President Reagan declared Los Angeles and Orange counties federal disaster areas Wednesday, clearing the way for emergency officials to set up relief assistance offices and dispense aid to thousands of earthquake victims.
Red Cross officials said the number of displaced victims staying in agency shelters surged again, reaching 2,235 by Wednesday. As quake-strained inner city apartment houses continued to be declared unsafe and forced some renters to seek help at shelters, relief agency officials said volunteers feared a shortage of long-term housing for quake victims.
With the President's declaration, government disaster officials moved quickly to set up emergency offices in Los Angeles and its most hard hit suburbs to funnel aid to quake victims.
Federal Emergency Management Agency officials said seven disaster offices will open Sunday--three in Los Angeles and others in Whittier, Rosemead, Alhambra and La Habra. There, quake victims can apply for federal funds for temporary housing, grants of up to $5,000 for individuals and families, low-interest loans to cover uninsured property and business losses and other programs to supplement state and local recovery efforts.
Last Thursday's quake, which measured 6.1 on the Richter scale, and a 5.5 aftershock that followed Sunday, killed three people and forced more than 12,000 from their homes, causing at least $137 million in damage to 10,600 homes and businesses.
Federal Emergency Management Agency spokesman Verne Paule said a main field office will open today in El Monte where disaster officials will coordinate emergency relief programs. The field office will not be open to quake victims.
Paule said a team of more than 100 federal disaster workers will begin arriving in Los Angeles today. After undergoing brief training, they will be sent to the satellite offices.
In Central Los Angeles, meanwhile, Red Cross relief workers were already trying to find new sources of housing for some of an estimated 3,000 low-income renters living on the streets, either because their apartments are unsafe or because of fears of more tremors.
Gov. George Deukmejian welcomed the federal assitance. "This important aid along with state assistance will be of significant benefit to those individuals and families who have suffered the devastating effects of the recent earthquake and aftershocks in the Los Angeles area," he said.
Red Cross spokesman Ralph Wright said several of the agency's 11 shelters still have room for homeless families. At Belmont High School near downtown, there was sleeping space still available under the agency's tent erected on the football field, but sanitation facilities have been exhausted by more than 800 displaced victims.
Wright said relief officials have begun to look into the possibility of renting a warehouse or an armory to house families if cheap apartments or hotel rooms cannot be found.
Wright said Red Cross officials have received several dozen reports about immigrants who left crucial amnesty documents behind in damaged apartments and who fear their legalization cases are in jeopardy. He also said the relief agency officials are worried that any aid they provide to illegal aliens might disqualify them from legalization.
Ernest Gustafson, director of the seven-county Los Angeles district of the U.S. Immigration and Naturalization Service, discounted most of those fears. He said earthquake victims should not be afraid of accepting assistance from the Red Cross despite the fact that applicants for amnesty can be turned down if their record shows they have been welfare recipients or are likely to need public assistance.
"This is temporary assistance to meet a temporary crisis," Gustafson said. "My heart just doesn't say that these people are likely to become public charges. I wouldn't want anybody to turn it down for fear of that."
Gustafson added that immigrants who have already applied for amnesty should not worry about lost documents because INS already has its own duplicates.
As for those who have yet to apply, he said: "We may understand if they have some gaps in their documents because they may not be able to replace them all. And we would take that into consideration. But that doesn't mean we're just going to grant their petitions without any documents at all."
Action on Demolitions
In Whittier, the City Council passed a resolution allowing the suspension of the bidding process to hire demolition contractors and empowering the city manager to authorize the demolition of unsafe buildings. The federal government is expected to reimburse 75% of the wrecking costs.
Officials said that at least six to nine buildings will have to be destroyed before the Uptown Whittier shopping district can be reopened. The area is cordoned off indefinitely.
Whittier, with four full-time building inspectors and 14 others loaned from other jurisdictions, has been able to check out almost half of the 2,600 structures for which residents have requested inspections and has a backlog of only "a couple of days," said Sandy Castleman, a spokeswoman for the Department of Building and Safety in Whittier. "So I think we're doing pretty good."
Orange County has documented claims for $7 million in property damage to homes, commercial buildings and government buildings, county fire information officer Patti Range said. She said damage may exceed $8 million.
Times staff writers Laurie Becklund and Mary Lou Fulton contributed to this story.