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Storm Victims Face Long Wait for Aid

Hundreds spend hours in line for paperwork from county so they can rebuild their lives.

November 17, 2003|Jessica Garrison | Times Staff Writer

Four days after a freak storm dumped 5 inches of rain and ice across parts of southern Los Angeles County and left flooding and power outages in its wake, hundreds of residents spent Sunday fretting over ruined homes or waiting in long lines for aid.

By noon, many had been waiting for six hours just to fill out paperwork in the Los Angeles County Department of Public Social Services building on Imperial Highway.

About 6,000 people have sought help since Friday, the vast majority needing emergency food stamps to restock milk and meat that went bad because of the power outage, said Michelle Callahan, division chief for the department's general services division.

But in the working-class neighborhoods of Watts and Willowbrook, where many said they never dreamed that they would need flood insurance, getting the refrigerator restocked was only the most immediate need.

"I think my house is totaled," said Gloria Papillion, who lives on a cul-de-sac in Willowbrook. In the living room of her house on Elva Avenue, water had buckled the floor into great bumpy ridges.

Throughout the house was a brown ring of muck along the walls, left by receding water. Papillion said her house smells "like a sewer" and the mold has become so severe that she is afraid to put her 1-year-old daughter down.

Her neighbors were in similar straits.

Two doors down, Brenda Young and her sister Robin Suttle dragged their carpets into a wet, mildewy pile on the front lawn, but said they feared their house was uninhabitable. They have been staying at a hotel.

Across the street, Victor Lopez's dog drowned after becoming trapped in her kennel.

And Maria Gonzelez's family was left with two flooded cars that would not start, ruined floors and a pile of possessions drying in the afternoon sunlight.

"We need someone to help," said Papillion, who like many of her neighbors expressed frustration that aid workers have not yet come to their cul-de-sac.

Several said they had gone to the relief center and waited in line for hours, but said they had been unable to get the information they needed about what to do.

"Nobody knew anything," Vera Nelson said.

She said one person told her not to clean up any of the damage until assessors could look at it, while someone else told her that she had to get the carpets out immediately because they posed a health hazard.

The storm moved in Wednesday afternoon and settled over South Los Angeles. Flashes of lightning knocked out power to more than 50,000 customers. The rumbling clouds dumped rain and hail, flooding streets and covering some yards with ice.

On Thursday, as people came from all over Southern California to see a winter wonderland of ice castles and snowball fights in Watts, Los Angeles Mayor James K. Hahn declared a local emergency, a first step toward allowing the area to qualify for state and federal disaster relief.

On Friday, Gov. Gray Davis declared parts of Watts, South Gate and Compton a disaster area. The designation will allow storm victims to apply for low-interest loans and other assistance.

By Sunday, no trace of ice remained. Bright sunshine shone on the neighborhoods, and even puddles of water were few and far between. But the damage to houses remained.

LaTonia Lopez, 28, who lives on Elva Avenue, said she was not amused when people asked her if she had enjoyed the snow-like conditions.

Though a few blocks away children had frolicked in the ice, her street received only rain -- a massive amount.

"We're not playing," she said. Instead, she said, they were "darn near swimming."

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