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County Opens Recovery Liaison Office

The county of San Diego today opened a Recovery Liaison Office in San Marcos to help property owners who need to rebuild.

While the office at the San Marcos branch libraryn on Civic Center Drive was open for just four hours today, it will be offer services from 7 a.m. to 5 p.m. daily beginning tomorrow, county officials said.

Residents can get help on how to obtain building permits, clear ash from swimming pools, safely handle food after a power outage and other recovery and rebuilding information. A mental health specialist will also be available.

Information can also be obtained online at sdcountyrecovery.com.

On Tuesday, the county Board of Supervisors will consider a resolution to waive building fees in unincorporated areas or other neighborhoods where county approval is required. The supervisors will also be asked to approve a system for residents to replace documents like birth certificates and marriage licenses.

The county Assessor/Recorder Clerk's Office has already offered to reassess damaged properties and keep the lowered values in place until rebuilding is completed.

A Cal Western School of Law professor said that losing your house to a wildfire or other type of disaster is a "disorienting" experience for homeowners, who need to be prepared for a large number of concerns over the next several months.

Ken Klein, who lost his Scripps Ranch residence in the 2003 Cedar Fire, said he became an "involuntary expert" on the subject and now teaches a seminar on natural disaster law and policy.

He said it was amazing to discover how grounded his life was in his house, and losing the home was "disorienting."

"You think you're making good decisions but you're not," Klein said. He suggested keeping a written journal of who you talk to, what they say, and what you do.

About a dozen houses were destroyed or significantly damaged in two of the 11 fires that raced through San Diego County this week, along with two apartment complexes and two commercial buildings. The cities of Carlsbad and San Marcos were in the midst of conducting damage assessments, which could change the tally.

The major issue is making sure homeowner's insurance policies are enough to pay for rebuilding, Klein said. Nationwide, 80 percent of homeowners are underinsured by 20 percent, he said.

The value of a residence that's written into a homeowner's policy is the owner's responsibility, not the insurance company's, according to Klein.

A homeowner should email his agent or broker stating that he or she is relying on them to write the policy with a value high enough to rebuild, and then get a written response, Klein said. He said the documents should be stored in a safe place other than their house.

Verbally discussing the value of the policy is not good enough, he said.

After he lost his house, he said he ran into a large number of issues that people might not ordinarily think about.

Among them:

  • the leftover debris is toxic because of chemicals used to manufacture various products, and disposing of them will raise environmental concerns and require the payment of fees
  • evacuees who left on short notice might not have enough clothes or other necessary personal items
  • owners will have to work out with banks how to pay the mortgage
  • insurance reimbursements might have to be distributed through the housing lender, which might have a different schedule than the rebuilding contractor
  • listing inventory becomes extremely difficult when you can no longer see the items that were destroyed, and replacement values are impacted by depreciation
  • rebuilding on a different floor plan will mean using a new foundation slab, which could be opposed by the insurance company or local government; and
  • homeowner's associations will have authority over the design of a rebuilt home, which could cause a conflict if the owner is underinsured.

Klein said that in the Cedar Fire, his house was destroyed when a nearby house exploded, throwing flaming debris through his roof. The landscaping survived but he had to figure out how to water it when he had no access to utilities, he said.

His house was the 12th to be rebuilt, which was "considered ripping fast," he said.

"My experience was fine," Klein said. "In fact, in my list of hassles, this was not high on the list. It is very specific to the insurance company, the adjuster and what your policy says."

He said he moved into his rebuilt home 13 months after the fire. Now, 11 years after the horrific blaze, some lots where houses once stood remain empty, he said.

Read updates on the San Diego County Wildfires here: Friday San Diego County Firestorm Coverage.

—City News Service

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