Many families opt to rebuild on San Bruno disaster site 

When Carolyn and Charley Gray’s house went up in smoke during the San Bruno pipeline fire, they gave themselves some time to decide whether to move or rebuild. But a few months later, they needed to make a decision. So they created a list of pros and cons.

Pacific Gas & Electric Co., whose exploding pipeline had caused the fire, had offered to buy their now-empty property for the price their house was worth on the day before the disaster. In some ways, the offer was attractive, and the couple considered moving closer to their children. On the other hand, the Grays had lived for decades in San Bruno, and rebuilding their life somewhere else seemed daunting.

But eventually, all considerations of family, friends and future were eclipsed by another factor — finances.

“It just made more economic sense to stay,” Carolyn said.

Gray’s refrain is common among residents of the 55 homes destroyed or ruined in the fire. PG&E officials say about 11 residents have taken them up on their buyout offer. But far more are staying — and many say the reason is because it pencils out better financially.

Bill Magoolaghan’s family might have considered moving if they could have afforded it. He noted that PG&E is paying one neighbor $600,000. If he were to receive a similar amount and pay off his mortgage, that would leave him about $200,000.

“That’s not really enough to buy a new house on the Peninsula, so you’ll have to go out and get a jumbo loan — and getting jumbo loans is still tough right now, even if you have a good income,” Magoolaghan said. “For us it was really an economic decision to stay.”

PG&E has offered to pay the difference between what insurance covers and what it would take to rebuild “a house of like size,” company spokeswoman Brittany Chord said. But it’s not clear what that means for people who are changing their floor plan. For example, the Magoolaghans are building an extra floor on their house to accommodate their four children — an improvement they’d considered even before the fire.

Although Chord said PG&E will consider such situations “on a case-by-case basis,” Magoolaghan doesn’t know whether PG&E will pay for any or all of this improvement, or if it will complicate the negotiations regarding what will be covered.

Whether PG&E will pay for the extra floor is an important technicality for the family’s bank account. But they will have to make the decision whether to go forward with the improvement long before they’ll know the answer to that question, Magoolighan said. Because he and most of the other survivors have chosen to press a lawsuit against the company, attorneys for both sides are advising them not to negotiate over such matters until a settlement can be reached or a trial is concluded.

“It would have been nice if PG&E had come to people and said, sorry, we made a big mistake, now here’s a million dollars, now go buy a house in Millbrae and don’t worry about rebuilding, but the lawsuits prevent that from happening,” Magoolaghan said. “And it’s complicated because we have to make the decision now whether to rebuild or sell, without really knowing how much money we’ll have to do that.”

Family may not be able to avoid suing

Dozens of San Bruno residents affected by September’s blast have filed lawsuits against Pacific Gas & Electric Co.

David Chow’s family is not one of them.

Chow’s mother lost everything in the fire — even the urn containing her husband’s ashes — when the house that Chow and his sister grew up in burned to the ground last year.

Though the family has not ruled out a lawsuit, Chow’s mother simply isn’t litigious, and wants to resolve things with PG&E without involving the court system, if possible.

But that hasn’t made things easy for the family. She, her children and their spouses have spent hundreds of hours dealing with the tragedy, between attending meetings, assessing what was lost, planning a rebuild, and outfitting her temporary home with new things.

Chow said he thinks it’s only fair that PG&E reimburse the family for that time.“PG&E will not pay for any third parties that help us put our lives back together,” he said. “PG&E will not pay us for time spent on working to rebuild our lives, unless it took time out of our work day. If the fire had never happened, we wouldn’t be spending time and money trying to get our lives back together.”

PG&E’s reticence so far to reimburse the family has made Chow worried about approaching them about something even more meaningful: his father’s ashes.

His mother had planned to be buried with her husband’s ashes in a common grave when she passes away, and now that is not possible. Chow said the family would like some kind of compensation acknowledging that loss.

Company spokeswoman Brittany Chord said she couldn’t discuss specifics of any customer’s situation, but said PG&E is committed to helping residents recover.

Chow said his mother is still committed to avoiding a lawsuit, but he’s not sure that will be possible.

“I expect to have trouble with PG&E,” he said.

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Katie Worth

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