WATSONVILLE, CALIF. -- A year after the Loma Prieta earthquake tore through this bustling agricultural town, it takes some effort to find the several dozen low-income workers who still live in 43 temporary trailers and have few immediate prospects for better housing.
The Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) trailers are hidden behind a downtown cemetery, the county courthouse and a fence financed by a local developer concerned that the sight of laundry lines and weathered pickup trucks might depress sales of his new luxury houses across the street.
Like many of the homeless who disappeared in Oakland after being evicted from quake-shattered residence hotels or the affluent San Francisco Marina residents who have swiftly rebuilt and remodeled their fashionable two-story homes, Bay Area residents today expose few scars of the quake. The area's economy seems largely returned to normal.
But somewhere in almost all of the 10 affected counties, painful adjustments are taking place, even if largely hidden from view.
Few people visit the FEMA trailer park to admire the tiny 3-by-2-foot garden of flowers and tomatoes that Maria Hernandez has planted beside trailer No. 9066-143. The garden, and 2-year-old Mikey Gonzalez's blue wading pool a few yards away, provide the only spots of color in a barren, gray patch of gravel, dust and weeds beneath a hastily erected lattice of power and telephone lines.
"They want us to go, but we don't know if we can find a place," said Hernandez, a Mexican-born frozen-food packer whose words were translated by her lively daughter, Dora, 12. "The rents are very hard."
Residential vacancy rates in this booming area 75 miles southeast of San Francisco and less than 10 miles from the quake's epicenter were only 1 percent when the 15-second, 7.1-magnitude temblor knocked dozens of buildings off their foundations last Oct. 17.
Since then "we've made great progress in rebuilding," Mayor Todd McFarren said. Landlords quickly repaired or rebuilt property, but the Hernandezes, like most displaced renters here, discovered that the white-frame house with columned porch that they rented for $550 a month before the quake now goes for $800.
For trailer-park residents, life has become a series of dreary visits to available but unaffordable houses listed on a monthly sheet that they fill out -- justifying each failure to sign a lease -- in order to live rent-free in the well-equipped, if somewhat cramped, three-bedroom trailers.
"We want to go, but it's just too hard to move out," said Manuel Gonzalez, 16, watching his little brother splash in the small wading pool. "My father is disabled. He gets just the Social Security check."
Santa Cruz County and FEMA officials, noting that the law allows them to offer the trailers for only 18 months, have begun to provide house-finding services and federal rent subsidies to the remaining 107 trailer families at four sites. Lorri L. Jean, deputy director of the FEMA regional office, said that, for those who refuse to leave the trailers, "ultimately, we'll have to proceed with evictions."
Throughout the Bay Area, as several communities prepare for ceremonies Wednesday afternoon in honor of the 63 persons killed and 3,757 injured in the quake, officials are locked in assorted bureaucratic struggles over financial compensation but appear to be approaching some resolution, although often with ill-disguised bad feeling.
In Oakland, site of the greatest damage to low-income apartments in residential hotels, a complex lawsuit against FEMA by homeless people and local officials is near a settlement. "FEMA has not distributed a penny" of previously announced money for 2,000 low-income housing units, said Stephen Ronfeldt, director of litigation for the Legal Aid Society of Alameda County. Jean said the money is coming, although "nowhere near that number of people made homeless by the quake remain to be housed."
Along the Cypress Street section of Interstate 880, the double-decked freeway whose partial collapse resulted in 42 fatalities, the highway has been removed, and no sign of the tragedy remains. Local residents of the low-income warehouse neighborhood want to plant a memorial park in what is now a wide median strip of concrete-colored dirt, but that plan and two possible alternatives for a new section of freeway remain under discussion.
Don Perata, chairman of the Alameda County Board of Supervisors, complains bitterly of delays by the state transportation department while his constituents suffer two-mile backups trying to reach the remaining freeway sections serving the eastern end of the San Francisco Bay Bridge. A department spokesman said that a required environmental-impact report on the proposed new freeway link will be ready Oct. 30 and that a department recommendation on how to proceed is scheduled for late December. "But that's Bureaucratic Standard Time," Perata said.
Only one-third of 85,000 applicants for quake loans or grants from FEMA and two-thirds of 25,000 people seeking Small Business Administration loans received money, and those rejected have complained loudly about the process. But the thriving Bay Area economy has cushioned much of the blow -- few victims lost jobs, and the new demands for building and road repair probably added to overall employment in an area full of opportunities.
Most workers living in FEMA trailer parks here have jobs and vehicles. San Francisco's hotel business is on an upswing. In Santa Cruz, the seaside community that shows the most visible quake damage, the urge to rebuild is so strong that a fierce legal battle is underway between the city and local developers on one side and preservationists on the other. At stake is the fate of the St. George Hotel, 93 years old and heavily damaged in the earthquake.
Much of Santa Cruz's Pacific Garden Mall shopping district looks like a war zone, with deep excavation pits where quake-ravaged shops stood. Many of the St. George's outer walls are cracked and missing. But saws and hammers can be heard everywhere as shops prepare to reopen. "Coming Soon: The Herb Bar" read one sign.
Much redevelopment awaits a final court decision on the plan of the St. George's owner and the city to replace it with a duplicate, rather than spending more time and money to save the original. When a fire charred much of the remaining structure late last month, city officials could barely contain their glee. "Don't smell my palms," one said to another amid a rash of jokes about arsonists in city hall.
Oakland City Hall remains closed, with the cost of reopening estimated at as much as $90 million, and San Francisco City Hall may need as much as $50 million in repairs. Despite frequent complaints about FEMA estimates not coming close to the need, federal officials have appeared willing to revise their figures.
The California Office of Emergency Services estimated $5.9 billion in damage from the quake, including 23,408 houses and 3,530 businesses damaged and 1,018 homes and 366 businesses destroyed. Grant C. Petersen, FEMA's associate director, estimated that $1.3 billion in federal funds has been committed and that volunteer agencies have spent another $61.5 million.
Much of the $54.3 million raised by the Red Cross is being held to fill gaps in federal and state funding after the organization bowed to vigorous public protest of its plan to use the surplus for other disasters.
Several small sections of San Francisco freeways need repair, and the city-county supervisors, on a close and controversial vote, decided to tear down and replace the scenic but shaky Embarcadero Freeway. Several buildings at Stanford University are fenced off. Investor eagerness to rebuild or repair other cracked structures may be tempered by rising interest rates.
California expects to collect $800 million from a temporary sales-tax increase to pay for further repairs and upgrade endangered highways and bridges. Gov. George Deukmejian (R) signed an unprecedented bill requiring quake insurance, valued at as much as $15,000, on all homes at an annual cost of $12 to $60 for each owner. He vetoed a bill requiring that older homes be bolted to their foundations, saying the $1,000 to $3,000 cost would be too high and too difficult to enforce.
The quake has added reams of data to the search for better hazard prevention and sparked investigation of a mysterious pre-quake natural radio pulse that might provide clues to its origin. A recent increase in small temblors in a heavily monitored part of the San Andreas Fault 100 miles southeast of the Loma Prieta epicenter also has raised hopes of progress in predicting the next damaging jolt.
But behind the county courthouse in Watsonville, trailer park residents still worry about the last quake, not the next.
FEMA has offered to sell them their $7,000 trailers at a reduced price if their incomes are low enough but only if they can find land for them. A few residents have begun a search, with no immediate success.
For now, they remain in their small, barren spot, clothes still stuffed in suitcases, while the rest of Watsonville, like the Bay Area, continues to build rapidly up and over the marks of the great quake of 1989.
The new houses across from the trailer park are selling for $300,000, Mayor McFarren noted. Like much of life here on the quake anniversary, he said, "it's a strange juxtaposition."