Community reconnects after tragedy

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A meeting at Bluffs Park Sunday offered a place for neighbors to connect and reconnect with each other after the fire and find assistance.

By Melonie Magruder / Special to The Malibu Times

A community meeting designed to “Connect… and Reconnect” was held at Bluffs Park Sunday afternoon in an effort to bring together victims of the fire last week and residents who wish to help them. And, as evidenced by the lack of available parking, it was well attended.

Organized by Mayor Pro Tem Pamela Conley Ulich and local family therapist Susan Stiffelman, among others, the event served to inform residents who lost their homes that help is available, remind them of the necessary steps to take in beginning the road to recovery and, most of all, assure them, in the words of The Malibu Timed Publisher Arnold G. York, “This difficult time will pass and you will get through it.” (Arnold and hi wife, Karen York, lost their home in the 1993 fires and went through a three-year rebuilding process.)

While children kicked soccer balls in the park and the Malibu Softball Team fielded base hits, the Federal Emergency Management Agency and the Red Cross set up large trailers in the parking lot for residents to register claims and receive assistance. Other organizations, including the Chamber of Commerce, set up tables providing clothing, water, lodging options, services and sign-up sheets for donors able to offer everything from baby-sitting to low-cost housing.

“Isolation is the enemy of survival,” Stiffelman said in opening remarks. “And we will work together to see this community survive.”

Residents were assured that there is, indeed, method to the madness of finding one’s way after the tragedy of losing a home.

“The operative word is to organize,” Times co-Publisher Karen York said. “We are all here to help do that,” referring to the “Operation Recovery 2007” Bulletin Board, published in the Times, as well as ongoing efforts by community organizations to assist in the logistics of more complicated aspects of insurance claims.

“Remember,” Arnold York warned, “filing a claim means that you are now on ‘the other side’ of an insurance companies’ best interests.”

Roger Bush, representing the Small Business Administration, emphasized that loan representatives were on hand with FEMA. “The number one thing is to get registered with FEMA,” he said. “We have low-interest rate loans available to homeowners.”

Further solace was offered by singers Hannah Mulholland and Tommy Funderburk, as well as interfaith blessings by Malibu’s religious leaders, including Rabbi Judith Levi of the Malibu Jewish Center & Synagogue and Pastor Greg Hughes of Malibu Presbyterian Church, itself destroyed in October’s fires.

Chumash elder Alan Salazar offered prayers while sweeping burning sage smoke over listeners with a large white feather. “You all know what a Native American man thinks about government officials,” he said to laughter from the gathering. “But they are here to help.”

Mel Jenkins, FEMA’s field public information officer, said the agency had already received 155 applications from residents.

“That’s prior to today,” he said. “The help we can offer depends on applicants’ qualifications and degree of insurance. We partner with the city, county and state to develop grant applications to assist in housing and other needs. It might not seem like it’s happening fast enough, but it’s happening.”

They were words of small comfort to some residents who have literally lost everything. Wendy Keller is a literary agent whose home in Corral Canyon burnt to the ground.

“PTSD [post traumatic stress disorder] is a weird thing,” Keller said. “I am a successful businesswoman, but today I am homeless and on food stamps.”

Keller and her 15-year-old daughter were absent during last week’s fire, but they lost a family dog.

“The firemen were able to save one baby photo for me,” she said. “I had just finished a $45,000 remodel 10 days before the fire. Now I’m looking for a place to rent while we rebuild.”

Corral Canyon residents Gladys and Michael Sanson were returning from a visit to a Buddhist monastery in Japan, when they saw a news flash about the Malibu fire.

“We called our son and he told us that the only thing left standing was our safe,” Gladys said. “Mike and I married 10 years ago and merged two households. So china, silver, pictures, furniture … nothing was recoverable. But we were spared. For that we are grateful.”

Alyssa Pascucci has three sons and was evacuated from their home at 5 a.m. Saturday morning. “By six, the house was gone,” she said. “I was remodeling the interior and now I’ve lost renters who were helping to pay my mortgage. My insurance won’t cover the square footage of what I’ve lost!”

Because her house was insured under California FAIR Plan, Pascucci has no coverage to help with housing during her rebuild. “I had four different policies on my house,” she said. “I need to find a place to live. You gotta be kidding me.”

Pascucci’s plight underscored the most pressing immediate need for victims of the fire. “People need a place to stay,” Stiffelman said. “There is no low-cost housing available to rent in Malibu.”