To the earthquake-weary residents of La Habra, Tom Lynn is part handholder, part public relations man and, perhaps, part lifesaver.
Since Oct. 1, when a temblor measuring 6.1 on the Richter scale unleashed its fury on Southern California, city building inspector Lynn has been working 10-hour days, weekends included, to calm the nerves of La Habra residents who have crumbled chimneys, cracked walls and shattered windows.
In an effort to assess what officials say is about $5 million damage in La Habra alone, Lynn and the city's other four building inspectors have joined the ranks of Orange County's busiest government workers.
They have already inspected about 350 buildings for damage and have a backlog of at least another 100 in the Orange County city closest to the quake's epicenter. Barring another major tremor, chief building inspector Richard Woods estimates, he and his men will have visited more than 500 buildings before things return to normal.
"It's starting to wear on them," Woods said of his inspectors. "We have to inspect everything personally. Sometimes it's a chimney down or cracks in the wall, and then another time it may just be paint peeling."
Although only one garage and two houses in La Habra have been declared not habitable--Lynn says a walk on the slanted floors of one home is like visiting the haunted house at Knott's Berry Farm--inspectors have warned scores of homeowners that they must make expensive repairs to comply with building safety standards.
Contractors in La Habra are charging at least $5,000 to tear down and rebuild chimneys, an expense only partially offset by the prospect of getting a federal disaster relief loan. (La Habra residents may begin applying for the special loans at 9 a.m. Sunday at 165 E. La Habra Blvd.)
But most homeowners have taken the hardship in stride.
"These are acts of God that you can't control," said Laurel Todd as she surveyed a chimney that looked like a wrecker's ball got there first. She nodded her head in agreement as Lynn told her that the boards she placed along the chimney sides will snap the instant another quake hits.
"But you can't live in fear," she added. "We've been in this house 27 years. We built it, and it's withstood a lot. We have no plans to leave."
Lynn, too, is philosophical about his city's brush with catastrophe. He and his family, longtime La Habra residents, shook along with everybody else.
"We had a building inspector come out from Texas who was saying that at least in a tornado they put it on TV, and you can go into the shelter," Lynn said. "But I told him, 'Yea and what happens when you stick your head up? You see that your house is blown away.' "
But in nearby Whittier--where Lynn was temporarily assigned after the quake hit--the earthquake damage gave him pause, he said.
"Oh, the damage here (in La Habra) just can't compare," Lynn said, shaking his head from side to side.
La Habra homeowner William Vanderhoof, a retired economic professor, said friends who attend his church in Whittier lost everything to the shaking earth. He thinks the cracked chimney he must replace--Lynn warned him that a spark from the fireplace could cause a structural fire--is a small price to pay for his family's safety.
"From the way that earthquake felt, I feel we got off pretty easy," Vanderhoof said. "By the way it felt, I thought the whole house was going to come down. I feel fortunate."
Like other buildings in La Habra, Vanderhoof's house shows its age with the telltale signs of quakes and aftershocks, stress cracks at doors and windows and spidery lines running down walls. He dismissed their importance with a wave of a hand and an "Oh, they've been here awhile."
Lynn and other inspectors say more cracks in La Habra homes will appear in the coming weeks as the wood-frame houses settle.
But time and again, residents and officials reflected on how it might have been. Even at a La Habra home that sustained an estimated $200,000 worth of damage, one of the two declared uninhabitable, no serious injuries were reported.
"If we had commercial buildings up here, we would have a mess," said senior building inspector Mike Lee as he motioned to the hilly area of La Habra rife with cracked walls and collapsed chimneys.
Lee said that wood-frame buildings, whether covered with stucco or wood siding, usually withstand earthquakes better than those built of concrete blocks, bricks or stone because they will sway, rather than crack, with the earth's movement.
"If we had masonry construction up there, we would have had a lot more come down," he said. "But we were fortunate, we had wood-frame homes."
Throughout La Habra, residents said they are lucky to have the chance to rebuild. Water mains and gas pipes have been repaired, glass is being cut for new windows and crews are tearing down listing chimneys.
And atop the steeple of the Temple Baptist Church a worker removed the tilting cross that had served as a barometer of the earthquake's fury. A new one will be installed in its place.