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. . . New Foundations : One Victim, Thanks to Red Cross, Puts His Life Back Together

STARTING OVER: Two families after the quake

November 10, 1987|MARY LOU FULTON | Times Staff Writer

The red lace curtains that used to make up one wall of Juan Luna's nightly outdoor earthquake shelter in Whittier now hang above the windows of his new home a few blocks away.

October's earthquakes first drove Luna and the 18 others who shared his former home to spend nights on the front lawn--then drove apart separated members of the household.

Luna thought the earthquake might have finished off the old three-bedroom house, and his suspicions were confirmed by inspectors who declared the home it uninhabitable. Luna and four others moved into their new home on Oct. 15 with the help of the Red Cross, which provided them with the security deposit and a month's rent.

The carpeted tranquility of Luna's new, three-bedroom home contrasts with the noisiness of the old place, which was shared by 19 people, and he admits to sometimes missing the bustle. But this house doesn't shake when someone walks across the room, or send people scurrying for the door when a jet plane passes overhead.

A painted representation of the Virgin Mary hangs above the mantle, crocheted doilies have been draped across the backs of chairs and beloved plants sprout from every corner. For Luna, 33, Maria Celia Fuentes, 50, and her son, Juan Ernesto, 23, the new house means peace of mind.

"I'm happier here," Luna said. "I'm just glad I didn't have to leave Whittier."

Added his longtime friend Celia Fuentes, "This house is tranquil--a paradise."

Through these tense weeks, Luna has retained his wide smile and sunny outlook and Fuentes her soft-spoken intent to restore calm to their earthquake-shattered life. "You have to greet life with laughter," Luna said. "I've never lost that."

Good Humor Shattered

The good humor was shattered by the Oct. 1 earthquake that left thick cracks in their former home's foundation and a downward slant across half of the kitchen floor. Luna insisted that everyone sleep outdoors until the safety of the house could be determined.

The verdict of the inspectors came as no surprise to Fuentes, whose nervousness led her to spend several nights at a Red Cross shelter. Although she was alone among a hundred strangers stretched out on rows of green cots, Fuentes said she felt protected there.

"I didn't feel safe anywhere, but I felt comforted there because I knew I was in the same situation as the others," she said.

Fuentes is from Guatemala and lived outdoors for two months after a 7.5 earthquake shook that country in 1976. She was a nervous wreck for weeks after the Whittier quake, and at one point contemplated returning to Guatemala where three daughters remain and worry about her.

'Out of Control'

"I took my suitcase out and just started throwing dresses in," Fuentes said. "My nerves were out of control."

Fuentes, a housekeeper who works in Pico Rivera, also spent several nights in Luna's car at the gas station where he is a night cashier. "Everybody else was still sleeping on the lawn, but I felt uncomfortable being the only woman among all those men," she said.

It was at her urging that Luna agreed to leave the old house, for she was worried about the instability of the home and concerned that escalating disputes among the others were taking their toll on him.

"Juan has a very good heart, and he was hurt that they blamed him for having to move out," she said.

Those who lived in the old house paid as little as $50 in monthly rent, Fuentes said, and sometimes paid nothing if their factory or construction work jobs ended suddenly.

Fear Subsided

Luna said his fear of more earthquakes subsided after a few days, but he grew weary of unsuccessfully trying to keep the household together. after two years.

"I kept telling them everyone wanted to leave because the house was unsafe, but they would not unite," Luna said. "I'm sorry that there's now some bad feelings between us, but I told them about how the Red Cross was ready to help them and they didn't want to go."

Luna and the Fuentes' tried to find an apartment on their own, but could not afford the move-in costs. Luna turned to the Red Cross relocation program for people left homeless by the earthquakes, and completed paper work that led to the agency finding them a house and paying the deposit and rent, a total of $1,500.

"We are very grateful to the Red Cross," Fuentes said. "Without their help I don't know what we would have done."

185 Families Helped

The Red Cross has spent more than $78,000 to help 121 Whittier-area families move to new rented homes and another 64 families are being kept in hotels while house-hunting.

Through their church, St. Mary's, Luna heard about another man seeking to share a house. So Luna, the Fuentes', and two other tenants packed and left the Bright Avenue home where they had lived for two years.

For Luna, who gave up his partial financial interest in the home because of a legal dispute, it was a difficult move.

"I was sad to leave the house," Luna said. "I'm a very sociable person and I enjoy being around lots of people. But I like this house a lot, too."

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