WHITTIER — City officials do not want to sound like they know it all, but they say they benefitted a great deal from advice they received after the earthquake here two years ago, and are planning to offer similar help to the stricken communities in the Bay Area.
After the Oct. 1, 1987, quake hit Whittier, officials say they received invaluable assistance from officials of Coalinga, the western Fresno County town of 7,800 that sustained $31 million in damages in a 1983 quake.
A team of Whittier officials is preparing to travel to the Bay Area to offer help, money and what they say is the most important message: Be patient.
"It takes a lot longer then people think before the wheels start turning," Councilman Gene Chandler said. Officials of Whittier, which sustained $79 million in damage in the 1987 temblor, estimate that it will take a decade to fully recover. About 20% of the 5,000 Whittier buildings damaged in the 5.9 quake still are in various states of disrepair. Signs of the temblor are easily spotted throughout the city.
The lessons? It took many Whittier residents much longer than expected to obtain loans to rebuild, according to city officials. About 10% of the small businesses, operating on shoestring budgets, disappeared. Sales tax revenue dropped.
Conflicting zoning codes slowed the reconstruction iprocess. Community activists and city officials have become embroiled in heated debates over how the community should be reconstructed. The debates and disagreements still flare up, often slowing the rebuilding process.
But after a toilsome decade, Whittier will be a much better city, officials say. Buildings will be newer and safer. Houses, many run-down before the quake, will be rehabilitated. The Uptown business district, in need of redevelopment before the temblor, will be thriving, they predict.
Many top city officials say the earthquake was the best thing that happened to the city: it forced the community to face inevitable challenges, such as rehabilitation of deteriorating businesses. Others say Whittier has changed for the worse, that much of its historic heritage was lost in the rubble.
Either way, it takes time to rebuild, much longer than Whittier officials imagined when the quake struck.
Two months after the quake, nearly half of the 1,750 homeowners around the earthquake-torn Uptown area reported that they had been turned down for earthquake disaster relief loans, and 75% said their needs had not been met by existing relief programs. Six months after the quake, people who qualified for loans were just beginning to receive their money, Whittier officials said.
About a dozen residents living in homes damaged in 1987 still are waiting for funding.
Many small business also had difficulty obtaining loans. The federal government wanted merchants to show they could repay the money, something some could not do because they could not open for business.
The city, which received about $361,000 in donations for earthquake victims, distributed the money in grants to local merchants. But the funds were not nearly enough to pay for the extensive damage. Ten percent of the 50 small businesses in the Uptown area went under after the quake.
Meanwhile, some contractors caused problems.
After the Whittier quake, contractors from around the county swarmed to the area. Many were reputable, but some were not. Residents, desperate to put their lives back together, were willing to hire anyone to fix their damaged homes, said Rich Hubinger, the city's director of building and safety. As a result, unscrupulous contractors took advantage of about 4% of the earthquake victims, city officials estimate.
Hubinger said Bay Area earthquake victims who are lucky enough to get funding quickly should not to rush into hiring a contractor.
"It's best to sit back and know where you are first," Hubinger said. "Unless it is really necessary to fix it, you're better off to wait."
According to Bill Lewis, the city's building rehabilitation director, many of the problems could have been avoided if residents had taken the time to check their contractor's track record through the state Department of Consumer Affairs.
Demolishing buildings immediately, without proper documentation, also would be a mistake. Damaged structures should be surveyed and photographed before being razed, said City Manager Tom Mauk. After the Coalinga quake, some buildings were razed immediately, opening the city up to costly lawsuits from landlords who claimed the city did not need to demolish the structures, he said.
And prepare for things to get worse before they get better, Whittier Councilman Gene Chandler said.
"A day after the quake things didn't look all that bad," Chandler said. At first glance, many of the buildings in Whittier looked safe, but building inspectors found hidden damage when they started looking at buildings closely. Thirty-three buildings in Whittier were demolished after the quake. About a dozen empty lots remain as painful reminders.
"The job (of rebuilding) is tough," Hubinger said. "Our hats are off to the Bay Area. Our hearts are out."