By Miriam Raftery
May 15, 2011 (Potrero) – Local elected officials have reacted with outrage to news that the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) has sent a letter demanding money back from victims of the Harris Fire. ECM reported on May 12 that Donald and Veronica Lytle of Potrero are among 5,500 disaster survivors nationwide who have been ordered to repay disaster payments.
A FEMA representative who declined to be named admits to ECM that none of these requests involve fraud, but rather errors that FEMA says its representatives made.
Now, Supervisor Dianne Jacob has pledged to contact FEMA and federal officials on behalf of the victims. In addition, Jan Hedlun, an elected member of the Potrero Planning Group, has sent a letter to FEMA urging that the demand be dropped--and providing an eye witness account of horrific conditions during the firestorm.
“On its face, this is outrageous,” Supervisor Jacob told ECM in an e-mailed statement Saturday. “Unless the federal government can prove fraud on the part of the victim, this is the equivalent of burning the victim twice. It’s as if the federal government is trying to prove it can’t handle victim assistance during large disasters.”
She added, “I will be following up with members of the federal delegation and contacting FEMA on behalf of the victims. In the meantime, I would ask that other victims that may have received similar letters contact my office at 619-531-5522.”
For planner Jan Hedlun, a friend of the Lytles, FEMA’s demand brings up terrifying memories of the wildfire that remains “indelibly etched in our minds and souls,” she wrote. The firestorm created its own weather system that fueled a “sandstorm-like nightmare,” she recalled. “Similar to a volcano’s outpouring of ash, Potrero was covered in a pall of this mixture for days.”
Her account dispels FEMA claims that the Lytles did not really suffer fire damage and should return the $1,647.43 that they were paid for cleanup costs and temporary relocation—money that did not even cover major repairs needed to their home from ash damage and a hole in the roof from a tree felled by 100 mph+ winds.
Hedlun recalls trying to escape Potrero during the fire down the very street, Potrero Valley Road, where the Lytles live when she encountered a storm of ash and sand. “I was forced to crawl, blind, barely able to see the bumper of the white car in front of me,” she recalled.
Border Patrol Agents were turning around panicked residents to prevent them from going further west on Potrero Valley Road due to ashes and soot that blew from a field across from the Lytle home, forming dunes that blocked the road, she said. Border Patrol agents guided her left onto Potrero Valley Road, after which Hedlun says she turned right onto the property of Epiphany and Lolie Lopez—next door to the Lytle home.
“We were not allowed to go any further west as the flames were blazing high, surrounding the Potrero Library and Potrero Elementary School and surging over Potrero Valley Road,” Hedlun recalled. “We were trapped!”
Ash and sand “stung like shrapnel,” said Hedlun, who was not able to get home to rescue her cats until heavy equipment moved the ash and dirt dunes. At the Lopez residence, ashes penetrated the home and were piled on every surface even though doors and windows were closed, she recalled.
But next door, at the Lytle home where a door was blown open, the situation was worse. Hedlun recalled entering the home with its owners when the Lytles returned, finding that firestorm winds had created a tunnel where ashes “were captured by various walls and churned around like malicious cyclones, catching up everything in its midst…There was not an inch of surface that wasn’t completely obscured.”
She added, “The firestorm carried a heavy combination of ash, soot and toxins…this toxic combination was driven into the two homes by the hurricane force of the wind.” The problems continue for the harried homeowners, she said. “When they recently pulled siding off the east wall of the house, there was 15 to 18 inches of ash and soil trapped between the interior wall and the siding.”
She called the sum paid to the Lytles “paltry” and added that she believes FEMA’s “audit of disaster assistance payment” letters to disaster vicims amounts to “a travesty”, the concluded, “The fact that these audits are due to FEMA’s own admitted errors is offense. Punishing the Lytles for your mistakes invalidates what we all went through and is causing as much trauma to the Lytles as the Harris Firestorm itself.”
Hedlun is no stranger to standing up against powerful forces. She led a successful community effort to stop Blackwater USA from opening up a private military training base in Potrero. Blackwater cancelled its plans following international media coverage, a highly publicized marched through wilderness areas that would have been destroyed, and a recall of all Potrero planners who voted for the project -- efforts that continued despite the Harris Fire that displaced many residents just weeks before the recall election.
ECM has asked Congressmen Duncan Hunter and Bob Filner, who represent Potrero and other areas burned in the wildfires, for comment and will publish their responses once received.