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Waiting for FEMA

Buckweed Fire victim still hasn't received check

Posted: February 9, 2009 1:03 a.m.
Updated: February 9, 2009 4:55 a.m.

Terry Herdliska's cabin in the Angeles National Forest, now a pile of ash and rubble after the 2007 Buckweed Fire , was supposed to be his retirement home. He lives in a mobile home now, waiting for a check from the Federal Emergency Management Agency.

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Sitting on a stoop of my mobile home waiting for my FEMA check to come.

Although it may sound like a country song of woe, it's the sad refrain one Canyon Country man has been singing since the Buckweed wildfire burned down his home and changed his life forever.

It's been 476 days and Terry Herdliska has yet to see a dime from the agency mandated in part to compensate disaster victims.

For Herdliska, disaster hit Oct. 21, 2007, when the Buckweed Fire swept through Canyon Country and into the Angeles National Forest and burned his cabin to the ground. He lost everything.

He and his wife, Sharon, and their dog Bo, escaped with their lives.

Now they live in a trailer park in Canyon Country trying to start over.

"We don't ever expect to get back to where we were," Herdliska said. "We just want a little bit of help to get back on our feet."

A country song played in the background of his modest home, as Herdliska started to chronicle a year's worth of haggling with FEMA officials over what he thinks is fair.

The song was "Feel That Fire" by Dierks Bentley.

Herdliska stopped talking when he heard the song lyrics: "She wants a cabin in the woods."

He shook his head.

Both he and his wife wanted a cabin in the woods and, until Oct. 21, 2007, that's what they had. It was their dream home.

"There were huge oak trees all around it. A river ran through our yard. There was a single bridge that ran over the creek. Kids could go fishing there. You could have a beer and enjoy your life," said Herdliska.

"That cabin was my retirement home."

Now his home is a squat 36-year-old trailer once pulled on wheels.

Herdliska turned to the one agency mandated to help people in times of disaster - the Federal Emergency Management Agency.

No double dipping
FEMA became part of the U.S. Department of Homeland Security in March 2003. Its primary mission is to reduce the loss of life and property.

Since Herdliska lost everything in one of Santa Clarita Valley's worst fire disasters, he thought he was the type of person included in FEMA's primary mission.

Not so.

FEMA External Affairs Officer Casey De Shong says his agency does not duplicate payouts already paid to disaster victims by insurance companies.

"We call it a duplication of services," he said Friday. "If he had insurance and he received payment, we wouldn't be able to duplicate those benefits."

When Herdliska and his wife moved into their cabin in the woods they took over a lease held by the previous tenants. The land is leased by the Angeles National Forest.

Herdliska took out a loan to pay for improvements he made to the cabin.

The note-holder of their house - the prior lease holder - who held the insurance policy, collected the "lion's share" of the insurance payout.

Herdliska received about $25,000 of that payout for his home "improvements" and he received about $20,000 for his personal property.

The bottom line is that FEMA is not about to pay Herdliska money since he's already received money.

"Our assistance program is meant to be a helping hand. It is not a program to put people completely back together," De Shong said.

The conditions are spelled out clearly in FEMA's Web site.

It states: "Disaster assistance is money or direct assistance to individuals, families and businesses in an area whose property has been damaged or destroyed and whose losses are not covered by insurance."

Herdliska wouldn't persist in his push to be compensated, he said, if it wasn't for the fact that four of his neighbors lost their homes and each of them received a $28,800 FEMA check.

He just wants what's fair.

"I'm not going to get wealthy off of this," he said. "I lost everything ... I thought I was going to get a little something but it's been like pulling nails."

Every case is different, De Shong said, noting Herdliska should not look to FEMA money paid out to his neighbors as money he should expect to receive himself.

"Everyone's case is unique," he said. "What might be true for a neighbor, won't be true for him and that won't be true for the neighbor on the other side of him."

Serving Americans
Today, Terry Herdliska works at Home Depot on Soledad Canyon Road within walking distance of his mobile home.

Only when pressed about his background is it revealed he's acquired a little bit of insight when it comes to national agencies called on to serve Americans.

He served seven years in active service with the 82nd Airborne Division and then committed 22 years of his life to the California National Guard.

After the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, he was pressed into active duty as a National Guardsman in the one of the initial Homeland Defence units in Utah.

"Even if they (FEMA) had come up with a small amount of money - that promise is there," he said. "I don't want to say it's a sham but they lead people on saying that the help would be there."

FEMA coordinates the federal government's role in preparing for, preventing, mitigating the effects of, responding to, and recovering from all domestic disasters, whether natural or man-made, including acts of terror.

The fire that destroyed Herdliska's home proved disastrous for scores of people living in Santa Clarita Valley.

The Buckweed Fire was one of four wildfires that threatened the residents of Santa Clarita Valley for a week, prompting evacuations in several communities on its perimeter and causing millions of dollars in damage.

Of the four fires, Buckweed burned the most amount of property and caused the most amount of devastation.

It raged for about a week and when it was over, it had torched more than 38,350 acres injured two firefighters and three civilians. It destroyed at least 21 homes and 22 outbuildings, and damaged 15 other homes.

Herdliska escaped with his life and for that he is grateful.

The only things he saved in the fire were two coins - two silver dollars given to him in the military tradition, he says, of commissioned officers paying silver dollars to the first ranking officer they salute.

One was presented to him by his son on entering the Coast Guard and another by one of his son's friends.

Herdliska describes the tradition as a show of respect.

The two coins - although badly charred - remain the only sign of respect Terry Herdliska has seen in 16 months of making his case for disaster money.

He first knew he was screwed when an insurance adjustor picked through the charred rubble of his home and told him: "You know you're screwed, right?"

The home was covered by the California Fair Plan - a program intended to compensate those who live in areas deemed flood and fire areas.

Herdliska was given $1,500 under the plan - money which went to hotel rentals.

That's when he applied to FEMA.

He's received four official denials for compensation - none of which make any sense to him.

The short answer remains the same however - no duplication in payouts.

"After he's completes his insurance forms, we can look at his case to see if there are any additional un-met needs," De Shong said. "It may be possible to help."

Meanwhile, Terry Herdliska sits on the stoop of this temporary home, hanging onto the hope a FEMA check will one day find a way to his door.

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