A relief center to behold

Los Angeles Times Staff Writers

SAN DIEGO -- Just inside the stadium gate Monday, a young bleached-blond woman offered a drink: “Would you care for a Red Bull, sir?”

Another hundred feet on, a woman walked by carrying a sign: “Anyone distressed?” She gave directions to a crisis counseling center down the way.

There was more food than could be eaten. More help than could be used. San Diego Mayor Jerry Sanders guessed there were as many volunteers as victims.


Over the weekend, the Earth had exploded into ever-wider rings of fire, threatening thousands of homes and hundreds of thousands of lives.

A good 9,000 people ended up here, at Qualcomm Stadium, and if this was the endgame of a disaster, it would be a disaster that seemed possible only in the idyll of California.

There was a banh mi picnic in the parking lot, beef empanadas on the chow line, Caesar salads, cartons of fresh Starbucks House Blend, free magazines, toys for the kids, cots for grandma, pizza by the slice or, if you wished, the box. There was a man playing jazz guitar, a blues band, massages and acupuncture.

“It’s better service than when you go to a restaurant,” said Gary Potter of Rancho Penasquitos. “Every time you turn around, people are asking us if you need something -- water, food, anything.”

“They thought of everything,” said Erin Kelley, his wife. She was particularly impressed by the massages being offered in the parking lot.

A steady stream of volunteers brought blankets, potato chips, diapers -- anything they thought someone might need.

The center is being operated by the city of San Diego but almost everything consumed within it was donated.

The place was so opulent relative to the standards of disaster relief centers that for some it was an improvement in living conditions.

Earl Sanders looked out of a broken-down car he called home at 11:30 p.m. Monday and saw the mountain above Spring Valley, east of San Diego, on fire.

Sanders, disabled and homeless for about a year, grabbed his cane and belongings, which were shoved inside a trash bag. He put both in a shopping cart and walked to a nearby McDonald’s.

“I had to evacuate, but I had no transportation and no money,” he said. “I slept on the sidewalk in front of McDonald’s and asked God what he had planned for me.”

About 9 a.m. Tuesday, a good Samaritan gave him $5, enough for a bus ride to Grossmont Center in El Cajon and trolley fare to Qualcomm Stadium.

At 11 a.m., Sanders, 48, arrived at the stadium, where he was given a meal, a change of clothing, a cot and bedding.

“God is working it out for me,” he said, tears streaming down his face.

The makeshift campsites inside the stadium quickly took on the fabric of Southern California. There were faces and traces of words from Vietnam, Mexico, China, South-Central L.A., as families staked out their own little territories to call home for a day or two or three. They re-created neighborhoods, complete with a group of boys on skateboards. Look man, free food, they shouted, swooped in, ate and ran.

Prasad Kallimath, Keshara Kalloor, Muneer Shevis, all software engineers from India, live in apartments within a mile of one another in Rancho Bernardo and write software for Sony Corp.

The three engineers and their families and friends -- a group of about two dozen -- staked out a patch of concrete just inside the plaza-level concourse, a small, tidy place of babies, wives, newspapers, BlackBerrys and Costco water.

What made all of this plenitude possible and what makes this disaster decidedly different from many elsewhere is that it is happening in the suburbs. People who live in the glory of California’s sunny abundance, for the most part, have money; they have cars. Having both of those things, they have something even more useful in a disaster -- they have options.

They exercised some of those options in choosing where to live in the first place. Maybe they exercised other options to pay for it.

And when the disaster came, when the sky, over a day or two, grew ever more gray and shiny and glittery, like silver satin unfolding, they had choices.

Qualcomm was one of those choices.

People with pets found it difficult to find a hotel that would accept animals.

“When you have pets, it can also get expensive,” said Liya Bogomols, a model who spent the night in the stadium parking lot with her fiance, Jason Moore, a pug named Cuddles and a cat named Samson.

Moore had family in San Marcos, an area also threatened by the fires. So the couple opted for the stadium.

“For a while, we weren’t sure who should stay with whom,” said Moore, a software engineer.

This is a California story and, like all California stories, it was in part about real estate: homes abandoned and lost. Or not. The hardest part of the Qualcomm experience for many people was the simple fact of not knowing.

Few people knew for sure.

To those who did, it was devastating.

Ann Baratta of Ramona thought she had found a haven when she and her husband bunked with friends in Poway on Monday.

But the friends were later evacuated, and she ended up spending the night in the stadium parking lot in a truck.

Baratta’s house, it turned out, was spared. One belonging to Nadar and Leticia Hamdan a few blocks away had burned down.

The Hamdans happened to be parked just 20 feet away from Baratta on Tuesday in a 40-foot-long mobile home.

“This will be our home for a long time,” said Nadar Hamdan. His daughter, Natalie, wiped away tears as she described her bedroom.

“It had purple, pink and yellow walls and a blue ceiling,” the 13-year-old said. “I picked the colors myself.”

Despite their loss, the Hamdans had spent part of their day volunteering at the stadium. Natalie and her brother had passed around toiletries. Leticia, a third-grade teacher, spent several hours at an area set up for children.

Most of the people who have come to this part of California have done so by choice, willingly trading the natural risks of the place for its beauty and usual serenity.

They invariably describe the places they live in as dream houses, constructed or bought as the culmination of things.

Prasad Kallimath and his friends and their families had come to San Diego County closer to the beginning of their journeys.

Kallimath arrived on a temporary work visa in 2002. He found an apartment for himself, his wife and young child in a Rancho Bernardo complex recommended by another Indian native who worked with him at Sony.

The complex became home to dozens of young Indian families. It was a mile from the Sony plant where the men worked and about the same distance from a good school for the children.

“You would choose your place of living when you were pretty much done with your career,” he said. “Until then, you go wherever the job takes you.

This week, it brought Kallimath here.

By afternoon of the first day, Monday, he and his friends had laid out their new homestead, a patch of blankets, quilts and pillows spread across 20 feet of concrete.

By evening, they had traded up, moving to a private corridor on level three, right next to the elevator and with stunning sunset views.

They hope to move again today, back home. It’s a small hope.

Times staff writer H.G. Reza contributed to this report.