Mayor Swearengin to declare emergency at apartment complex without gas, hot water

Rigoberto De Lamora, Tauv Soy and Noi Khounesy sit outside their apartments Tuesday morning, Nov. 24, 2015. They live in the central Fresno complex that’s been without hot water and heat for about two weeks because of broken gas lines.
Rigoberto De Lamora, Tauv Soy and Noi Khounesy sit outside their apartments Tuesday morning, Nov. 24, 2015. They live in the central Fresno complex that’s been without hot water and heat for about two weeks because of broken gas lines. jguy@fresnobee.com

Fresno Mayor Ashley Swearengin is expected to sign a resolution Wednesday proclaiming a local state of emergency at the Summerset Village Apartments, where hundreds of residents have been without heat, gas and hot water for two weeks.

The resolution, which will go to the Fresno City Council during a special meeting Monday, could pave the way for money to fix problems afflicting residents at the 220-unit apartment complex in central Fresno.

But relief for the estimated 1,000 residents will take much longer. The city estimates it could take at least three weeks to restore services. And the city might end up going to court to get the complex’s owner to pay for the work.

City spokesman Mark Standriff said officials from various city entities including public works and code enforcement met Tuesday afternoon with representatives from the American Red Cross, Fresno County Office of Emergency Services, Pacific Gas & Electric Co. and the lawyer for Chris Henry, the owner of the complex at 2103 N. Angus St.

Broken natural-gas lines prevent residents from receiving service in their apartments. The residents, many of Southeast Asian heritage, have been making do with propane-fueled grills outside their units to cook and heat water for washing.

Tuesday morning, many residents sat outside their apartments to take advantage of winter sunlight to keep warm. Noi Khounesy was heating water on a propane grill. Rigoberto De Lamora said some who lived at the complex found that when they tried to heat water with electric burners, they could not because the heaters tripped electrical breakers.

Henry’s lawyer is meeting with a contractor on Wednesday to map out the repairs, which will likely cost hundreds of thousands of dollars. Inspections by the city and PG&E indicated the rusty, old gas lines will need to be replaced.

Standriff said the state of emergency will clear the way for the city to ask for funding at the county, state and federal levels to help the residents – many of whom are refugees who came to America in the late 1970s and early 1980s due to a torrent of violence in Southeast Asia.

It will also allow the city to make repairs if the owner doesn’t.

“Either the owner will fix it, or we will fix it and then take action,” Standriff said.

That action would be suing Henry to recover any repair costs incurred by the city to fix his property.

City Council Member Clint Olivier, who first alerted city officials of the issue on Friday after Fresno Interdenominational Refugee Ministries (FIRM) contacted him, said Henry is “out of time.”

“He neglected a vulnerable population,” Olivier said. “He will fix this or pay the price.”

Olivier said that city code enforcement noted hundreds of violations unrelated to the gas line, such as termites, rotten wood and rodent infestations. All must be fixed, Olivier added, or “we’re going to come down on him.”

Standriff said that eight teams, each consisting of fire personnel, a city official and an interpreter, checked all of the apartments for safety issues. Smoke and carbon monoxide detectors had to be installed in 116 of the 220 units.

The American Red Cross contacted Southern Baptist Disaster Relief, a faith-based volunteer organization that responds to major humanitarian issues such as Hurricane Katrina. Southern Baptist is sending a mobile kitchen capable of cooking for up to 6,000 people in one sitting and portable showers. These will remain at the complex until service is restored.

The city, Red Cross and FIRM, which has spearheaded much of the relief effort from its office across the street from the complex, are asking for help from the public.

Although Southern Baptist will cook meals for each resident, at least 25 volunteers will be needed each day to help serve the food. The city is asking for donations of electric blankets, not portable heaters, because PG&E officials say the blankets are more energy efficient and pose less of a fire risk.

Because of the fire risks associated with portable heaters and outdoor stoves, firefighters will be stationed at the complex each night. Security will also be provided to ensure resident safety, Standriff said.

PG&E donated $25,000 to the relief efforts, and Standriff said Granville Homes is expected to also donate “a significant amount.”

Anyone interested in volunteering or donating can call 559-487-1500 or visit FIRM’s website at www.firminc.org.