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There were no simple answers and, in some cases, there were simply no answers.
Four days after the raging, ongoing Woolsey Fire displaced thousands of Malibu residents from the comforts of their homes — City of Malibu officials, representatives of emergency departments and other local entities met Nov. 13, facing a sea of concerned, at-times frustrated evacuees in the Santa Monica High School auditorium.
In just over two hours, officials provided updates where they could and took more than 20 written questions from community members. As they spoke, the fire stood at 97,114 acres, with 40-percent containment, according to Los Angeles County Fire Department Chief Deputy David Richardson.
The battle was far from over.
Though some residents of eastern Malibu were permitted to return to the city that day, definitive answers do not exist for other portions of the community.
“We don’t know when we’re going to be able to open up the city; you need to hear that,” City Manager Reva Feldman said in response to shouts from the crowd. “In the ’93 fire, our city was closed for three weeks.
“We are doing everything we can to get power restored, to get gas lines restored and to get water on in communities affected; that’s what we have to do first.”
Some community members also await word on the state of their homes, which Feldman said also will take time as building officials work to survey Malibu.
Affected residents are urged to file claims with the Federal Emergency Management Agency. The process can be started online (www.fema.gov), and an assistance center with FEMA representatives and more is to be opened in Malibu. FEMA also may be reached at 1-800-621-3362.
For those with children, education remains top of mind, and Santa Monica-Malibu Unified School District Superintendent Ben Drati said the district is working to extend college application dates at colleges within the University of California and California State University networks.
Malibu High School College and Career Counselor Linh M. Nguyen is to be stationed at Olympic High School, Drati added, to assist students.
By Nov. 26, he said, SMMUSD hopes to reopen Malibu schools.
“As you know, there’s a lot of complications,” Drati said, noting that a survey has been sent to get a clearer picture of the impact on the district. “I have a lot of displaced staff [and] displaced families.”
In the long-term, Drati said he recognized that returning to Malibu was not an option for all. In that event, the district plans to offer online learning opportunities through SMMUSD or support for those who wish to enroll in other schools.
The community also heard from Ava Wagner, who provided an update on the health of her dad, Mayor Pro Tem Jefferson Wagner, who was hospitalized with carbon monoxide poisoning while trying to fight the fire that eventually took his home.
Ava said her father sustained severe damage to his lungs, kidneys, airway and eyes, but he was released from UCLA Medical Center Nov. 12.
“He wanted me to tell you that he has been so moved by the stories of our brave neighbors coming together to fight the fire and to support each other in these devastating times,” a tearful Ava said. “ ... We will heal and rebuild, and your City Council will do everything in their power to work alongside state and federal officials to get you guys necessary, long-term assistance.”
‘Rough days ahead’
The City plans to hire a consultant to aid in processing building permits in order to rebuild Malibu — a city that has lost more than 480 homes.
Residents asked if local boards would relax or suspend some regulations. Moderator Richard Bloom (D-50th Assembly), a former coastal commissioner, said historically in disaster aftermath, regulations have been relaxed, but he could not speak for the current commission. Councilmember Skylar Peak, while not speaking for the entire City Council, pledged to do everything he could to expedite permitting for anyone rebuilding.
There also is to be a local assistance center where residents can receive assistance from FEMA, the Department of Motor Vehicles, Social Security, Medicare, insurance agencies and more, Feldman said.
Officials warned that rain is expected to hit in the week ahead, right around Thanksgiving, posing a threat of flooding as well as mud and debris flow. Feldman noted that the City would be temporarily lifting its ban on plastic sandbags, which residents will be able to get at local fire stations.
As of the evening of the meeting, LA County Waterworks had active boil advisory orders for portions of Malibu as well as water pressure loss. Updates will be provided at lacwaterworks.org.
Meanwhile, Southern California Edison crews continue to patrol Malibu and have estimated that 9,879 homes are without power and more than 600 poles will need to be replaced. Outage conditions will be updated at www.sce.com.
Cellphone service is being restored as Verizon Wireless and AT&T work to install temporary cell towers throughout the city, but especially on the western side of the city.
The LA County Office of Emergency Management is working on a plan to remove debris, some of which is toxic.
Once residents return home, anyone who believes property has been stolen is urged to report it to authorities. Roughly 700 deputies are currently keeping the burned area secure from looting, of which there have been no reports in Malibu, LA County Sheriff’s Office Chief John Benedict said.
Benedict also received cheers when he said a plan was in place to deliver essentials — food, water and fuel — to those already in Malibu.
The Boys and Girls Club of Malibu also is to lead donation efforts for both monetary needs and items, Feldman shared. Other officials warned of scammers and price gougers trying to take advantage of the disaster, and Bloom told residents to make sure not to give money to anyone unless they were sure of the beneficiary.
“Moving forward is what we need to focus on,” Feldman said. “We need to come together as a community, we need to remember that we are Malibu and we will get through this.
“There’s going to be some rough days ahead, but we’re going to get through it.”
As far as what has already occurred, meeting attendees’ questions centered on the fire response and the LA County Fire Department’s allocation of resources, as some residents described a lack of response to burning homes.
Richardson said the unpredictability and swiftness of the fire made it difficult to control and follow, saying, “In 32 years in the business, I’ve never seen fire activity [like that].”
Richardson also said the department had to “divert resources” to life-saving situations, where people who did not or could not evacuate Malibu called for emergency assistance.
The question of Pepperdine University’s decision to have those on campus shelter-in-place was again raised, but Richardson stuck by his department’s previous statement that the university has a right to protect its students how it sees fit and said the decision did not pull resources away from other areas of Malibu.
“Pepperdine is part of our community,” Feldman said.
Feldman added that many of Pepperdine’s students do not have cars, adding another layer of difficulty to the need to swiftly evacuate from Malibu.
The broadcast of the Nov. 13 meeting also is available on the City’s YouTube channel, youtu.be/n1J7dGD43no