Many Fire Victims Remain Frustrated, Angry
August 7, 2009
Filed under Uncategorized
Almost four weeks after the October wild fires that destroyed thousands of homes, San Diego County fire victims are feeling frustrated, skeptical, and uncertain.
The local assistance center in Ramona is nearly empty now, with the exception of government agencies like the Red Cross, the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA), the Small Business Administration (SBA), and a few others.
Holly Simonette, the center’s captain said that the number of actual visitors has decreased from hundreds per day to about fifty per day; and by the looks of it, many of them are far less tolerant than they were a few weeks ago.
Concepcion Avila, a Ramona resident who was evacuated, but whose home didn’t burn down was turned away Friday when she attempted to receive food stamp assistance from the Red Cross.
“It’s the middle of the month, and I might need milk and vegetables,” said a teary eyed Avila. “But they said I didn’t come in time.” Avila said that although the apartment that she currently rents was not burned down, being evacuated has set her back financially.
“Since there was no water in my complex, I had to drive a distance to purchase water for my daily use,” said Avila. “I spent my money on gas and on purchasing water.”
Josefina Cabrera, another Ramona resident was equally emotional. Unlike Avila, the home that Cabrera rented did burn down, and she was left with nothing but the clothes on her back.
“I’ve been through a process,” said Cabrera. “FEMA helped me with rent for one month, but they won’t help me anymore. Now they referred me to SBA.”
Cabrera said that her goal is not to get into debt, but rather to find an inexpensive place to live and continue her life as it was. “They said I qualify for a loan for $31,000 at $200 per month for 19 years,” said Cabrera, but I don’t want to take a loan I can’t pay back. But if I turn it down, FEMA won’t help me anymore.”
Rita Egan, a spokesperson for FEMA didn’t comment on Cabrera’s situation, but she did say that there is a process that needs to be followed. “Filling out an SBA packet does not obligate one to take out a loan,” said Egan, “it will determine whether one will get a loan or get back in line for FEMA.”
As of Friday morning, Egan said that FEMA applications had reached 17,662 within the entire fire zone, including those outside of San Diego County. She also added that disbursements for housing and repairs had reached $8.2 million, and SBA had approved a total of $30.4 million.
Egan said that while FEMA is designed to get one on the “road to recovery,” SBA is designed to “get you back to where you were.”
Cabrera used to pay $550 per month in rent plus utilities where she lived. She said anything comparable these days is in the $900 per month range. Further adding to her dilemma, is that Cabrera’s husband makes his living driving a dump truck, and every apartment complex that she’s applied at will not let him park his truck there.
Initially, Cabrera said the help was generous. “The Red Cross was very helpful,” she said. “They gave me $1640 and $600 in food stamps.” Cabrera said that the Salvation Army also gave her $200 to purchase groceries at Stater Brothers, $300 to use at the Salvation Army second-hand store, and each of her three children received a $100 gift card to Wal-Mart.
But many other victims are feeling a different kind of frustration. At an event held at the Escondido Center for the Arts this Friday, communities came together to participate in “Rebuilding San Diego.” The event featured row after row of companies and organizations offering home construction, counseling, loans, painting, and repairs.
Although every company there claimed to have the same mission, to help those in need, fire victims were not so sure about that.
Margaret Bourdette, a senior mortgage consultant for Clarion Mortgage Capital had a sign on her table. It read “FREE HELP, NO CATCH.” Bourdette said although countless people are seeking out services like hers, many are hesitant to give out personal information.
“When it comes time to give me their name, phone number, or other personal contact information, they just don’t feel comfortable,” she said.
Bourdette said that contact information is simply for follow up purposes, and because she’s offering free coaching to fire survivors. “My goal is to help them figure out FEMA, SBA, and other resources,” she said. “I’ve helped people rebuild before, during the Cedar Fires.”
Elisa Martinez of Rancho Bernardo lost her home and is now renting in Rancho Penasquitos. Although her experience with FEMA, the Red Cross, and the Salvation Army has been pleasant so far, she said she’s still somewhat confused about what her insurance company is telling her.
“I’m not getting a lot of straight answers,” said Martinez as she left the event in Escondido with a handful of informational flyers and pamphlets. “Maybe I’m not asking the right questions.”
As far as people and companies offering to help, Martinez is wary of how nice everyone has been. She said that with so many warnings of scam artists and ongoing fraud, she doesn’t know what to believe.
“You just don’t trust anyone,” said Martinez. “Are they being friendly or do they just want to take advantage?”
Martinez, like many, believes that her insurance company will probably not give her home the value that it deserves. “The final numbers will be ready in a few weeks,” she said. “But I may have to fight for it.”
There’s no question that it will be some time before people’s lives get back on track. And while scams and fraud tend to be higher following natural disasters, not everyone is expecting something in return for their services.
An elementary school in San Pasqual Valley was handing out gift cards to children for Build-a-Bear, and students of Construction Tech Academy, a division of Kearny High School, volunteered their services at Friday’s Rebuild San Diego event.
“We’re volunteering helping out so we can set the blueprints and see what it’s all about,” said Jose Bojorquez, a student of Construction Tech Academy.
His classmate, Miy-y Le, agreed, normally she spends her Friday afternoons watching television, but instead she volunteered her time. “It’s good community service,” she said, “any chance I have, I would like to help.”
Overall, the Witch fire, which was the largest of the October California Wild Fires, destroyed over one thousand homes and structures in and around Ramona and Escondido, and burned nearly 200,000 acres.