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Wildfire victims seek help as path to rebuilding begins

Tue., Oct. 30, 2007

RAMONA, Calif. – Nichole Booth’s hands were stained with ash from picking through the blackened and twisted pieces left of her life after an inferno engulfed everything she owned.

She tried not to cry in front of her four children. But in the few moments she can steal away, the tears spill down her cheeks.

Like so many others, Booth took the first steps toward rebuilding her life Monday, a week after a firestorm destroyed her San Diego County home and business.

“I feel ashamed. I’ve never had to ask for help. I don’t know what to say to people,” Booth says, her voice dropping to a whisper.

The wildfires, which destroyed more than 2,000 homes, continued to burn Monday. With more than a dozen blazes fully surrounded, firefighters were trying to gain control of six others that were at least half contained. The flames have killed 14 people and blackened 809 square miles from the Mexican border to Los Angeles.

The Santa Ana winds are forecast to return later this week. They are expected to be much weaker than the fierce blasts that spread flames last week.

In the weeks ahead, the Booths and hundreds of other families who lost their homes will be at the mercy of the federal government for grants, loans and other aid. Some help can be offered quickly, but larger decisions about the future will take weeks, and be decided by federal workers shuffling mountains of loan applications in Ft. Worth, Texas, and suburban Maryland.

The Booths lived in a modest home that was passed down to her husband, Robert Booth, from his father, and they never put their names on the deed, which could delay aid.

“For them, I think the wrinkles can be worked out, but it’s going to take many agencies, and probably going to take volunteer agencies to step in, too,” said FEMA spokesman Michael Raphael.

Typically, only property owners are eligible for FEMA’s maximum $28,200 payout for lost homes. But Raphael said the agency looks at each loss on a case-by-case basis and would take into consideration that the Booths say they pay a mortgage.

If FEMA denies their request, the Booths could apply for up to $40,000 in loans from the Small Business Administration to replace the contents of their home.

For the California fires, the federal government has already offered a 2.937 percent interest rate, and homeowners can have up to 30 years to repay the loan.

For now, the Booths have filled out their FEMA paperwork. They’ve talked to the SBA. They have an appointment with the Red Cross.

And still, Nichole Booth says, days later, she doesn’t know what to do.

“They told me this was just the beginning process. What does that mean? What do we do in the meantime?” she asked, her cheeks smudged from wiping tears with ash-stained hands. “I just wish somebody would tell me it’s going to be all right.”


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