Two weeks after the Los Angeles city attorney's office won a court order requiring Southern California Gas Co. to find temporary housing within 72 hours for Porter Ranch families seeking to escape leaking fumes, the pace of relocation has not improved.
Since the order went into effect Dec. 24, the number of waiting households has fallen by roughly 30%, but 1,759 are still awaiting temporary relocation, according to the company. The rate of placement remains about the same as it was before the city attorney went to Los Angeles County Superior Court promising significant change.
A total of 4,583 households have applied for relocation since the leak of mostly methane was reported Oct. 23 and residents began experiencing ailments including nose and throat irritation, coughing, shortness of breath, nausea, headaches, dizziness and nosebleeds.
The utility argued in court that the city's intervention was not necessary because the company was moving as quickly as it could, following its own internal 72-hour deadline for finding alternative housing, which is being paid for by the company.
But City Atty. Mike Feuer vowed to do better. His office took the matter to court, a step that has had little effect so far. Not only has the pace of relocation remained the same, but a vital appeals process Feuer championed was delayed over the holidays.
Under the agreement, the court was to appoint retired judges to mediate relocation disputes between residents and the gas company. Those appointments were not made until this week, and as of Thursday no disputes had gone to mediation.
The court order, negotiated by the city and the utility, requires SoCal Gas to respond to relocation requests within 48 hours and to find temporary housing within 72 hours of the initial contact. Disputes over the type or location of housing can be appealed to mediators and even taken to court if necessary.
Delays beyond the deadline are common, however, because families object to the proposed housing. The company says it has had difficulty finding alternatives.
Gillian Wright, vice president of customer services for Southern California Gas Co., said the company has generally been able to meet its goal of finding temporary housing of some kind within 72 hours of receiving a request.
"For those who want to relocate immediately, we can push to place them in a hotel," Wright said. "But if you want housing instead of a hotel, that's going to take longer."
For example, a large family with pets would have difficulty living in hotel or motel rooms.
Wright attributed some of the difficulties over the last two weeks to the "holiday period," extremely high demand for temporary housing and dwindling numbers of homes available for rent on a short-term basis.
Some families say they have moved more than once to find acceptable housing.
Viktorija Karcauskas, 28, said her experience has been "a living hell" for the family of five.
Karcauskas said she and her husband asked to be relocated Dec. 9 after she came down with "crazy headaches" and "my kids' noses started bleeding."
Nine days later, Karcauskas and her family were moved from their 3,500-square-foot home to a two-bedroom suite in a hotel next to a freeway.
"The place smelled like cigarette smoke, the kids were crying and there was no crib for our baby," she recalled. "The next day, we moved back into our home, where the headaches and nosebleeds returned."
Today, the Karcauskas family is staying in a Hollywood hotel paid for by the gas company. Her husband's daily commute is 25 miles, she said, "but it's better than a motel room next to a freeway."
Porter Ranch resident Johnny Pambakian said he is still waiting for the utility to respond. "I've been calling every day for information on relocating my family, and a recorded voice on the other end of the line keeps saying, 'We'll get right back to you,' but they don't," Pambakian said.
Many families whose daily routines have been upset are still trying to make sense of their options under the court-ordered plan.
"They're confused," said Christopher Dalbey, an attorney who represents more than 100 families.
"The way the order is written, people expect to be relocated within 72 hours," Dalbey said. "But we've had difficulty getting some of our clients relocated within that time frame."
Feuer said things should start improving significantly. "We worked through the holidays to get it right," he said.
The gas company said its task has been complicated because many of the 19 companies it retained to assist in relocating Porter Ranch residents are also pressed to find alternative housing for people in the Midwest who lost their homes to flooding.
In an effort to expedite relocations, the utility recently took over handling hotlines and voice mailboxes it has been urging Porter Ranch residents to call — a job that had been assigned to a contract agency.
"It is possible that in the early days of this effort, some people called our voice mailboxes, left a message and never got called back," Wright said. "We're sorry about that. We're going through our backlog of telephoned messages to see who may have been missed and giving them top priority status."
As of Thursday, 25 lawsuits had been filed against the company and its parent firm, Sempra Energy, which have spent more than $50 million addressing the leak and mitigating environmental and community effects, including relocation efforts and attempts to cap the damaged well, according to documents filed Thursday with the U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission.
The utility's four types of insurance policies are expected to cover "many of the current and expected claims, losses and litigation" without significant deductibles, the filing said.