Rio Nido in Limbo

Evacuated Residents want to go back home, even if it’s not safe

By Scarlett Chidgey

Pacific Sun, March 11-March 17, 1998

A 21-hour flight from India, where she psent three weeks traveling, brought Pavitra Crimmel back to California the day after her Rio Nido home was evacuated. Instead of spending her first night back relaxing in her one-bedroom home which she’s owned since 1992, she spent it dragging her exausted self and her luggage to the Red Cross shelter at the Sebastopol Veterans Hall. After receiving money there for a hotel room and for food, she spent $60 on a tiny room big enough for the bed.

The February 6 and 7 landslide that destroyed three homes in and heavily damaged three others in Upper Canyon Three Road in Rio Nido forced the evacuation of 140 homes in the area. Over a month later, 134 of those homes are still intact and mud-free, but residents are forbidden to live there until authorities declare the area safe from the 250,000 cubic yards of soil and rock material that remains, for now, on the rim of the canyon. Residents of those 134 houses want back in.

Until the release of a comprehensive geological report due by the end of March, authorities can’t even guess how soon, if ever, residents can return to their homes. During the past few weeks, evacuees were given limited access to their homes either for short 20-minute visits or for a three-hour property retrieval appointment. That access period will cease this week and authorities have yet to establish another plan to allow residents back in.

When Crimmel learned she was not going to return to her home in the near future, she decided that she couldn’t stay in an inadequate hotel paying $1,000 a month in rent. Yet so far, she’s had no luck locating a house or apartment she can rent for the approximately $600 a month FEMA assistance she receives. Meanwhile, Crimmel wonders what she can do about her mortgage and complains that the authorities and volunteers “treat you like you’re two years old.”

She worries about the fate of her house on Willow Road. Although not affected by the February landslide, if the remaining hillside ever lets go, her home could be in the path. “I’ve had to deal with the fact that, chances are, I’ll never be able to live in that beautiful little magical kingdom again.” Crimmel says of her home and of Rio Nido.

Hundreds of residents struggle with similar dislocation hardships. But when their homes are farther down the canyon or would not be in the direct line of a potential slide, some residents question their prolonged evacuation. Homeowners such as John Obertelli, a commercial fisherman, and Bruce Fossum, an artist, do not believe their houses are at risk.

“It’s hard for people to realize that if they go in [to their homes] they could literally die,” says Jim Baker, information officer for the Office of Emergency Services. But Obertelli and Fossum don’t buy it and are struggling for their right to move back into their houses on Willow and Canyon Three roads.

Obertelli’s house, built in 1893, has been in his family since 1951, when his parents bought it as a summer home. Growing up, Obertelli dreamt of the day when he would live there year-round. He never imagined someone would tell him he couldn’t live there, or that he would have to pay $700 a month for an additional house, shell out extra money for storage and commute an extra 20 minutes to work. “It’s not the slide that’s threatening, it’s the bureaucracy. They’re endangering our mental health, our physical well-being and our homes,” Obertelli says angrily.

Adamant in his belief that his home is not in danger, Obertelli says, “My judgement is better.” If he thought there was a risk to moving back, he wouldn’t. But even if there were, he thinks moving back into his home should be his choice to make.

Bruce Fossum spent years and thousands of dollars creating not just his home but his studio, his place of business. Without his home, he can’t live and he can’t work. He’s not afraid of the mudslide either. “I don’t think my home’s in danger, I think my life’s in danger,” Fossum says indignantly.

Fossum has no confidence that his home will be safe from burglary. Within days, he says, the county sheriff will turn security over to a private company, and Fossum worries about criminals working in the evacuated areas. He’s also frustrated that he hasn’t been able to find the “one person in charge” nor has he gotten a straight answer about the situation from anyone. Angrier by the minute, Fossum wants back into his house and he says, “They have no right to do this!”

Patience is wearing thin among the evacuated residents. Some are banding together, writing letters, calling the governor’s office, and voicing their opinions. Tired of living in limbo, Rio Nido homeowners are demainding control over their homes and lives and won’t rest until they regain it.

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