Cali Wildfire Victims Ask: Where's FEMA?

A prefabricated home issued by FEMA stands near a wildfire-scorched hillside in Ramona, Calif., Monday Feb. 11, 2008. Just three months after wildfires destroyed more than 2,000 homes and prompted more than half a million people to evacuate in Southern California, FEMA is wrapping up its assistance operation. AP

Patty Reedy is still waiting for someone at the Federal Emergency Management Agency to send her the mobile home she was promised before Christmas.

In December, agency inspectors said she wouldn't get a government house to replace the one she lost during last year's wildfires because it would be too difficult to haul the 60-foot, three-bedroom prefabricated home up a winding road to her remote mountaintop property.

Reedy isn't alone. FEMA brought dozens of mobile homes to Southern California after the fires, only to find their own guidelines prevented them from putting them on many properties in rough terrain. San Diego County officials say dozens of applicants were denied homes because their properties were inaccessible to trucks, didn't have connections into the electrical grid or were on hillsides deemed at mudslide risk.

"They don't have any familiarity with these areas so they can't conceive of the needs being different," said Deena Raver, a contractor who was hired by San Diego County to help fire victims. "You're talking about one area with sewage and water and other places that are very rural."

The mobile home delay is another blemish on a beleaguered agency.

When the fires broke out in five Southern California counties, forcing half a million people to flee, many thought FEMA - still bruised from its performance after Hurricane Katrina - had a golden opportunity to repair its image.

But the fires blackened about 800 square miles and destroyed nearly 2,200 homes, a fraction of the 90,000 square miles and roughly 500,000 homes ravaged by the hurricane, and left roads, power lines and sewage systems largely intact.

"FEMA wasn't really tested here," said Paul Light, a professor of public service at New York University. "It really wasn't a dry run for sustained response and recovery."

FEMA spokesman James McIntyre said the agency applied lessons it learned in Katrina to streamline its operations in Southern California - like the need to respond quickly. Two days before President Bush declared a federal disaster, FEMA crews were moving into fire-stricken zones and setting up at San Diego's Qualcomm Stadium.

Within a week, the agency had begun disbursing grants up to $28,800, short-circuiting detailed accounting requirements that slowed relief after the 2003 fires. So far, FEMA has paid more than $13.1 million to 1,973 people, mostly in San Diego County.

But the agency has only distributed 33 mobile homes in the county, including 14 on American Indian reservation land.

In 2003, the agency sent short, adaptable "travel trailers" to house people living in the mountains, but they are being avoided now amid concerns about toxic chemicals; this week the agency said it would move hurricane victims out of more than 35,000 trailers because tests indicate some of the temporary homes contain high levels of formaldehyde.

Instead, FEMA only dispatched three-bedroom modular homes to Southern California - luxurious compared to the 15-foot travel trailers, but, at 60 feet, too long to fit on many properties or be moved up steep roads full of switchbacks. They also require too much electricity to run off generators or solar panels and have to be hooked into the power grid. They have to be on flat land, away from any hills that might be at risk for mudslides.

Grace Yim, a FEMA branch manager in Pasadena, said she didn't know how many eligible fire victims were denied homes.

"We met a lot of challenges with the kind of unit that was available to us - there are canyon areas, mountainous areas so we had a lot of sites that came back infeasible, and then there's just nothing we can do," Yim said.

People who were unable to put the large trailers on their properties were referred to other agencies, mainly Housing and Urban Development, for subsidized apartments, Yim said.

But living far away from isolated lots can slow reconstruction for people who are cash-strapped to begin with, said Bonnie Frede, director of a nonprofit-funded fire recovery center in the mountain town of Ramona, about 35 miles northeast of San Diego.

"These people want to be on their land," Frede said.

Reedy, a lithe 51-year-old, said she already put more than 7,000 miles on her pickup truck driving up and down the mountain, costing her $2,000 in gas out of her $28,800 grant. She had hoped to get the mobile home on her land and eventually use the grant money to buy it.

She said she will keep trying to get the promised FEMA home on her property.

"I ran into my first FEMA inspector at the grocery store, and he said, 'You pay your taxes, so don't let them tell you no,"' she said. "As long as I know what I'm working towards, I can start to plan, but right now it's just sitting in the bank while I waste gas."
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