Nearly year later CA flood survivors finally get aid

BY KAREN BOTHAM | SONOMA COUNTY, CALIFORNIA | February 12, 1999


SONOMA COUNTY, CALIFORNIA (Feb. 12, 1999) -- If any group of people

know how slowly the wheels of a bureaucracy turn, the people in Russian River

area of Northern California do.

"Glacially slow," the Rev. Brian Plaugher is fond of saying. Unfortunately mud

moves quickly.

Plaugher and Arlene Irizary, both with Deluge Response Interfaith, are finally

seeing some quickening movement on the part of the Federal Emergency

Management Agency (FEMA) and the Sonoma County Board of Supervisors to help

close the chapter on last February's flooding that left nearly 100 families

homeless in four sites around the county.

Korean immigrant Hee Ran Park-Schultz, of Rio Nido, Calif., will now have

federal buyout funds available for 75 percent of her home's pre-slide

appraised value. The Board of Supervisors agreed to the final terms at its

Jan. 26, according to Irizary. Park-Schultz and dozens of other residents

have been unable to live in their homes,but forced to make mortgage

payments as well as new rental costs, since the flood.

The funds will be available for 60 homes.

In order to qualify for the funding, the homeowners had to pay for the

appraisal; that's an expense many needed help with, Plaugher said. DRI

helped those on the lowest income levels.

Another program Plaugher is happy to see move along is FEMA's Home Elevation

Grant Program. Although $9 million has been pledged since 1995, when two

devastating back-to-back floods destroyed homes along the Russian River and

threatened hundreds more, as of June 1998 only three homes had been

completed.

Since June, however, Plaugher said 50 of the 242 homes have now been elevated.

Of those homeowners, 80 percent of them received some kind of assistance from

DRI.

"We're not just patching the homes up, we're really trying to focus on helping

people avoid future damage," Plaugher said.

Accepting the FEMA grant presents its own problems. In order to qualify,

homeowners must first pay a variety of fees for engineer designs, septic

reports, pest reports and code work, Irizary said. Plus they need to put

into escrow 10 percent of the cost to elevate the home. If the cost is

$39,000, which is the maximum individual grant, they must first put $3,900

in reserve plus pay for the various fees.

"We have a lot of people who are too poor to qualify," she said. "The most

vulnerable people are falling through the cracks."

"When I first came here, my daughter and I survived by picking up aluminum

cans by the road. Thirteen years ago I got this great job as an inspector for

Korbel. Five years ago I bought my American dream -- and now it's gone,"

Park-Schultz said after being evacuated last February.

Since the news of the federal buyout, Irizary said she has seen Park-Schultz

smile again and she believes she'll get her American dream back.

Park-Schultz was one of 140 families who were evacuated in early February over

growing concerns of mudslides in the small communities dotting the river banks

at the foot of Mount Jackson and Black Mountain in Sonoma County near

Guerneville.

Unlike many who were able to return to their homes and begin restoring their

lives, Park-Schultz's and two dozen others were condemned and homeowners

were kept out unless they made prior arrangements to enter the home,

Irizary said.

Almost all relief efforts in this part of California are coordinated through

Deluge Response. Faiths represented include Lutheran, United Church of Christ,

Methodist, Episcopal and Seventh Day Adventists. Others, such as members of

the Jewish and Buddhist communities, help with fund-raising efforts and use

DRI resources to help their efforts.

DRI formed in 1995 after two large floods wrecked similar havoc to Russian

River homes. Each succeeding year has seen flooding and mudslides batter

the homes. Last year has been particularly hard due to El Nino conditions

bringing excess rain and snow throughout the state.

In all 40 of California's 58 counties have been declared federal disasters

areas due to El Nino disasters from February to April. An early estimate

puts damages at $550 million, which includes losses in agriculture and

homes.

And 1999 is starting out much better.

Rain-soaked mountainsides have given way, threatening more homes. The major

artery between Guerneville and Rio Nido washed out and closed Feb. 10 for up

to a month for repairs. "This week -- a year after El Nino's wrath -- we

were hit by very heavy rainfall," Irizary said.

Even if the homes survive, Irizary is worried about the people. Many have

suffered physical and emotional traumas from losing it all.


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How US flood insurance works

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