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CA fire survivors wait - and wait

If homes could be built from red tape, San Diego County disaster survivors would have it made.

BY SUSAN KIM | SAN DIEGO COUNTY, Calif. | October 6, 2004

"The county's building department is to be commended for working tirelessly to make certain that the needs of fire victims are prioritized."

—Dianne Jacob

If homes could be built from red tape, San Diego County disaster survivors would have it made.

Many fire survivors have been living in travel trailers and tents since they lost their homes to wildfires nearly a year ago. Disaster response groups stand ready to rebuild at least some homes but after months of delays in obtaining county permits, soon fire survivors will be waiting in winter temperatures that could plunge into the 20s.

One veteran disaster response leader said it's the worst delay he's ever faced on a post-disaster site.

County officials, however, say some plans submitted were faulty and permit seekers have not allowed enough time for the review process.

"The county's building department is to be commended for working tirelessly to make certain that the needs of fire victims are prioritized," said Dianne Jacob, chairwoman of the San Diego County Board of Supervisors. "Faced with plans that were submitted late and fell far short of county standards, our patient staff worked alongside all involved to modify the planned structures so that they will, indeed, be safe once constructed."

This is the first disaster of this magnitude to hit the county. "Because San Diego had never needed long-term recovery, we had a lot to learn," said Teresa Manley, chair of Community Firestorm Recovery Team (CRT), a consortium of community groups and faith-based organizations.

And at least some county officials simply didn't know how groups like MDS work.

An official in the county's building department said the county's permit process requires a review by the land-use department's zoning section and by the environmental health and public works departments. A building engineer then evaluates applications for compliance with state and local zoning codes.

Meanwhile more than 2,000 homes still need to be rebuilt.

"With winter coming - and some areas of Julian and Cuyamaca do get snow in the winter - families are beginning to be desperate," Manley said. "Some are even building without permits."

At this point, it looks like recovery will be a long haul, agreed Anne Subia, executive director of Urban Opportunities Unlimited (UOU), a group of urban churches active in community outreach. "Of the 2,500 homes lost to the fires almost one year ago, less than 80 have been rebuilt - so we have a huge task yet ahead," she said.

Of the families it is assisting, CRT has found that up to 98 percent of them are underinsured. "Many of these families have insurance companies that provide only one year of additional living expenses, and they have not even begun the construction process," Manley said.

Volunteer crews from Mennonite Disaster Services (MDS) have plans for four houses ready to go, and another six in the making, said Freeman Hershberger, project director for MDS. But so far, they haven't been able to get code approval from the county for any homes.

In an informal meeting in June, local building officials told Hershberger the MDS house plans were inadequate, and suggested what would be needed. When MDS filed for permits last month the county identified more problems. At a third meeting, last week, additional alterations were required. Hershberger met with a different county official each time, he said, and he and others have wondered why the changes weren't made in one sitting.

"I have been in construction for 27 years and this was the worst I've ever faced," he said. "If you don't want us here - you tell us."

For many fire survivors, the faith-based response groups - and the modest homes they're building - are the only hope, he added. "People are living in metal sheds. They don't have any money. These people need homes. We're not talking about fancy homes.

"One is 864 square feet. One is 880 square feet. They're two-bedroom and one bath."

"I know California codes are different," he said, "but that difference doesn't justify this kind of delay. We have to have some common sense here."

Jacob said county officials aren't trying to push volunteers away. "San Diego County salutes the Mennonites and other faith-based groups for the wonderful work they're doing to assist fire victims," she said.

Last week, the county agreed to assign one planning staff member to review plans, hoping to alter the perception that Hershberger and others are getting conflicting instructions from each new county employee they meet.

The county also said that the process should go faster after one initial stamp of approval, since obtaining additional permits for similar homes should be easier.

That could be a positive step for fire survivors - who could really use some good news at this point, said Subia.

The county has issued 655 permits to rebuild homes and 536 more permits are in the approval process.

MDS, UOU, Christian Aid Ministries, Church of the Brethren, and other faith-based groups are working through CRT. The organization's primary focus is on raising funds for building materials for the elderly, at-risk, and severely underinsured.

"The county has waived permit fees for fire survivors and given them front-of-the-line privileges, but it is still a time-consuming task, often requiring multiple visits for changes," said Manley.

"I think the most helpful thing the county could do...would be to have a staff member located at our construction office one or two days a week," Manley added. "Fire survivors could bring in the plan, have it pre-stamped, and then go to the county for permits."

The recent steps by county officials may move the process along, said Hershberger, but he wasn't willing to give it a vote of confidence yet. "It's tough to say everything is great," he said. "I'm trying to look at it in a positive way. I want to give the county the benefit of the doubt."

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