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Easing the Aftershocks

November 02, 1987

The California Legislature will meet in special session Nov. 9 to try to repair some of the financial damage wrought by the October earthquake. The time and the event call for bold action. Half-measures simply won't do in helping people restore their homes, their auto-repair or cosmetics businesses, their schools and colleges.

Gov. George Deukmejian has drawn narrow parameters for the special session. It will deal strictly with state financial aid to supplement existing federal programs. That's fine, because that's the immediate need. But the Legislature should serve notice that in its next regular session it will look at the state's long-term physical and financial preparedness for the next big earthquake. Damage, severe as it was, was relatively contained this time. Proper measures taken now might help reduce deaths and destruction next time.

Existing programs give too little aid and pile too much debt onto already strapped homeowners and people who run small businesses. Take Whittier residents, for example, who own $100,000 to $150,000 houses that were severely damaged. They go to one of the federal disaster assistance centers and fill out a form to determine eligibility for low-interest loans. If they qualify, they can get a federal loan of up to $100,000 with as much as $20,000 more to replace lost personal property. Those not eligible for loans may qualify for grants if they meet the need test. But the system is inadequate by several measures.

Suppose that someone does qualify for a loan. His or her mortgage is already, say, $1,000 to $1,500 a month. Even at low interest rates the loan could add $800 to $1,000 more in monthly payments. Thus the person who already faces rebuilding a life's dream has to pay almost double to do it. That person deserves consideration for an outright grant because of the extraordinary circumstances involved. Elderly homeowners face special problems. They have no jobs, so they may not qualify for loans. Yet the $5,000 federal grant, which is all that's allowed, may not cover the damage to their homes. They, too, need special grants.

The person who runs a small business is no better off. The beauty-shop operator's equipment was damaged, for example, and the rented building condemned. Her customers are trickling away. She faces a decision on whether to stay in business, and may decide against it if she has to go heavily into debt to do it. And when the beauty shops and clothing stores close their doors, cities like Whittier lose their cores--and their tax bases.

The governor correctly said in his message announcing the special session that the federal aid that is provided "is essential and helpful, but it is not enough for many who were hit hardest by the earthquakes." Deukmejian is proposing that the state provide grants of $5,000 maximum for quake repairs. That's not enough, either. Assemblyman Charles M. Calderon (D-Alhambra), who represents the Whittier area that was the most severely affected, is closer to the mark with his proposal for $10,000-maximum grants. His proposal also will be before the Legislature.

Another part of the governor's package would require county assessors to reassess homes that were damaged by the earthquake and reduce the victims' property taxes. The state would replace county revenue losses that result. That follows other state property-tax precedents, and should be done.

The Legislature should also act on the long-stalled proposal by Sen. Art Torres (D-Los Angeles) to place a $350-million bond issue on the ballot to bring state buildings up to earthquake safety standards. Nowhere was the need for that better proved than in the severe damage to classroom buildings and laboratories on the campus of California State University, Los Angeles, where one student died when a concrete block from a parking structure crushed her.

A strong earthquake, even when it is a given of life in California, can be a frightening experience. The state cannot get rid of peoples' fears, but it can and must aid in repairing the physical damage--and quickly. Those whose homes and businesses bore the brunt of damage in the October earthquake should not face excessive financial aftershocks as well.

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