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Aid Pleas Lag Behind Quake Costs

As repairs continue after the San Simeon temblor, Central Coast residents face a Monday deadline for applying for disaster relief.

March 10, 2004|Sally Ann Connell | Special to the Times

SAN LUIS OBISPO, Calif. — Local officials had estimated that there was almost $250 million in damage from the Dec. 22 San Simeon earthquake, but applications for less than one-third of that amount are being processed at Central Coast federal disaster relief centers.

Federal officials report that $16.3 million in federal grants and loans has been awarded to San Luis Obispo County residents and businesses affected by the earthquake, which killed two women in Paso Robles.

An additional $60 million in loans is being considered for public and nonprofit agencies, which have experienced extensive damage to older and historic buildings.

Monday is the last day for individuals and businesses to apply for the grants and loans related to the earthquake, according to officials from the Federal Emergency Management Agency and the Small Business Administration.

The application process can be started by calling 1-(800) 621-FEMA.

Federal and local officials are attributing the gap between the amount of damage reported and the amount of money requested to date to the limits on federal disaster aid. One county official, for example, said that the $240,000 cap on SBA loans for individuals who experienced extensive damage to their houses and contents was just not enough.

FEMA has awarded $6.3 million in grants for temporary housing and essential home repairs, while the Small Business Administration has approved $10 million in low-interest loans for both homeowners and businesses.

In all, there have been 3,800 applications, with almost 3,000 approved between the two agencies.

"FEMA is not designed to make you whole," said Dane Golden, a FEMA spokesman. "It's designed to provide essentials needed to get you back on your feet."

Ron Alsop, spokesman for the San Luis Obispo County Office of Emergency Services, said the list of claims didn't include individuals who had gone to private lenders for damages or who had earthquake coverage.

It also doesn't include business owners who decide they cannot incur more debt, since there are no grants available for businesses -- only loans.

Alsop also said that late reports of individual damage kept coming in.

One recent call, Alsop said, came from someone "saying that the gas company had found water in their line that the gas workers thought was related to the quake. They'd been having problems for a while, but they couldn't isolate it. It's important that people check their properties thoroughly before the deadline."

Even as the federal aid efforts related to the San Simeon earthquake wind down, the city of Paso Robles has cleaned up much of its downtown damage. Last week, the entire town square was opened to vehicle traffic for the first time since Dec. 22.

While the epicenter of the magnitude 6.5 earthquake was 10 miles north of the coastal town of Cambria in northern San Luis Obispo County, the force of the quake was directed toward Paso Robles, 24 miles to the southeast.

It was there, at the corner of 12th and Park streets, that two women were killed in the collapse of the Acorn Building, which was constructed of unreinforced masonry.

The Acorn Building was a landmark in town because it contained the community's hallmark clock tower. Its site is now an empty lot surrounded by a fence. Another vast empty lot is located across Park Street, where the badly damaged Marlowe Building once stood.

Despite the fenced vacant lots at what used to be the heart of the city's downtown, neighboring businesses have already noticed an uptick in traffic with the removal of barriers. In January and February, some businesses reported receipts down from 40% to 90%.

"It's getting better," said Debbie Wofford, co-owner of All Occasion Party and Gifts, a block from where the two women died. "Our traffic is improving, but it isn't back completely.

"Hopefully, people will realize it's open now."

The damage to public structures is what many in the affected communities see daily.

Atascadero city government continues to do business out of a former pizza parlor and dance hall.

The seven-story, historic City Hall in the town square suffered $20 million in damage, and access to it is barred.

The building has four floors of offices, capped by a three-story rotunda in a majestic building built between 1914 and 1917 by developer Edward Garner Lewis and designed by architect William D. Bliss.

"It's significantly more than a community our size could afford to build today," said Atascadero City Manager Wade McKinney. But he said the town was committed to seeing it refurbished and occupied once again, though officials have to work through more immediate problems.

"We tried to do some weatherproofing on it so that it wouldn't get further damage in the rain," McKinney said. "You can see daylight right through the ceiling from inside."

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