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Coalinga Quake Veteran Advises Whittier on Aid

October 18, 1987|MARY LOU FULTON | Times Staff Writer

WHITTIER — Alan Jacobsen walked this city's streets last week and encountered a familiar sight: an earthquake-devastated downtown business area, cracked homes with crumbled fireplaces and long lines at disaster relief centers.

Jacobsen is public works director for Coalinga, the western Fresno County town of 7,800 that sustained $31 million in damage after 6.7 and 6.1 earthquakes struck there in 1983. Officials of Whittier and Alhambra, recovering from a 6.1 earthquake Oct. 1, asked for Jacobsen's advice in applying for federal disaster aid.

"Their devastation was more widespread, while ours was a great deal more per capita," Jacobsen said. "I just wish them luck, and I understand where they're coming from."

Help Arrived Soon

Government assistance arrived sooner in Coalinga, which was declared a federal disaster area two days after the initial earthquake and was able to have loan centers in place five days later. Los Angeles and Orange counties did not get their federal declaration until a week after the Oct. 1 earthquake, and loan centers opened Oct. 11.

It took about six weeks for residents and merchants to receive their federal loans and grants, said Bob Semple, Coalinga's assistant city manager. Loans were offered in Coalinga at 4% and 8% interest rates, the same as those available now. Semple said federal money ended up paying for about one-third of the damage.

The Federal Emergency Management Agency kept an office open in Coalinga for more than a year after the earthquake.

Semple said 15% to 20% of Coalinga residents ended up suing their insurance companies after having their claims rejected. Many insurance policies then had an "all-risk" clause for damage, Semple said, which has since been replaced by separate earthquake insurance policies.

Although Whittier is about nine times larger than Coalinga, earthquakes inflicted similar losses in the two cities.

Buildings Demolished

In the six blocks of Coalinga's downtown shopping area, known as Coalinga Plaza, 45 of 51 unreinforced masonry buildings had to be demolished. At least 12 buildings in Uptown Whittier are to be destroyed, with 30 to 40 others facing an uncertain fate.

As in Whittier, the Coalinga Chamber of Commerce helped bring in modular trailers to temporarily house displaced merchants. Some Coalinga businesses spent 1 1/2 years in such trailers while new buildings were constructed, Semple said.

About 300 homes were lost in Coalinga, while Whittier officials have posted 348 buildings as unsafe with another 1,000 inspection requests pending. "It causes a lot of anxiety," Jacobsen said, noting that many people in his city now carry two mortgages on their homes.

There were no deaths in either city directly related to the earthquakes, although Semple predicts Whittier residents will remain on edge for quite some time.

"It took about a year before people's nerves were back to normal here (in Coalinga)," he said, adding that his community went through 32 aftershocks of 5.0 magnitude and greater in the year after the earthquake. "Every time those start, I know what they're going through because they think this is the start of the big one."

The earthquakes made a strong impression on Coalinga's youngsters, some of whom started crying when they heard about the Whittier earthquake, said LaFonda Lobmeyer, the chamber's acting manager.

"Some of them had family living in the (Whittier) area and they were worried," Lobmeyer said. "The kids were nervous for months after our quake. . . . It still affects them."

Taking a Bath

Semple said his youngest child, now 8, was taking a bath when a 6.1 aftershock struck in July, 1983.

"For months, he would not go into the bathroom by himself," Semple said. "Some of the older ones were better, but they liked to be close to family members when aftershocks hit."

The path to recovery for the city also has been slow, for in 1983 Coalinga faced a slump in its two principal industries: oil and agriculture.

"We were hit with what they call a triple-depression," Lobmeyer said, adding that unemployment in Coalinga is still 15%.

The recovery effort also took its toll on the Chamber of Commerce, which operated in the red for two years after the earthquake. The chamber raised close to $10,000 for the business community through such efforts as nationally promoting a special $25 membership, but ended up by having to reduce its staff and operate with no reserves.

It took 3 1/2 years to replace Coalinga Plaza, Semple said, and the city has yet to complete its replacement senior citizens center and recreation complex. Meanwhile, the city is trying to bring industrial developments to the area to boost the damaged business community.

"I think we'd like not to be known as an earthquake community," Jacobsen said. "Maybe Whittier will get that designation for a while."

Semple said he was skeptical when a seismologist told him aftershocks could continue for five years in Coalinga. But he changed his mind in February, when a 5.0 earthquake shook the area.

"Deep down inside, people still have that fear," he said.

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