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Mudslide Victims Still Feeling Stuck

A Silver Lake couple weren't hurt when their home was heavily damaged in January. But financial aid dried up faster than the mud.

June 11, 2005|Erica Williams | Times Staff Writer

Mark Johnston had just put his muddy clothes in the washer and stepped into the living room of his Silver Lake home when he heard what sounded like "a big twig snapping" behind him.

Seconds later, a towering eucalyptus tree collapsed onto a utility pole and smashed into the roof of the three-story house as a mountain of mud blasted through the dwelling, filling the top-floor dining room, kitchen and laundry room.

Johnston, 46, was lucky. He survived the Jan. 9 disaster.

Five months later, Johnston and his wife, Laura Bogner, 37, aren't feeling so lucky. After spending tens of thousands of dollars and hundreds of hours trying to navigate the arcane bureaucracies of insurance companies and government agencies, the couple still are not back in their house. And there's no telling when that will happen.

The Lucile Avenue home with stunning views of the San Gabriel Mountains that they bought for $275,000 in 1997 was severely damaged, with repairs estimated at $200,000.

For the young couple, starting over seemed all but impossible. Rebuilding their home and their lives would test their nerves and even their 15-year marriage.

"Our biggest fight was probably because we were out of sync about what we were going to have to do for the next six months," Johnston said.

*

Soon after the slide, an adjustor with Farmers Insurance Co. examined their home and determined that earth movement, excluded under the couple's policy, was responsible for the damage. The saturated hillside behind their house had collapsed onto their property.

Adding to their troubles, Johnston and Bogner learned they did not qualify for local disaster assistance because their combined income exceeded $100,000.

Most of the money for reconstruction would have to come from their substantial savings, built up over years of frugal living that included scouring thrift stores for household furniture.

Depleting their nest egg would mean that Johnston would probably be forced to push back his retirement by several years.

As their house underwent repair, the couple moved briefly into a friend's Echo Park duplex before deciding to look for an apartment.

The agonizing search for affordable short-term housing -- a unit that would allow their two cats, Lou Lou and Slink -- took several weeks. Eventually they settled on a two-bedroom apartment in Glendale at $1,100 a month.

Increasingly frustrated with the financial burden they faced and the bureaucratic web they found themselves tangled in, the couple's first week in their new home wasn't easy.

"We fought more in that week than we have in our 15 years together," said Bogner, a veteran yoga instructor.

Farmers Insurance eventually agreed to pay $1,700 for tree removal and roof repairs, minus the policy's $500 deductible.

Disaster assistance from the Federal Emergency Management Agency was also slow in coming.

The agency initially denied the couple's application because of a clerical error that stated the mudslide occurred a year earlier.

Eventually, they received a $5,200 FEMA grant to cover emergency home repairs.

Shortly thereafter, they received a $900 check from FEMA for rental assistance, which they can continue to receive up to 18 months as long as they remain displaced.

But they have yet to receive another payment and are appealing their case.

While Johnston and Bogner were dealing with FEMA, they received a letter from the city's Department of Building and Safety citing their property for slope failure.

The department required them to submit reports from geologists recommending fixes for the gash in the hillside.

They had a month to comply or face stiff fines.

"It was like getting a $5,000 bill from the city," Johnston said. The city later dropped some of its demands.

Obtaining an incident report from the Fire Department for insurance and legal purposes also proved difficult.

After several phone calls to the fire station, the couple got a report that provided "a very rudimentary description of why they were even there," Johnston said. The estimate for property damage and content loss was listed as $0.00.

"One thing I can say about this," he said, "it's really made me a lot more short-tempered."

A swarm of city workers in the days after the mudslide had given the couple a false sense of assurance that the process would be less onerous than it had become, Johnston said.

"You get your hopes up that there's some fix for this and there is [none]," he said. "In reality, the fix is you pay money and things get fixed. And the money is coming from your pocket."

*

Repair contractor Mel Brown, who was hired within days of the mudslide, was stunned by what he saw.

"The mud was up and over the light switch by the front door," he said. "All the kitchen cabinets that weren't torn out were hanging toward the living room."

Two walls had been demolished, one separating the kitchen from the dining room, the other the laundry room from the kitchen. The floors beneath had collapsed, crushed by the weight of six-foot-deep mud.

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