Evacuees fill shelters; crave news of their homes

Evacuees fill shelters; crave news of their homes

8 May 2009

published by www.venturacountystar.com

USA — Not knowing if his rented home had burned, Miguel Hernandez sat in a sea of green cots in a Goleta high school on Friday, reading about a bear named Corduroy to his 2-year-old daughter.

This is limbo.

“My wife is crying every night,” he said. “She says, ‘If we don’t have a house, where are we going to go?’ ”

The 30,000 people evacuated because of the Jesusita fire, with the possibility of more to come, has sent hundreds of Santa Barbara residents to evacuation centers equipped with televisions, food and support. But because the fire was still uncontrolled Friday, the shelters lacked what many of the people wanted most: news about their homes.

Hernandez lives near Santa Barbara’s Sycamore Canyon in one of the first areas threatened. He, his wife, her mother and their two children went to Dos Pueblos High School on Tuesday. On Friday, he was still searching for news, scanning the television to look for his home and asking officials if there was a way to know if it survived.

There wasn’t.

His wife worried. His 2-year-old asked when they’re going home.

Hernandez said he knows everything will work out.

“We are together,” he said. “We are OK.”

As of Friday afternoon, about 200 people were staying in a gym decorated with sports banners at Dos Pueblos.

Others were staying in their cars and campers in the parking lot. When the school shelter reached capacity Thursday night, and the wind-thrown fire threatened more homes, a second shelter was opened in the Multi Activity Court building at UC Santa Barbara.

About 400 people had signed in Friday at UCSB, gathered in clusters around thin-screen televisions tuned to the fire. Red Cross officials scrambled to find enough space on campus to house about 700 more people in case additional evacuations are ordered.

The quest for beds and space is driven by the sheer volume of the evacuations and the reality that friends and family members who might have been able to offer shelter have had to evacuate, too.

That’s why Nina Lewandoski and her mother, Shirley Lewandoski, ate lunches of breaded chicken served in plastic foam containers in front of the Goleta high school. They live in separate homes, but both were evacuated Thursday. Nina Lewandoski unsuccessfully tried to find a hotel.

They put the best face they can on what’s happening, painting it as sort of a camping trip. But like everyone else, they just want to go home.

“I’m not so worried about my house burning up, but I have animals,” said Nina Lewandoski. She was evacuated late at night and thinks that two of her cats, Baby and Tiger, are still at the house.

Drama was everywhere. After spending the night at Dos Pueblos, a 91-year-old man and his wife ventured into Santa Barbara in different cars. But they got separated, and he came back to the shelter alone, asking Red Cross volunteers to help him find her. She was fine and ended up at a friend’s home.

Kate Smith, a 58-year-old education reform activist, was worried about six friends. Despite evacuation orders, they stayed to protect homes in a hillside area called Flores Flats. She stood outside the high school, telling firefighters about her worries and asking them to make sure her friends leave safely.

“I want them to know these are men who will stay,” she said, reciting her request to the firefighters. “You’re to go and get them.”

At UCSB, evacuees walked across campus clutching pillows or bags of clothes. Others slept under gray blankets or took advantage of free lunches offered by a local church.

Jack and Jean Lai perched on facing cots. They live on the Santa Barbara side of Goleta and were evacuated Thursday, spending the night in their car before coming to the shelter. It was the fourth time a fire has pushed them out of their homes since 1990. They’re tired of it.

“Every time, you have to pack, pack, pack and rush to get some place where you’re safe,” said Jack Lai, letting loose a frustrated laugh when asked when he hopes to go home. “As soon as I can. ASAP.”

People with dogs slept outside the university’s shelter, in their cars or on the grass. Some people brought wills, trusts and other important papers.

Others hastily threw together a few clothes, forgetting medication or, as one woman admitted, a clean change of underwear.

Johanna Nottebaum, who is in her 70s, brought a photo of her mother that was 80 years old. It was shot in black and white with details added later in colored paints. She carefully wrapped the photo in a new washcloth for protection.

She sat with her photo, extra clothes, a face mask and a water bottle at the UCSB shelter. She worried that Friday was garbage day. Because she was evacuated several hours before dawn, she didn’t put out the trash.

Nottebaum hadn’t slept for three days, first because of fears generated by the fire and then because of the smoke. She fretted relatives in Germany would hear about the fire and worry about her.

Most of all, Nottebaum worried about her three-bedroom home, because it’s all she has.

“The only thing is I hope my house is standing,” she said.

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