Thursday, April 19, 2012


The Santa Ana winds stopped...It was a beautiful sunny Fall day..... the kind of day I'd seen hundreds of times before... but today instead of lounging all morning and writing all afternoon, I had to start rebuilding my life from ground zero. 

My sister Donna, continued screening
calls, gathering information about relief stations in town providing food vouchers, basic staples and cash.  She made notes about churches providing clothes, food and money for the fire-victims and found out that the recreation department had already set up booths for insurance, FEMA-grants and more money for those who qualified.  Even the local banks gave cash to those who had accounts with them.  Laguna was determined to take care of it's own and get the town back to normal as soon as possible.

I didn't sleep at all, I couldn't eat or think straight.  Donna gave me some of her clothes and bought me a futon to sleep on while I lived with her for a while.  I was reduced to a helpless child following her around taking direction.  She told me when to eat, get dressed and meet my responsibilities.  She became a Drill Sargent  moving me forward...not letting me give up. 

It took three day's for the city of Laguna Beach to let it's residents view the remains of their homes.  They said the fires had to be completely put out and Governor Pete Wilson and President Clinton had to declare Laguna Beach a disaster before the State and federal relief money could be approved.  

Finally Donna was able to drive me back to town and face the devastation.  We stopped at the Police Station to get a pass to be able to enter the the fire-zone and while we stood in line we were bombarded with news people slamming microphones up in my face asking... how it felt to lose everything.

"I've lost my lifestyle and my identity... but my bulldossers will be the first to roll up Skyline Drive and rebuild." I said with determination.

As we left the station we couldn't believe the crowds of people who had lost their homes as well... 366 homes in all.  When I scanned the town I was stunned to see Fema, The Red Cross, OC fire trucks on alert, News helicopters overhead and news vans capturing images of people crying.  Frightened children clung to their parents, homeless millionaires in Mercedes were reduced to standing in line for passes to see their property, confused retirees needed toiletries, and devastated High School kids wondered if  Laguna Beach High School was shut down.

 Laguna had been famous for it's beautiful beaches, charming village, and relaxed lifestyle.  Now it looked like a melted nightmare of ash, soot and people wondering where to begin.

Some of the locals who didn't lose their homes were out as usual walking or riding their bikes... trying to resume some kind of normal existence while watching all the drama from the sidelines.  I was so angry I wanted to spit on them... even though I knew they'd gone through a traumatic evacuation process, suffered survivor's guilt and now will have to live in charred smoke filled neighborhoods... but dammit they got to go home to their little cozy nests tonight while I was shattered to the brink of insanity.  My entire state of mind was blank as if everything had been erased.  I had to think in terms of survival just to keep putting one foot in front of the other.

Donna and I met with the insurance adjuster at my property to view the disaster and collect the $10,000 check.  We slowly snaked our way around the turns to Skyline Drive and were amazed that so many houses in the lower section were perfectly in tact.  For a second I thought maybe my house was still there.  I'd heard the fire skipped houses as it scorched it's path through Mystic Hills... perhaps mine was one of the lucky ones it jumped over.  When we got to the yellow caution-taped area we were told we had to park the car and walk up the hill. 

My adjuster, Mr. Anderson, was dressed in khaki pants and a polo shirt.  He was a tall middle aged balding man with glasses and a nervous laugh.  He shook my hand and said he had my $10,000 check in the car.  I must have appeared upset and vulnerable as we walked up the hill, because he mumbled something about how much compassion he had for me, because he'd worked the Oakland fires a few years earlier and saw what people had gone through.  Half listening while taking in my first impressions I held my breath... everything looked normal not a house was gone... then went around the bend and I quacked and put my hand over my mouth. 

All that was left was naked fireplaces, charred black skeletons of cars melted into the ground and piles of ash that once resembled beach homes.  Everything was cremated beyond recognition!  It reminded me of pictures of the Civil War.

Gene was at the site when we arrived with several news people camera ready hoping I'd fall apart as my loss was about to go public.  My legs almost gave out and tears ran down my face when I realized my house was indeed gone.  Camera's clicked as Gene grabbed me and held me tight.  I buried my face in his chest and knew his sorrow was as deep as mine. I wished he would help me go through this process being a Lawyer and all, but the truth was we were divorced six weeks ago and he had another woman in his life. 

The Adjuster asked him about the claim and he let me go saying, "it's not my house" and walked away.  My heart sunk as I turned to face the powerful insurance company who wanted to give me as little as possible for my loss.

My sister caught my body language as I transformed right before her eyes.  She said I went from a clinging vine to a strictly business... soon to be an owner-builder, take no prisoners kind of Woman.

The adjuster too, after realizing I was a single woman, transformed into a condescending Villain ready to take advantage of a poor little victim.  He immediately took his attention off of Gene and asked me to walk with him up the old red-brick stair case that once led into our very private world.

 "Now Sharrie,"  he said in a calm voice, "I'd like you to close your eyes and imagine what your house looked like the day before the fire."

What an idiot...asking me to imagine what my living room looked like three days ago.  "Well," I said,  "you walk through the front door and you see my whole life there before your eyes."

"Of course I understand this is a very sensitive time for you," he said, "but I really need an idea of what the inside of your house looked like so I can start your claim." 

"Of course you do Mr. Anderson," I snarled.

"Do you have any pictures... oh excuse me... of course not... you weren't home when the fire came...  Does anyone else in your family have pictures."

I stopped him in mid-sentence... "I'll need some time to put a picture of my life together for you." I said, sounding very irritated about having to deal with an uncaring, red tape workaholic,  "Because my loss entails more than just a few sticks of furniture."

"I understand," he said, condescendingly, "but we need a list of everything in the house so we can put a number down as to your financial loss."

"Again, Mr. Anderson, I lost more than just material things, I lost priceless relics as well as manuscripts and documentation for a book about my family... that William Morris was just about to pay me $250,000 advance for. how am I going to be reimbursed for that?"

"That is unfortunate," he said with his hands folded like a mortician,  "but we can only pay for what you were insured for."

"I've lost my lifestyle." I said, "That can't be computed on a calculator, a lifestyle forged out of blood sweat and tears.  It took Generations of my family's hard work getting me here. Can you put a number on that Mr Anderson?"

He didn't get it and said he'd contact me when I was able to think clearly.

"That might take a while," I said.

"I know you're emotionally spent," he kindly drawled. "The most important thing right now is finding you a place to live... please try and list your belongings within the next couple of weeks and I'll have one of our builders and an Architect meet with you in a couple of days."

We walked down the hill together...he opened his trunk and pulled out a check for $10,000 and said "this should be enough to get started, go find a place to live for you and your daughter."

All I wanted to do was go to Fashion Island and buy some skin products so I could at least wash my face. Donna and I drove through the canyon and videoed the charred black rolling hills and scary remains of one hundred year old oak and Eucalyptus trees.  It was Halloween eve and the smoke reeked of dead brush and cremated animals that had roamed through Laguna Canyon since the beginning of time.  We got on the freeway and headed to Gene's house so I could give Georgia some money for necessities.  When we got there she came out and said she didn't want to stay there much longer.

"Mom, it's a pit," she said, "and I have no privacy... I have to sleep on the couch... all my bags of clothes and stuff smell like smoke and are spread all over the floor."
She was expressionless except for tears in her eyes, and said, "I just want to go home." 

Stay tuned as the Aftermath of the Firestorm continues.

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