked with Christmas lights and trees. A displaced couple still lives in a first-floor room at the Motel 6. At the high school, a February calendar hangs in a hallway; the earthquake struck on the week of a Future Farmers of America meeting and “Emma’s B-day.”

The plight of Wells -- damaged enough to pain residents, but not enough to command big aid checks -- is emblematic of how disaster recovery has changed in the last decade or so, experts say. After Hurricane Andrew devastated Florida in 1992 and the Northridge earthquake pummeled Southern California in 1994, insurance providers pulled back from the disaster market -- particularly in regard to earthquakes -- and federal aid shrank.

“But people have been lulled by TV images of politicians saying, ‘We’re going to help,’ ” says Mary Comerio, who chairs the architecture department at UC Berkeley and studies earthquake recovery. “It’s just not true. Before, there were bigger safety nets, and now those are gone.”

At a time when recent tornadoes, floods, wildfires and hurricanes have wiped out homes and businesses around the nation -- and a 5.4 quake shook Southern California just last week -- Wells’ predicament shows what happens when disaster strikes in a place where most are uninsured.

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In that sense, Comerio says, Wells’ struggles indicate what could happen if a large-scale quake shook California, where less than a fifth of residents have earthquake coverage: a snail’s-pace recovery.

Wells, a city of 1,300 in the state’s desolate but picturesque northeastern corner, is used to making do. Many people work at motels, fast-food joints and gas stations off Interstate 80; the median household income is not quite $36,000. Folks routinely drive 50 miles to Elko, the county seat, to fill prescriptions, visit a dentist, apply for hunting and fishing licenses, and go to the movies.

When do-gooders and TV trucks charged into town after the quake and even Gov. Jim Gibbons toured the rubble, residents thought outsiders might come to their rescue.

“Once everybody had their photo op, they were gone,” says Mayor Rusty Tybo, sitting in a City Hall that is still yellow-tagged. Five sheriff’s deputies are crammed into his office. The part of the building they occupied has been condemned.

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City leaders say uninsured damages to public buildings and homes actually topped $5 million -- more than double Wells’ annual budget. While they haggle with the city’s insurance company, officials are hoping to patch together about $2.5 million from the U.S. Department of Agriculture, the National Trust for Historic Preservation, the Nevada Division of Emergency Management, and an earmark that Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) placed in an appropriations bill.

“It’s like looking for change under the couch,” says City Manager Jolene Supp, frustrated by how slowly Wells is rebuilding.

Wells High School had earthquake insurance, but Principal Leslie Lotspeich says she must battle for every penny to fix its auditorium and gym. For months, her students suffered through diminished appetites, fitful sleep and aftershocks.

Few homeowners had earthquake coverage. The area had never recorded a temblor this big, says Glenn Biasi of the Nevada Seismological Laboratory. The hardest-hit residents have relied on a $280,000 pool of local donations, nearly $67,000 in state money, and the kindness of churchgoers and friends.

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On Feb. 21, Carl Kelso was convinced an airplane had slammed into his two-bedroom home. The quake tossed him to the floor, crumbled the chimney, pushed out one wall by three inches and dropped another into the basement. He and his wife, Jane, had about $3,000 in savings.

Now, their driveway on Third Street ends at a basketball post and a hole. The lawn has browned. A garage holds their clothes, bedding, dishes, washing machine and kitchen table, and Carl’s 1970 Chevelle.

The couple moved to the Motel 6 where Jane works, adorning the property with stones from the rubble of their home, to await the delivery of a modular home. They still owe $55,000 on their mortgage.

Across the street from Carl’s car repair shop, Peg Kaplan opens the door to the devastated El Rancho. She and her husband, Gene, retired here almost seven years ago after living in San Francisco. The 7.1 magnitude Loma Prieta quake in 1989 “was nothing for us,” she says. “We had some cracks in the ceiling and some things on the floor. Nothing prepared us for the violence of this.”

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In Wells, the Kaplans lived on the second floor of the 5,600-square-foot hotel, where they spent hours researching the region’s history. Now their apartment resembles a smashed snow globe. The ground floor, once the site of 200-person weddings, is blanketed with dust; each footstep echoes on the black-and-white tile.

The couple had bought several abandoned Front Street buildings, and spent at least $600,000 sprucing up the Nevada Hotel, the Mint Saloon and others. The quake yanked off the balcony they had wrapped around the Bulls Head. (“Showing Folks a Good Time Since Christmas 1869,” its sign says, with illustrations of the three apparent essentials: a rifle, a fiddle and a beauty in a red dress.)

The couple and their six cats moved a few blocks away to a house -- temporarily, they hoped. Then in April, Gene died of colon cancer, “the first time in 35 years he went anywhere without me,” Peg says.

The community has been charitable, and her homeowners’ insurance covers some of her damaged belongings. But Peg still spends days sifting through paperwork: Her business policy didn’t cover quake damage, and she needs money to weather-proof the Front Street properties before the snow sweeps in.

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“It’s a long, slow road,” she says. “But it’s worth it.”

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ashley.powers@latimes.com


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