Damage, not fear, keeps shelters full

LOS ANGELES — LOS ANGELES -- Severe damage to their homes -- not mere nervousness about their safety -- has prevented the vast majority of victims of the Jan. 17 earthquake stuck in emergency shelters and tent cities from returning to their residences, a Los Angeles Times poll has found.

More than 70 percent of the predominantly poor and Latino population housed in a network of emergency housing sites across Los Angeles County fled homes that have been condemned or seriously damaged, the poll found. Only about one in five said their primary reason for not returning home was they felt unsafe and nervous there or feared aftershocks.


The findings, drawn from a Times survey conducted Thursday through Saturday in more than 30 shelters and tent cities across Los Angeles County, run counter to a notion that has become ingrained in Southern California earthquake folklore in recent years: that Latinos are more reluctant to return to residences after a major temblor. This fear is often attributed to experiences with major quakes in Latin American countries, where less stringent building codes routinely make structures more vulnerable to powerful quakes.

The survey found Latinos at shelters were generally no more likely than shelter residents overall to be nervous about the safety of their homes.


"What the poll found is people are in these shelters because they have to be there," said Times poll director John Brennan, who supervised the survey.

While news media images of the poor minorities stranded in tent cities and school gymnasiums have come to symbolize the quake's human toll, Mr. Brennan noted an apparently far larger group -- what he terms the "invisible quake victims" -- sought refuge with relatives and friends across Los Angeles County.

A newly conducted countywide telephone poll by the Times found that roughly 6 percent of adults -- which could equate to hundreds of thousands of residents -- have someone staying with them who was displaced by the Northridge quake.

A majority of those in shelters said they had jobs when the quake struck, and about one-third have continued working since moving into the emergency housing sites. Just 3 percent of shelter residents said they were homeless before the quake.

Generally speaking, those staying at shelters appear to have been hit the hardest by both physical damage to their homes and psychological aftereffects of the 6.6 temblor, the poll found.

Seventy-two percent of shelter occupants said their homes had shattered windows, cracked or broken walls or worse, the polls found. By contrast, a Times poll last week found just 10 percent of all respondents -- and one in three within five miles of the epicenter -- had similar damage.

On the positive side, government relief programs appear to be working. Sixty percent of adults in the shelters said they already have received emergency housing vouchers, or are waiting for them to arrive.