Sounding like a family that has suffered a painful loss, Laguna Beach residents in a Times Orange County Poll said that last week's firestorm has left the community in a state of shock, fearful of another disaster and apprehensive about their everyday lives.
A large portion of the 600 Laguna Beach and Emerald Bay residents polled within a week of the fires that destroyed 366 dwellings there said they have suffered from the classic symptoms of anxiety and depression. More than 40% said the disaster has made them nervous or irritable, and a third reported that they have had trouble concentrating or difficulty sleeping.
According to mental health workers, hundreds of fire victims have sought counseling at the American Red Cross disaster relief center in Laguna Beach for a variety of ailments, emotional as well as physical.
"You have cases of elderly people who lost a spouse decades ago who suddenly find themselves dreaming about that person," said Jill Bradenburger, a Red Cross counselor. "This is a very normal reaction to an abnormal situation."
Other people have complained of uncontrollable shaking.
"Well-meaning people will say, 'At least you have your wife and family,' but that doesn't by any means diminish a person's sense of loss," Bradenburger said.
The fire seems to have shattered elements of the worry-free lives that residents once enjoyed in the casual elegance of a village by the sea, according to the poll that was conducted Monday through Wednesday by Mark Baldassare & Associates.
Most residents reported having given scant notice to the risk of a fire disaster before last week. Today, a wide majority of the area residents are fearful that the same thing could happen again.
"I'm not quite over it," said Phyllis Onstott, 79, of Emerald Bay, the exclusive community in an unincorporated area just north of Laguna Beach. "The fire came within one house of my place, but my house was saved and I'm very grateful."
The poll also indicated, however, that the area will be staggered only momentarily, and that residents are resilient and committed to their community despite the setback.
Many even said they were optimistic. Nearly three in five of the poll's respondents said they thought Laguna Beach will be a \o7 better\f7 place to live in five years from now than it was before the fire. And that is not because they didn't like the city already.
Nine in 10 Lagunans--as one council member calls residents--said they already had a "very favorable" opinion of Laguna Beach as a place to live. And the No. 1 reason they said they like the city is something the fire could not destroy--"a sense of community, neighbors."
It appears, then, that there will be very few driven out of town by the fire. More than 90% of those surveyed said they have no plans to move, with just 2% saying they will move.
The community attitude was captured Sunday in a handmade sign placed at the entrance to Emerald Bay, where 65 of the 500 homes were destroyed. It read: "Tough Times Never Last, Tough People Do!"
At a meeting last weekend that drew more than 300 people, Emerald Bay residents announced an Adopt-a-Family program intended to provide support, friendship and assistance. The Times Orange County Poll found that most Laguna-area communities have undergone a similar experience, drawing neighbors and friends closer together than they had previously been.
Nearly all poll respondents said they have been contacted by friends or relatives wishing to express their concern. And 94% said neighbors in their area have given one another help or comfort.
About two-thirds of the residents in the area have also been personally involved in helping fire victims.
Two years after a firestorm swept through the Oakland Hills and destroyed more than 3,000 homes, residents in that area still report a profound change in their safety preparedness.
Like Laguna Beach, Oakland got poor marks for its response to the fire. But the city now requires flameproof building materials, has built a weather station in the hills and bought an infrared scanner so that its helicopter can spot hidden embers. Oakland also modified its fire hydrants so they can be used by fire engines from other cities, a problem that reportedly hampered the firefighting effort in Laguna Beach.
From the results of The Times Orange County Poll, it appears Laguna Beach is likely to undergo a similar re-evaluation of its vulnerability to fire.
Two-thirds of the respondents said they plan to review the adequacy of their fire insurance coverage. More than half said they will change the way they store their valuables. About a third of the area's homeowners also plan to make changes to the landscaping around their dwellings. Gov. Pete Wilson and fire officials said the combustible vegetation around many of the homes in Laguna Beach was a primary reason the fire was so destructive.
About one in five of the area's residents also said they plan to change their roofs or make structural modifications to their homes.