At Earthquake's Epicenter, Neighbors Reach Out to Help

Friends, strangers help feed, clothe, and move people whose homes were destroyed

IN the parking lot of the Valley Trinity Church here, the Rev. Irvin Zuehlsdorf wields a push broom on one last pile of rubble.

Just a block away is the intersection designated by seismologists as the epicenter of Monday's devastating 6.6 earthquake that has caused up to $30 billion in damage as estimated by Gov. Pete Wilson (R) of California.

``It is striking to me that at a time of crisis like this, race, creed, and color no longer matter to people,'' the church's chief pastor says. ``All I have seen from Hispanics, Asians, whites, and blacks, and native Americans alike is an outstretched hand to other human beings.''

It is a good-neighbor story being recounted in scores of locations across the mammoth, 177-square-mile San Fernando Valley, where as many as 30,000 people subsist in makeshift encampments.

Using truck beds, tents, lean-tos, and plastic tarps stretched from carhood to carhood, the former residents of unsafe buildings are spending from hours to days awaiting official declaration of whether their apartments, condos, and houses are habitable or not.

``I can't go in my apartment, and I can't leave this parking lot,'' says Joseph Biscardi, standing behind one complex near Reseda and Lanark Avenues. About 20 feet away is a passable opening - courtesy of the earthquake - to the apartment where his entire life's belongings sit. A red, cardboard sign is tacked onto the doorway: ``Unsafe. Do Not Enter or Occupy ... by order of Dept. of Building and Safety.''

Living out of cars

Until city officials arrive to either remove that restriction or formally condemn the badly cracked and listing building, Mr. Biscardi and his family of four sit in his Datsun 280Z, watching a battery-powered television perched on the hood.

``It's cold, we have no food, and sleeping conditions are very difficult,'' Biscardi says. But the sense of camaraderie and community that has developed with dozens of neighbors is pulling him through, he says.

``At a time of tragedy like this, I'm truly touched at the numbers of people going out of their way to help each other while they are in so much need themselves,'' he says.

The forms of spontaneous largess include strangers loaning pillows, blankets, and clothes while donating food, water, and other supplies, says Joe Suissa, a French chef living in his 1971 Ford LTD at Hazeltine Park about 10 miles away.

``My kids actually think this is a real adventure in meeting nice people,'' Mr. Suissa says. ``My neighbors have never been so kind as this.''

One night a man pulled up in a van and distributed hot chocolate to the hundreds of campers sprawled across the baseball field under lights. Others have distributed bananas, apples, soup, salad, and even donated cooking utensils and barbecues.

``They come and go without asking questions or expecting anything in return,'' says Francoise Cohen-Rocco, who came from Reno, Nev., to be with her son.

Besides encampments, the other defining image for the post-quake San Fernando Valley is scores of moving vans double-parked everywhere along main thoroughfares.

Ousted residents enlist the help of friends, relatives, and mere acquaintances to wrestle belongings out of apartments before authorities arrive to slap ``no entry'' notices on the premises.

``My son is moving in with me until he can figure out where to live next,'' says a woman outside a collapsed building at 14819 Magnolia. ``But I don't think it's smart to be going in and out of there,'' she says, pointing to a detached spiral staircase that leads to nowhere but the sky.

Shoes borrowed in the dark

Elaine Berman, a public relations agent, is still wearing the neighbor's shoes that she borrowed in the dark hours after the 4:31 a.m. earthquake struck Monday. Water damage destroyed all but a handful of clothes she grabbed in a quick exit. Ms. Berman, her daughter, and son have made an adventure of sleeping on the floor of the home of nearby friend, Jamie McDowell, whose power and heat are still out.

``We sleep near the door with our shoes on,'' Berman says. ``And we have a buddy system to warn each other of the next aftershock.''

She adds that she was bowled over when her employer offered his entire staff to help her move when she finds a new residence.

``Those are the kinds of gestures that happen at a time like this,'' Berman says. ``People see a need, and they just fill it.''

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