North Coast Journal bannerCOVER STORY

DIARY OF A DISASTER

by   RITA LAKIN


FRIDAY, THE 13TH, FEBRUARY 1998.

(DAY ONE)

I was in Los Angeles when I got a call from my daughter, Susanne. "Mom, you've lost some of the pampas grass at the edge of the bluff." Even though that had never happened in all the years I owned my beach house, I wasn't duly alarmed. What's a few bushes? "Keep me posted," I told her.

Twenty-four years ago, stressed out from work in L.A., I looked for a hideaway which might remind me of East Coast vacation spots of my childhood, some place like Maine. I found my dream place in Northern California in the tiny, picturesque fishing village of Trinidad. To the 20 or so charming little cottages in a subdivision called Big Lagoon, I added mine out on the bluff rewarding me with the most spectacular sunsets imaginable. I felt truly blessed loving it more and more every year, planning some day to retire there.

After I hung up from my daughter's call, a little voice in the back of my head said maybe there really was a problem. It hadn't stopped pouring up north since last November and all I ever seemed to hear on the news was El Niño, El Niño, ad nauseam. But that had nothing to do with me. Nah!

 

SATURDAY MORNING,

THE 14TH. VALENTINE'S DAY.

(DAY TWO)

I was out all day and when I got home there was a barrage of messages on the machine telling me to call my daughter, ASAP! Susanne was hysterical. "You lost 40 feet of your backyard!"

Since my house was 56 feet back from the cliff, I just kept mumbling, "What are you talking about? Don't be ridiculous."

"Get on the next plane up here! I already tried to get a guy to move the house but he said it was too late! Not only that, it would probably end up costing $80,000! Anyway, the ground's too unstable; he can't get his heavy equipment in. I called all of our friends and they called their friends and everybody is standing by to get your stuff out!"

I couldn't absorb all of this 40 feet? Overnight? Move the house? Get my belongings out? How could this happen? But it had. I looked out the window. The day's rainstorm had worsened. The entire California coast was dealing with one horrific storm after another. "I'll never be able to get there today. I'll try to fly out tomorrow."

"O.K. I'll have everybody stand by till you get here."

Suddenly a chill ran through me. I had a real bad feeling. "Don't wait for me. Do it now!"

She hung up. "Happy Valentine's Day," I told myself.

SUNDAY, THE 15TH.

(DAY THREE)

Directly from the plane, Susanne and I went up to Big Lagoon. My God! What an unbelievable sight! Yesterday the cliff had broken off and was only 15 feet from my back deck and work studio. Today it was right up to the deck itself.

It was a good thing the volunteers got my stuff out yesterday, today would have been too late. All my belongings were in my neighbor Erica's breezeway. We shared an easement and her house was directly in front of mine. She came out to greet me. We hugged one another with tears in our eyes. "I can't believe it," I said. "Neither can I," she answered, "I'm terrified."

My house ... I thought to myself ... I'm losing my beautiful house ... but it still didn't seem real to me. Besides, there wasn't time for feelings I had to find a way to save it.

We drove back to my daughter and son-in-law's house. A couple of friends came over and we started making calls. We didn't know what to do. We needed help. We called every office in the county we could think of, but it was a holiday weekend and we got mostly answering machines.

The few people we reached hadn't a clue, or passed the buck, referred us to someone else or just didn't believe us. No one wanted to take responsibility. We called a county supervisor. "What do you want me to do about it?" was the response.

The next day, the movers came to get my possessions to put in storage. As a group of friends sat around Erica's kitchen table and drank coffee, we bemoaned the inability to get help. Suddenly, we looked up and there was a man standing at the open door.

With a kindly smile and gentle Texas accent he introduced himself, said he just happened to be down the road and he saw all the activity and thought he'd stop in. He said he was from FEMA, the Federal Emergency Management Agency. Could he be of assistance?

I told him my house was in trouble and that I couldn't get any help. He asked to use the phone. He made some phone calls and within the hour all kinds of people started showing up, including county officials, a supervisor, geologists, my insurance rep, a gal from the local TV and an assortment of looky-loos.

Some stranger pulled me off to one side. "Got a tip for you," he said, whispering. "Quick, burn it up so you'll collect on your insurance."

"I can't do THAT," I said, horrified.

"Your funeral," he said, walking off.

We kept asking all the official-looking visitors what to do, but no one had an answer. By now we were becoming aware my neighbors were in trouble, too. Four other houses were now in danger. The neighbor to the south of me who had recently bought the land, hoping to build, had lost almost all his property. The house south of his was almost to the edge of the cliff. All the neighbors to the north were now in jeopardy as well.

The experts looked around, left their cards and took off. The sweet man from FEMA said to apply for federal aid.

By the next day, DAY FOUR, my deck and my entire studio were hanging in mid-air. The day after that, DAY FIVE, my deck and studio disappeared. My friend Eric said big chunks washed up at his lagoon five miles away and he commented on the "feeding frenzy" of people grabbing up all they could.

I had some weird thought about that. First, I was relieved no one got hurt, then annoyed at the "grab," then maybe philosophical, that bits and pieces of a house I loved were now in other people's homes. And I hoped it brought them happiness.

By DAY SIX the ground was gone from underneath most of my house and it seemed as if there was nothing but air under it.

By now the media were very much involved and I had the pleasure of meeting Rebecca, Andrea, Suzanne and others, all of whom were sweet and kind, thereby beginning my 15 minutes of fame. I was in the papers and on the news at 6 and 11 almost every day.

I had the feeling people were making bets on when my house would go tumbling six stories down onto Patrick's Point beach. I was now a celebrity and recognized everywhere. From time to time other people came up to me and suggested I start that fire. One of them actually had a sure fire plan (pun intended) that guaranteed I would not go to jail. It would positively look like an accident.

My house was now officially "red-tagged" as were three of my neighbors'. Four other houses got themselves moved and relocated. Our little neighborhood was truly a disaster area.

Speaking of neighbors. Here I was coming up to my beach house for 24 years and I hardly knew anyone except Erica. Trinidad was my escape and I wanted only to be on my deck and enjoy the solitude. I had my family so I didn't seek out other companions.

By now there were 40 houses in the subdivision and I was finally meeting all my neighbors. And I regretted all the wasted years, because they're wonderful people, all unselfishly reaching out to help one another. The neighbors decided to form a united group, facilitating our efforts to get help instead of us individually spinning our wheels.

Finally, my insurance company sent me a three-page letter telling me that I was not insured for this event. Sorry, my problem, not theirs. Twenty-four years of paying premiums and when I really needed them forget it. No wonder people hate paying insurance.

FEMA told me to apply to SBA, the Small Business Administration. We kept calling the county for help. There was none. We were officially designated a disaster area and eligible for FEMA funds. We were told curtly that money went to roads only, NEVER to private citizens.

At the same time, the area called Pacifica was going through its disaster. The newspapers gave the name of the man down there who was put in charge. Having nothing to lose we called Steve Brandvold. Here was a man who had major problems to deal with yet found the time to talk to us, tell us how Pacifica organized and really helped their people with a working disaster plan.

Our neighborhood group, unhappy with little response, called a meeting. A lot of county people turned up and promised "mysterious" help that never materialized. We told them what Pacifica was doing, but there wasn't much interest.

However, immediately after this meeting, a hastily put together pamphlet "Big Lagoon Information Guide" was sent out informing us of OUR responsibilities, all the things WE had to do about septic tanks, demolition, etc., with a veiled "or else" and that the homeowner "unconditionally waives any claim of liability. ..." (When did I ever agree to that?)

And of course, there was a pithy statement recalling the "known danger" (news to me after 24 years) of the "intense erosion" in this subdivision. This disclaimer thus freed the county of any responsibility for our problems. The burning question is why had the county allowed such a subdivision to be built in the first place if it was aware of these dangers?

Another document talked about all the "analysis" the county was doing and basically put down Pacifica's efforts. And this group compliments itself on its "earthquake preparedness." If the county couldn't handle this one little area, God help Humboldt County if the big one hits.

FEMA sent me the first of many letters turning me down for any aid, because the beach house was not my primary residence.

Yet another person called with the ubiquitous "fire" suggestion.

By now I was really getting worried. I was having nightmares that my house would one day fall crashing down on someone on the beach. What should I do? Again I called county people. I was mostly told to just "let it fall" because the ocean would "dissolve it."

This felt wrong to me. What if the ocean didn't "dissolve it?" Certainly all the stuff that washed up at Dry Lagoon didn't "dissolve." I worried about big boards, rusty nails, toxic substances, asphalt, insulation, broken glass. However, I was reminded that should someone, months later, cut a foot on a piece of glass or break a leg tripping over electrical wire, I could be sued.

Silently, I thanked those selfless, hardy souls who emptied my house not only of furniture, but every cabinet, bathtub, toilet and heater so at least those heavy things would not fall.

I called the one person I now depended on for a straight answer. I called Steve in Pacifica. He said, "Demolish it. Anything else would be irresponsible."

I hired a demolition crew and called my insurance company to at least help out with this. But I knew the answer even as I asked. IF someone died hey, I was covered for that then they'd pay but preventive action? Your problem, babe. I was so sick of hearing it called my problem.

So, $6,400 later, my neighbors gathered around and commiserated as we drank champagne and watched as my beautiful house came down.

And now it finally hit me. All these weeks of "dealing" with problems, all these weeks of holding my feelings in, when the first smack of the backhoe hit my house, my body flinched as if it were hitting me instead of wood and plaster.

Crack! The kitchen wall. I could see my oldest son, Howard, and his wife, Jenny, standing there, grinning as they announced the news that my first grandchild, Alison, was on her way and had a camera poised to catch my expression of surprise and delight.

Smash! The kitchen beam. I could see me steadying my 4-year-old grandchild, Megan, so she could "paint" a mural on the beam of sea lions playing in the surf.

I thought of the back deck that had already gone down where my daughter, Susanne, married Lee with friends, family and nine dogs watching.

And my work studio, where I wrote dozens of my TV scripts, gone.

And I remember my grandchild, Amara, taking her first steps in the living room and her cousin, James, racing up from the beach with his biggest agate yet.

And three beloved dead dogs at various times had their ashes strewn in the back yard they all loved.

The memories continued to overwhelm me as the demolition crew destroyed dreams piece by piece.

Why me? That's what everyone asks when something awful happens. Maybe it was a message about moving on. Who knows? Over the weeks I heard every well-meaning cliché when people feel badly about what happens and don't know what else to say. "Hey, it's only a house." "You'll find another one." "As long as nobody got hurt." "It's only money!"

But it wasn't "only a house" to my family and friends. It was a repository of 24 years of memories. There was a spirit there, an essence of who we were and what we came from and how far we had gone the sum total of all the memories of happy times as well as pain. A piece of all of us is now missing forever. And the experience changed us. It made us feel more vulnerable to what can happen.

After I got my third letter from FEMA turning me down because my Big Lagoon house was not considered my primary residence (don't those people talk to one another?) I tried to explain that I spend more than six months out of the year here, that I owned this house longer than any other, and that in my heart it was my primary residence. I was just about to put my L.A. house on the market and retire here. Didn't that count?

I was asked what the address on my driver's license was. I said Los Angeles. Sorry, that made L.A. still my primary residence.

So why didn't someone give me that advice to change the address on my driver's license instead of telling me to burn down my house?

Because I loved it and wanted to share it, I've had a lot of people stay at my beach house over 24 years. The guest book I left for them is filled with their poetry, drawings and letters inspired by this magic place. Listen to their words:

"How wonderful. We went home relaxed, refreshed and inspired."

"I will always remember being centered here ... with God."

"I liked the waves crashing and finding walking sticks and starfish." From Iain, 4.

"Built a fire. Listened to the rain. Listened to our hearts and entered the harmony of the waves."

"Relaxing, romantic, inspirational. Enchanted."

"We don't want to leave. Six months ago I was diagnosed with cancer. Being here has renewed all of us. Now I contemplate the wonders of God's nature. I feel I have my life back."

"Can we live like this all the time?" Billy wrote.

Unfortunately, Billy, the answer is no.

And to Randy and June who left a note stating if I ever wanted to sell the place, I should call them. Hey, kids, have I got a deal for you!


SIDEBAR:

FEMA's check is in the mail!

 


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