NEWBURY PARK, California — The beautiful homes in a gated community here are aspirational symbols of the ultimate in California living. But behind the walls of one house at the top of a winding and hilly driveway, lie only shattered dreams.
In the sparsely furnished living room, Brian Katz and Christine Katz, parents of five children ages 17 to 1, and three dogs, are living a nightmare.
They’ve sought refuge from the Porter Ranch natural gas leak that has displaced thousands of families from the affluent community north of Los Angeles to hotels and exorbitantly priced rentals. Students at two schools have been relocated, lengthening their bus ride to class.
For three months, a damaged well has been discharging gas into the atmosphere, emitting noxious fumes and black specks that have clung to cars, patio furniture, vegetable gardens and even indoor furniture. Thousands have been sickened by the leak originating 8,000 feet below ground and have reported nosebleeds, headaches and respiratory distress.
The natural gas storage reservoir is one of the nation’s largest and is about a mile from the Porter Ranch community, something that was unbeknownst to most residents.
“It’s turned our lives upside down,” Christine Katz said. “We try to be strong but it has devastated us.”
On Jan. 6, California Gov. Jerry Brown declared the leak of natural gas a state of emergency and state regulators are scrambling to stop the disaster at Southern California Gas Co.’s Aliso Canyon reservoir. The gas company’s plan to burn off the gas has been delayed for fear of an explosion. There have been several attempts to seal the underground reservoir leak — a process that could drag on for weeks.
It is considered the worst environmental disaster in the US since the BP oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico.
“We’re science experiments,” Brian Katz said. “I don’t think the public is being told the truth.”
Los Angeles Mayor Eric Garcetti this week said that the upscale community, home to many affluent immigrants, is “like a crime scene” and said that the gas company should be held accountable. The city and thousands of Porter Ranch residents have filed lawsuits. State regulators are working with the gas company to find a way to stop the leak.
Demonstrators at hearings and rallies are demanding Southern California Gas shut down all of its wells. The company said it can’t provide gas to customers without them.
In the meantime, hundreds of families such as the Katzes have scrambled to relocate to escape health dangers.
Ava, 2, had a skin rash stretching over her entire body and had to go to the hospital numerous times. Christine, 41, suffered dizzy spells and exhaustion. The other children had headaches.
During the holiday season, they scrambled to find alternate lodging to escape the gas leak. The gas company, which is helping families relocate during the cleanup, offered them one hotel room. Christine is indignant.
“One hotel room for seven of us,” she said. “We would [have] had to put our three dogs in a kennel.”
With the help of their lawyers at the R. Rex Parris law firm, they managed to find a house in Newbury Park after numerous attempts. They’re under a three-month lease, followed by month-to-month renewals.
Southern California Gas may be paying for their temporary housing, but “we’re still making payments on a home we can’t live in,” said Christine. “It’s turned our lives upside down.”
The financial, physical and emotional costs are immeasurable. Their pain and suffering is laid out in their lawsuit against Southern California Gas, one of hundreds filed by residents: Their daughter Ava spending four days in the hospital, including three nights in intensive care for “upper respiratory problems.”
“I’m grateful we were able to relocate and get out of there, but I don’t have a home,” Christine said.
They use the empty dining room in the home here as a play room for the young ones. They had to scrub every toy and every article of clothing they took with them.
Their new lodging is more than 30 miles southwest of Porter Ranch. That means the children have to get up at dawn so that Brian, a medical imaging specialist, can take them to the bus pickup back near their old neighborhood and then drive to work. Every time they go to work, school or doctor’s appointments, they drive countless more miles than they used to.
Christine said she went over the allotted annual mileage on her leased car. Brian is exhausted. His 10-minute commute is now almost an hour. Their oldest son, 17-year-old Trevor Scully — from Christine’s previous marriage — is now staying with his father to be closer to school and wrestling practice.
Their commutes are so long that the children barely have time to do homework and have dinner before it’s bedtime. Christine is missing school functions because of the distance. Brian, who works two jobs, falls asleep on the couch.
“We don’t have a relationship anymore,” said Brian, 39. “It’s hard.”
Christine is tearful when she recounts the demands of their new life, saying, “It breaks my heart. We’re missing out on us.”
Brian bought the Porter Ranch house on a cul-de-sac in 2009 before it was even built. Christine moved in to the four-bedroom, 2.5-bath house in 2011, after they were married. “It’s a beautiful area,” she said. “We lived in a gated community. It’s everybody’s dream.”
Her pride and joy was her garden and a koi pond. She cries when she recounts how all 20 fish died. Her garden was “my tranquillity,” she said. “The birds, the butterflies, all of this is gone. It’s quiet now.”
She becomes anxious when she thinks about the vegetable grown in the garden that she used to feed her family. Were they all ingesting noxious gas particles? “I don’t know what’s going to happen to them,” she said. “I feel horrible.”
In the meantime, they are still paying for utilities — water, Internet and TV — and maintenance for a home they can’t live in. The cruelest irony is that they are still getting bills from Southern California Gas.
“We’re working to keep us afloat,” Brian said.
Brian and Christine Katz are not sure they ever want to go back, which raises questions about what they would do with their house. They can’t buy another one until they sell this one. Although some residents are still living there, it’s unlikely they could find a buyer during this state of emergency.
“It’s something you work so hard for,” Brian said.
Even if officials manage to stop the leak, neither he nor his wife is convinced that it would be safe to return.
“I don’t know what the future holds,” Brian said. “The thing is, it’s not our fault.”