Sometime soon Dennis and Lynn Ward are going to watch heavy machines carefully tear down the fragile brick and stucco remains of their earthquake-devastated home in Whittier. And then they are going to have to make some difficult decisions:
Is this where they want to continue to live? Should they build another house here, on Beverly Boulevard, a beautiful, tree-shaded street? Or would the memories of disaster--of seeing their stately old home splintered by last month's quake--be too much to bear? Would it be better to buy another home?
"I just don't know," Dennis Ward said over dinner last week. "I really don't think we're going to know until we literally clear the lot and stand in the middle of it and see how it feels."
Bottom Floor in Ruins
Life continues to be full of such questions, big fuzzy ones, jammed with maddening implications.
The Wards, both real estate agents in their mid-40s who grew up in Whittier, were forced out of their two-story home when the Oct. 1 quake left the bottom floor in ruins. At first they figured that they would rebuild the 66-year-old, 3,000-square-foot house, where they had lived for 11 years. Then, three days later, an aftershock caused even more damage, making the odds of successful rebuilding prohibitive.
For more than a month the Wards have been living with another Whittier couple, Merle and Ray Velker, whom they have known for two years. The Velkers' daughter, Laura, had left for college a few weeks before the quake. Her room and its adjoining bath were available. Dennis and Lynn can stay until January. After that, another couple, Ron and Barbara Light, who are keeping the Wards' personal belongings, are willing to take them in.
"I really don't know where we'd be without our friends," Lynn Ward said.
The Wards have their jobs and two-thirds of their clothes, so they continue to look healthy, handsome and prosperous. They can now laugh at the memory of how it took two days to locate their underwear amid the rubble of their home; how neither of them has yet memorized the Velkers' street address; how Dennis has had to buy a second pair of glasses because, lacking that familiar resting place in the old house, he keeps misplacing them at the Velkers'.
They have successfully navigated the stream of paper work required to apply for a low-interest Small Business Administration loan. Sometime this week they expect to receive confirmation that the SBA will lend them $100,000 at 4%, the highest amount and the lowest rate permitted under the federal quake disaster relief program. They also expect the SBA to refinance their $40,000 mortgage at the same rate.
That would give them $140,000 to either rebuild their home or buy another. If they choose to buy, they would also be able to use proceeds from the sale of the land. On the surface, it sounds workable.
"It seems like it's taken forever to get this set up," said Dennis Ward, who with his wife got in line at 6 a.m. on the day that the SBA opened an emergency office in Whittier on Oct. 11. "But for the government they're doing very well."
The trouble is that, in the lexicon of the financial community, the Wards are cash-poor. Whatever wealth they have is tied up. Their ability to make quick decisions is severely restricted.
They have about $5,000 in the bank. They need $7,000 to pay the contractor who is ready to demolish their house. A fund-raising drive by a co-worker at their real estate office has raised about $2,000. More is expected to be raised, but until it comes in, the demolition--and a subsequent decision on rebuilding or going elsewhere--can't be made.
According to Whittier city officials, many homeowners whose dwellings were badly damaged in the quake are similarly unable to commit to a course of action. City Building and Safety Director Richard Hubinger said he is aware of only one approved residential demolition permit so far, but said he expects that there will be a substantial number of homeowners who will decide that it is unwise--structurally or economically--to rebuild.
"The inertia is still very much with us," he said. "A month isn't very much time after you've seen everything that was strong and solid coming down around your ears."
The Wards could ease their immediate burden by selling another piece of property--a house elsewhere in Whittier that they bought as an investment. But without the rental income from that property they couldn't continue to pay for their son Dan's tuition at Arizona State.
When it comes to decisions like these, Lynn Ward said: "We are basically living day to day. We get up in the morning and wonder what's going to happen today.
"That's so basically unlike us, because we're planners. You plan for a good life, you live a good life, you do everything that's right. I was PTA president. Dennis was a Boy Scout leader. You do everything right and something like this comes along.