Montebello businesses struggle to recover from tornado

By Alfredo Santana

Contributing Writer

MONTEBELLO — The tornado that battered 17 local businesses buildings — leaving 11 red tagged — March 22 forced Atlas Ice Cream & Food Wholesale owner Manzour Azizian to close shop four days, causing him gross sales losses estimated between $15,000 and $20,000.

Azizian said he also incurred an out-of-pocket emergency expense of about $6,000 to replace a broken compressor to keep his refrigerators running day and night and salvage tons of ice cream following the rare environmental incident. 

Standing next to a pile of debris composed of shingles, reaped plywood sheets and beams the whirlwind picked up and dumped like toothpicks, Azizian recounted that he cannot get rid of the trash until inspectors from the Federal Emergency Management Agency and the state Occupational Safety and Health Administration inspect it and determine if  asbestos are present. 

In the parking lot located behind the main warehouse at 1068 S. Vail Ave., nine ice cream trucks operated by independent drivers suffered cracked or smashed windshields, or got hit with objects ripped off from the warehouse roof.  

In total, about 15 trucks sustained damages.

“Most windshields cost about $300 to $400,” Azizian said. “To recover, the drivers have to pay a $500 [insurance] deductible. I’m sure they would have to pay repairs out of pocket.”

Fortunately, Azizian and his staff are able to work on the premises. But he scoffed at the possibility of receiving aid from FEMA, or from county departments to repair a torn roof that now leaks when it rains. 

“I went to the city’s resource fair last week,” Azizian said, referring to a rapid response event hosted by city, county and state agencies March 28. “But most of it was for job resources and I couldn’t get anything from it.

“I’m working with my insurance company and working on my own. All agencies there said good things but didn’t cover me anything.” 

As businesses take steps to recover from the tornado, owners are feeling a growing sense of helplessness because they have not received assistance from public agencies. 

In an effort to make the process easier, the city of Montebello set up a website with links to public agencies and brief descriptions to channel impacted business to procedures for a speedy return to normalcy. 

Michael Chee, public affairs and information technology director with the city of Montebello, said the city has not assembled a program to remove debris because federal agencies are supposed to sift through the piles before they are cleared.

Furthermore, air quality in the buildings should be measured to mitigate toxic particles released from old ruptured roofs.

“The problem with debris is that multiple federal and state agencies are involved,” Chee said. “The city’s hands are tied until the other agencies finish their job.

“We, as a city, continue to remain engaged with business owners on the resources that will be available in the recovery efforts.”

City building inspectors and fire marshals are on the ground surveying damages and answering questions from business operators in their quest to reopen or conduct repairs, he said.  

Nonetheless, business owners and operators agree that they are left to their own devices to repair facilities and swallow losses from the twister that saw winds reach 110 miles an hour. 

On April 3, President Joe Biden directed the Small Business Administration to make low-interest loans available to businesses wrecked by severe winter storms and straight-line winds in California, including in Los Angeles County, but it did not include those ravaged by the tornado. 

The roof at Utilimaster, a company that customizes box trucks for delivery and distribution of parcel, foods and beverages, linens and utility services, was shredded and plucked off, forcing authorities to close the facility until repairs are made. 

Utilitimaster’s parent company the Shyft Group said in a press release that the leased 40,000 square-feet warehouse will be closed “for the foreseeable future,” and it expects the insurance carrier to foot the reconstruction bills. 

Now, an electrified mesh reinforces a metal fence at 1130 S. Vail Ave., with signs warning pedestrians and others not to touch it, film or take pictures unless given written consent.

“Our top priority was ensuring the safety or our team members, and I am grateful that all our employees are safe and unharmed,” said Daryl Adams, president and CEO of the Shyft Group. “We appreciate our customer’s understanding and patience during this unforeseen incident and are working closely with them to ensure minimal disruption to their operations.”

The company also laid off 60 workers, most of whom attended the relief fair to learn how to apply for state unemployment benefits and to explore relocation opportunities with the help from local agencies.    

According to the Los Angeles County Office of Immigrant Affairs, more than 50 undocumented workers employed by impacted businesses and referred from job placement agencies were fired following the natural disaster. 

Some reported that their former bosses owed them money, and were dropped as clients from the staffing companies. 

Porfirio Dominguez, a truck vendor owner who parks at the Atlas Ice Cream yard, said he will continue working his catering unit despite it being hit by a heavy object picked up by the tornado, breaking a windshield and damaging the front end.  

“I believe a beam struck my truck,” Dominguez said in Spanish as he climbed in to drive to a community event. “I do not where it came from, probably from the roof of a neighboring business. Fortunately the truck looks good to work.”

Overall, Azizian said he fared much better than other business owners along Vail Avenue, because he was able to reopen soon and supply his daily customers with ice cream, bags of chips and other goods. 

“On my roof, a couple shingles were damaged,” Azizian said. “We patched them right away. But now we catch rain trickling in with buckets on the ground. Compared to them, I got lucky. 

“Now I will have to pay another $1,500 to $2,000 to dump the debris, if they don’t have asbestos.”

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