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For Californians, Every Day Brings New Tests of Resilience, Ingenuity

Damaged schools, highways, houses provide broad challenge to relief agencies

ONE week after what may be the costliest natural disaster in United States history, relief officials are still struggling to meet the immediate needs of those displaced by the earthquake while the vastness of the long-term recovery effort begins to emerge.

Generally, a patina of normalcy has returned to the sprawling San Fernando Valley, the suburb of 1.7 million hit hardest in last Monday's serious quake.

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Offices, restaurants, and retail businesses stumble back to routine business hours, hobbled by wooded storefronts, yellow police tape around damaged buildings, and ubiquitous neighborhood detours. Off-highway traffic remains congested because of the scores of moving vans doubled-parked along main thoroughfares, as thousands of renters search for new housing.

But behind these inconveniences lie far deeper challenges that underscore the scope of the city's problems:

* As many as 100,000 Los Angeles schoolchildren will remain at home when classes resume tomorrow because their buildings are unsafe. Thousands of others will have to use temporary space. Ninety-seven of the district's 800 buildings have been closed indefinitely. The repair bill for the financially strapped district is expected to top $700 million.

* A first official look at the destruction caused by the quake shows that it extends well beyond the San Fernando Valley to South-Central Los Angeles, Santa Monica, and Simi Valley. Virtually every type of building was damaged, from 1920s brick apartments in Hollywood to new high-rises along Ventura Boulevard. Inspections of only a small part of the city's buildings show nearly 2,500 housing units are unsafe.

* Today will offer a first test of how the city's fractured freeway system will affect commuters in the nation's most car-dependent city. Despite ominous predictions, residents coped well during the 1984 Los Angeles Olympics. But the problem now isn't a sudden increase in the number of drivers but a highway system with 11 damaged thoroughfares - some of which will be closed for more than a year.

Still, many transportation experts expect, after an initial adjustment period, Los Angeles commuters will adapt - though some residents may have to leave for work about the time Jay Leno finishes his monologue.

Over the weekend, many of the estimated 14,500 quake refugees still sleeping in parks and parking lots took refuge in hastily erected tent cities. Others continued to huddle under tarps or whatever else they could put up. Jesus Mendez and his family have been living in a borrowed blue canvas tent in a park in Panorama City for a week. They don't know if, or when, they might be able to return to their damaged apartment. He commutes to work from the park, sans shower. They cook on a gas barbecue. All six jostle at night to fit on one mattress.

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``We're getting along so-so,'' he says simply.

Relief officials have moved many of the displaced into shelters or tents, but life remains an ordeal. ``It is an unfair situation,'' says Ignacio Orozco, a volunteer for the Mexican Consulate working at a park. ``The food is distributed over here for these people, but by the time others reach the front of the line, it is gone.''

Federal officials, criticized by some for their inadequate response, are stepping up efforts to help the displaced. President Clinton so far has released $639 million in small-business loans, $41 million for emergency highway repairs, and at least $143 million in other federal aid to help Californians.

Residents jammed federal disaster relief centers over the weekend, though some were frustrated with the time and red tape involved in getting aid. ``We are now dealing with the largest mass assistance to people in an urban setting in the history of the United States,'' says federal Housing Secretary Henry Cisneros.

Some people are impressed with the federal effort. Art Agnos, mayor of San Francisco during the 1989 Loma Prieta temblor, notes: ``This earthquake is twice as bad, and the federal response has been twice as good.''

Still, rehabilitating homes - and lives - will take time. At Balboa Park in Encino, homeowner Dorothy Sayles emerges from a Federal Emergency Management Association (FEMA) center both distressed and optimistic.

``We've had these private insurance policies all these years only to find out it's not worth it at all,'' she says. Rattling off an inventory of damages that occurred to her home - mirrors, windows, plaster, keepsakes - she laments that her policy has a $25,000 deductible, which means she and her husband may have to pick up most of the repair tab. Still, she is sanguine about her prospects for obtaining FEMA assistance.

The earthquake, which claimed at least 55 lives, is believed to have caused as much as $30 billion in damage.

Yet the quake will result in many new construction jobs and some economists say there will be fewer jobs lost overall than the 30,000 in the 1992 riots.

The hard-hit San Fernando Valley is home to 38,000 businesses, most of which have fewer than 10 employees. Analysts expect the bulk of the small enterprises to rebuild.

Another positive note from the first week was the spirit of community often evident. One example: the rapper in a red-and-white stove-top hat who entertained displaced kids at an encampment in Encino.

The city's hopes - and task - from here may have been best summed up by Mayor Richard Riordan over the weekend, when he said: ``Every day we are going to do a little better than we did the previous day.''

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