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HERE, THE CRY FOR HELP IS EVEN MORE DESPARATE : The Earthquake Delivered a Blow to People in the City's Core, Many of Whom Were Struggling to Survive Even Before the Shaking Started. Now There Are New Homeless--and New Problems.


Like fragile buildings yet to be retrofitted, fragile lives in Central Los Angeles have been further weakened by the Northridge temblor. And like those buildings, the question for the future is how long it will take to rebuild those lives.

Structural damage in the area, which turned out to be much more extensive than reported in the hours immediately after the earthquake, has generated increasing anger among those who believe that the relatively slow response by disaster relief officials was yet another slap in the face to historically underserved neighborhoods.

There is also the psychological toll from aftershocks, which have frayed nerves and reduced tolerance for living in marginally safe housing and have left hundreds uncertain of when they will be able to move into a new home.

But for the most part, the long-term questions of when widespread relief will come to Central L.A. have taken a back seat to the more pressing concern of day-to-day survival.

"I cannot even say what we will do tomorrow, so I cannot say what will happen in six months," said Gerardo Lopez, whose family moved in with his in-laws after they were forced out of their damaged Baldwin Village apartment building.

With Central L.A. continuing to assess the damage inflicted by the city's most severe earthquake in modern history, residents, merchants, community leaders and elected officials brace themselves for what may seem to be interminable problems in the area.

"There appears to be a long road ahead of us for sorting out who's in need of what and making sure we can get to all of the people who need help," said City Councilman Mark Ridley-Thomas, whose district includes South-Central and Southwest Los Angeles.

"Things moved slowly down here (in Crenshaw and South Los Angeles) at first, but I believe that we will see more help arriving," he said.

Immediately after the earthquake, there was little apparent damage in Central Los Angeles. Many of the problems were internal, with hairline cracks and holes in some walls, or fallen drywall. Completely devastated structures were few--two in the Crenshaw area just north of Adams Boulevard, a church on the 4100 block of Figueroa Street.

But each day, more calls from residents in South-Central and Southwest Los Angeles, Echo Park, Pico-Union and Mid-Wilshire poured into city offices and Red Cross hot lines with complaints. And the damage toll rose.

As of Thursday/Friday, the city Department of Building and Safety reported that 1,800 buildings in Central Los Angeles sustained damage totaling more than $41 million. The damage ranged from minimal to severe.

Over the next few months, building owners and contractors will assess whether the structures deemed unsafe can be salvaged. In the meantime, thousands of residents are fighting for space in shelters already overtaxed by burgeoning homelessness, or doubling up with friends and relatives.

"Every bit of space that we have is taken up with a cot. It's almost like people are sleeping elbow to elbow," said Joseph J. Seraki, who briefly managed a Red Cross shelter at Manual Arts High School before returning to his home in Northern California.

Rick Caissie, the new manager of the shelter, said he expects it to remain open until mid-February or until all families have received housing vouchers from the Federal Emergency Management Agency.

"The biggest problem right now is accommodations," Caissie said.

Quick tempers also have been a problem. Tension at the Manual Arts shelter erupted soon after the earthquake rocked the area early on Jan. 17. People routinely bicker over the number of donated clothes or toys each family has or how much assistance one group has received over another.

"You have to expect that some people may be on edge," Seraki said. "They've lost their homes, they have no place to go, they don't know their next step.

"Every day, we turn around and another family is coming in for help, and that makes others worry if they'll still get help," he said.

Caissie said the shelter has had a steady flow of newly homeless families, keeping the shelter's average occupancy at nearly 300 per night.

As more red and yellow building inspection tags go up on dwellings, deeming them unsafe or for limited entry only, more families end up in shelters or in nearby parks or empty lots.

"This will exacerbate the homeless problem because it will destabilize families on the brink," said Ridley-Thomas, who helped arrange for a shelter to be opened in Jim Gilliam Park's gymnasium for families who had been sleeping outside in the park.

"Even with resources, this makes life more tenuous," Ridley-Thomas said.

Many families moved in with friends, neighbors and other family members. Others split up, with men guarding the homes against thieves.

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