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VENTURA COUNTY NEWS

Some Quake Victims Decide to Rebuild and Remain Uninsured

Disaster: Many turned to federal agencies for billions of dollars in grants and low-interest loans. Four homeowners tell their stories.

August 13, 2000|DAVID COLKER | TIMES STAFF WRITER

They had no lawyers clamoring to take their cases, no support groups and, in some cases, scant financial means to rebuild.

They rolled the earthquake insurance dice and lost.

More than six years after the Northridge earthquake, insured homeowners are still in the news because of ongoing disputes over payments and controversial settlements with insurance companies made by former Insurance Commissioner Chuck Quackenbush.

But many homeowners in Ventura County and the San Fernando Valley areas closest to the epicenter had no earthquake insurance, according to a state-funded study.

They are the forgotten earthquake victims.

"People do not generally want to talk about the fact that they had no earthquake insurance," said Mary Comerio, a professor at UC Berkeley and lead author of the 1997 study "Residential Earthquake Recovery."

An oft-quoted estimate of $25 billion in property losses is based on money paid out by insurance companies and government agencies, Comerio said. But she said no one knows for sure the amount of uninsured losses.

"Many homeowners either contacted their bank or mother-in-law, but they're not in the public domain," she said.

The best estimate is about $4.7 billion--the money federal agencies paid out in residential grants and low-interest rebuilding loans, Comerio said.

Officials believe that most of this money went to uninsured homeowners, but neither the Federal Emergency Management Agency nor the U. S. Small Business Administration compiled specific statistics on the issue. And, they point out, government help goes only so far.

"None of the government programs--federal or state--will make you whole again," said David Fukutomi, FEMA disaster recovery manager. "We cannot replace what you could get from insurance."

Many people, with repairs exceeding the value of their homes, simply walked away, their homes falling into foreclosure. But others stayed to rebuild.

*

Seconds after the shaking that tore his Fillmore home from its foundation finally subsided, Roger Campbell jumped into the fire boots he always kept by the bed, grabbed the rest of his fire gear and led his family outside.

"I'm the assistant fire chief," he said. "That comes with responsibilities."

He rushed to the city Fire Station--which he couldn't enter because of quake damage--and began setting up an outdoor command center. Campbell, also a Fillmore city councilman, helped with rescues, setting up a housing shelter in a school gym and surveys of the devastation to the small Ventura County town.

Campbell glimpsed his home only briefly, and it was a painful sight. The house--built in the 1920s--tilted so badly that it threatened the relatively undamaged home of a neighbor.

After two days of helping others, he confronted the situation on the home front.

"I think that's when it started to sink in: 'I got some serious problems here,' " said Campbell, 49, who didn't want to pay the extra expense for quake insurance.

Friends had already helped by salvaging what they could from the house, which was a total loss.

"No one was supposed to go in, but they did--about 50 friends. They stripped everything they could out of it," Campbell said. "It was real moving."

But Campbell, who describes himself as a "human dynamo," decided within days of the earthquake to rebuild. "You make a decision and go on. I don't wallow in things," he said.

He studied SBA loan policies in detail, arriving at the agency's offices with paperwork in hand to get an expedited loan to cover all rebuilding costs. Within a few weeks, he had selected a house from a model and signed a deal with a contractor.

He declined to say how much he spent to rebuild, but a recent county assessment put the value of the replacement house around $74,000, excluding land value.

"Before the earthquake, I had only nine years left to pay off my house," he said. "Then, suddenly, it was 30."

On May 18, just four months and a day after the earthquake struck, he and his family moved into the new two-story, four-bedroom house.

He did not take out earthquake insurance.

"I had it built to withstand an 8-point earthquake," he said with confidence, standing in front of the house.

He does not go inside because he and his wife, Katherine, are in the middle of a divorce. She lives there, while he lives a block away in a small, Spanish-style rental.

In separate interviews, both said the quake did not play a role in their separation.

They did have opposite views on one house matter, however.

"Once the divorce is final," his wife said, "and if I am fortunate enough to be blessed with being able to keep the house, I will be looking for quotes for earthquake insurance."

*

Jaspal Jammu sat on the sofa in his small, dimly lit apartment, holding a 1994 insurance check for $7,999.

He didn't have earthquake insurance when the Northridge quake rocked his family's three-bedroom Granada Hills home so hard that it left floor cracks more than 6 feet deep.

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