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Homes Feel Quakes' Bitter Cost : Family's 11 Years of Planning Is Splintered in Mere Seconds

Starting Over: Two Families after the Quake: First in an Occasional Series

October 11, 1987|BOB BAKER | Times Staff Writer

It was very much as though a loved one had died and now the arrangements had to be made.

Dennis Ward eyed the telephone on his desk at work.

"I don't want to start this stuff," he said.

But he did. He made call after call and sifted through one piece of paper work after another to arrange the demolition of his once-lovely two-story home below the foothills of Whittier, the place where he and his wife had reared two children, the place on which they had lavished so much care during the last 11 years, the place whose equity was to provide for their eventual retirement, the place that now lay vacant, sliced, gnawed and gutted by the devastating Oct. 1 earthquake and its aftershocks.

"The hardest thing to do in the world is this," said Ward, a tall, blond, 47-year-old policeman-turned-real estate agent, fishing into his briefcase and pulling out the pink demolition permit he had obtained from Whittier City Hall the day before.

There were many things to do, and they all hurt. The water had to be turned off. The electricity had to be turned off. Structural engineers had to be found to write letters testifying that the big, comfortable 66-year-old house on Beverly Boulevard could not be saved.

More trips had to be made back to the house, and they hurt too. The furniture had all been put into storage by now and the house looked old and ghostly, as though a few seconds of the Earth's power had aged it by 100 years.

Hundreds of chunks of tan stucco had fallen off, exposing the fragile hollow-brick construction. Two 10-foot columns on the side entrance had been cut in half, and one had toppled. On the other side, a front wall had been destroyed. A giant window frame lay atop the rubble. Inside there were some dishes in the dishwasher, and that was it.

Thousands of people suffered damage to their homes in the quake. By one score, Dennis Ward and his wife, Lynn, both longtime residents of Whittier, were among the unluckiest. They were among a relatively small number whose homes were so badly damaged that they could not be repaired.

Financially, this was devastating. Like many homeowners, the Wards had looked upon the considerable equity in their home--which they had purchased for $45,000 in 1976, just before Southland real estate prices began to skyrocket--as their ticket to a comfortable retirement.

Suddenly, much of the equity was gone--only the land was left. And, like many homeowners, they had not purchased earthquake insurance.

"I looked at it like everybody else," Dennis Ward said. "You think it's always going to happen to someone else."

Now he had just about enough in the bank to cover the cost of demolishing the house--if he took the low bid of $5,000.

After that, his options were not pretty. True, he has a job, as does his wife; they work side by side at a Century 21 office in Whittier, where a plaque on the wall notes that Lynn sold $2 million of property last year. True, he is probably eligible to apply for a $100,000 low-interest federal loan when the government opens its disaster assistance office in Whittier today. True, he still owns a valuable and very large lot on one of Whittier's prettiest streets.

It is just that it was never supposed to come to this.

For 25 years, Dennis Ward was a Los Angeles policeman. Two years ago, just before he retired as a detective in the burglary-auto theft division, he obtained his real estate license. So did his wife.

They seemed set. They had been able to send their two children to college, they had been able to decorate their 3,000-square-foot home comfortably, they had time to lend themselves to Whittier community activities like Kiwanis and PTA.

Now they were staying with friends in another section of Whittier and confronting the fact that they could not afford to simultaneously pay off their mortgage, rent an apartment and build or buy a new home.

"I'll probably lose $150,000," Ward said glumly. "That's loss. There's no recouping it. They talk about (federal) aid, but you still have to pay it back.

"If it wasn't for friends, I'd be in a community shelter somewhere. And here I've always felt like I was affluent."

He forced a couple of jokes. His wife was thinking about going on game shows. The earthquake had so badly devastated Whittier that he would soon be making a living selling fixer-uppers.

A co-worker walked by Ward's desk.

"Totally destroyed, huh?" the man asked.

"It's gone," Ward said.

"Geez."

"Gotta come down," Ward said.

"Oh geez. God almighty. . . ."

He made more phone calls. On one side of his desk was his briefcase. On the other was a shopping bag full of personal financial records he had salvaged from the house. In the middle was a cup of coffee. He flipped through a thick book of business cards belonging to fellow members of the Whittier-Rio Hondo Kiwanis Club.

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