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FEMA's check is in the mail!


AFTER 10 MONTHS OF NAIL-BITING, hand-wringing and frantic phone calls to relief agencies, 17 Big Lagoon property owners will be getting the help they needed so badly last winter.

Two weeks ago, the Federal Emergency Management Agency and the state Office of Emergency Services announced that $1.3 million is being allocated to compensate the property owners who lost or are losing homes and land due to last February's massive El Niño-spawned cliff erosion.

A total of more than $22 million is earmarked for landslide- and flood-prone counties up and down the coast. Hard-hit Sonoma County residents will receive $3.4 million and city of Laguna Niguel in southern California will dispense $6 million.

This FEMA funding is the first large-scale program offered by the government to victims of landslides as well as flooding. Administered through the agency's Hazard Mitigation Grant program, the funding will reimburse residents who move out of homes and agree to sell property that is susceptible to natural disasters.

Here in Humboldt County, local governments will use the FEMA money to acquire parcels and convert them permanently to open space. Homes and other structures still standing will be moved or torn down.

Checks to the 17 properties owners will be cut only after escrow closes. FEMA is offering 75 percent of the appraised value. The remaining costs or loss must be borne by the property owners.

"This is a pilot program, very unique," said Sgt. Pete Jimenez of the Humboldt County Sheriff's office. "This is probably the first time FEMA has acted so quickly and it's a totally voluntary program."

Each of the 17 owners will decide how to proceed.

Jimenez said only eight parcels had homes. The Lakin home is gone, one (pictured) has already been moved and another is scheduled to be moved.

"Five structures will probably be demolished," he said. Demolition also includes removal of old foundations and paving and restoration of the land to its natural state.

Some costs will not be covered, Jimenez warned. "The program won't pay for building a new foundation, for instance."

Sara Kavich, whose home will likely be moved, is watching carefully as this week's high tides and heavy surf again pound against the bluff 40 feet away from her window.

"My husband bought this property in the 1963 land auction," she said.

When they finally built their house nine years ago, they had geology reports conducted that documented minor erosion.

"We thought we'd be safe for at least 40 years," Kavich said.

Barbara Olsson, who lives just across the street from the 17 parcels and is not part of the FEMA program, is also philosophical.

"Who in California isn't in danger of something?" Olsson asked. "If you live in earthquake country people say `you should have known.' In the Oakland Hills you know you're going to have a fire every 30 to 40 years. It's a calculated risk, just like anywhere else in California.

"When your name's on it, I guess your name's on it."

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