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Quake Relief Effort Picks Up : Tent Cities in Place; U.S. Pledges More Money : Disaster: Number still needing shelter drops, but rain remains a threat. Officials concede they underestimated impact. Meanwhile, Caltrans may install temporary bridges over freeway gaps.


Earthquake relief and repair efforts accelerated Saturday as tent cities sprang up across the San Fernando Valley, the Red Cross began distributing food, clothing and emergency supplies in Ventura County and the White House promised an additional $283 million in federal earthquake aid.

Officials preparing for this week's expected commuter crush said they are considering whether to erect temporary bridges over gaps in the Simi Valley and Santa Monica freeways.

Five days after Los Angeles and Ventura counties were rocked by a 6.6-magnitude quake, the developments suggest that agencies are improving delivery of relief services and that the efforts, though sizable, have not been enough to cope with what may be the costliest natural disaster in U.S. history.

"I don't think any of us realized the magnitude of it all," said James Lee Witt, director of the Federal Emergency Management Agency.

In other quake-related developments Saturday:

* As hundreds of quake-shaken Ventura County residents sought help and money Saturday at disaster relief centers, homeowners patched broken roofs against predicted rain. There is a 50% chance of rain by sunrise today.

* The Red Cross opened disaster service centers in Simi Valley and Fillmore to try to bridge gaps left at FEMA centers in the two cities. The Red Cross is offering food, clothing, medicine, tools and other aid.

* Estimates of those sleeping outside in parks and elsewhere dropped to 9,000 from 14,500 on Friday. With rain possible, crews hurried to open more tent cities, particularly in the quake-ravaged Valley. "The rain is going to be the next major situation out here," County Fire Inspector Mark Savage said.

* The number of structures declared uninhabitable in the city of Los Angeles climbed to more than 1,600, for a total of 7,421 housing units. Damage to those buildings reached $460 million--a figure that will grow considerably because building inspectors expect to be assessing damage at least for another week.

* The Los Angeles Unified School District planned to reopen most campuses Tuesday. Of 30,000 classrooms, 300 remained unsafe, virtually all of them in the hard-hit West Valley. School Board President Leticia Quezada said: "My hope is that all children will be able to attend school one way or another" this week.

* More creature comforts began to reach those displaced by the quake. At one Valley park, barbecued ribs were served up, a bookmobile was met by hundreds of reading-hungry people in another park, and plans were made to televise today's NFL playoff games for those who have taken refuge in San Fernando Recreation Park.

* The Los Angeles County death toll stood at 55, though coroner's spokesman Scott Carrier said the number could change.

"There is a good chance that (rescuers and construction crews) may find something under buildings during the cleanup period, as happened during the riots," Carrier said. Likewise, he said, the coroner could lower the number of quake-related fatalities now that overwhelmed medical examiners can re-examine some cases. "Some of these cases are questionable" as quake-caused deaths, he said.

* At an afternoon briefing at Caltech, officials said the aftershock frequency was decreasing. Although four aftershocks of magnitude 4 to 4.6 hit in rapid succession Friday, only four tremors--all magnitude 3.0 or less--were recorded by 10 p.m. Saturday.

* In Los Angeles, officials announced plans to open seven more emergency assistance shelters by Monday, bringing the total to 20. As many as 1,000 state workers might join in the FEMA assistance effort this week, depending upon the need.

* And in Washington, one top FEMA official said that no decision on long-term recovery aid for Los Angeles has been made, but estimated that the federal government will spend at least $100 million on emergency provisions and shelter. Moreover, FEMA's Dick Krimm said the federal government is mindful of how much the state--and particularly Southern California--has endured the last two years in riots, floods, fires and quakes.

"Over the last couple years, we have spent billions of dollars in California," Krimm said. "Good Lord, we are very, very sensitive to the disasters of Southern California."

Federal Help

Stung by increasing criticism of red tape, officials defended their relief efforts, arguing that they are setting up the largest assistance program in U.S. history to deal with the most damaging earthquake ever to be centered in a major metropolitan area.

The state has estimated that damages could exceed $30 billion.

"We are now dealing with the largest mass assistance of people in an urban area in the history of the United States," Henry G. Cisneros, Housing and Urban Development secretary, said in Los Angeles on Saturday. He said the first quake victim to find housing under emergency federal assistance moved into an apartment Saturday night. The person's name was not released.

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