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A 'very sad' Christmas away from Porter Ranch for families fleeing gas leak

Porter Ranch resident Christine Katz and her daughters, two-year-old Ava and Harper, open Christmas presents next to their makeshift tree in their temporary home in Ventura County.
Porter Ranch resident Christine Katz and her daughters, two-year-old Ava and Harper, open Christmas presents next to their makeshift tree in their temporary home in Ventura County.
Rebecca Plevin/KPCC

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On Christmas morning, Brian and Christine Katz and their pajama-clad children gathered around a makeshift Christmas tree. It was actually a one foot-tall pine bush, which sat atop a table in the living room of the home they're renting in Ventura County.

The kids began unwrapping presents. Reading tablets, toy cell phones.

"Hit the buttons like this," Brian Katz said to one-year-old Harper, as the phone started emitting music and voices. "Yay, that's fun," he said to her.

But the Katz family says this Christmas has been far from merry.

They are one of thousands of families that have fled their homes in the San Fernando Valley community of Porter Ranch, due to a massive natural gas leak. Like many others, they were driven out by the smell of an odorizing agent added to the natural gas, which was making them ill.

County health officials have said short-term exposure to natural gas isn't likely to cause health problems. The sulfur -smelling odorant added to natural gas is also a low risk, they say, although it's unpleasant to smell and can cause headaches, nausea and other health issues.

This week, Southern California Gas Company sped up the relocation of residents following a court-ordered settlement with the Los Angeles City Attorney’s Office. The Katz family just moved into a house near Thousand Oaks last weekend; the gas company is paying their rent.

SoCal Gas has apologized and launched a web site to help families. The company says it may be three to four months before the leak is fixed.

For Brian and Christine Katz, the frustration with being displaced was intensified by the holiday, as the family was forced to forgo beloved Christmas traditions. They replaced Christmas Eve dinner with takeout pizza that they ate on paper plates, and decorated store-bought cookies for Santa Claus, instead of baking their own.

"In that aspect, I'm very sad," Brian Katz said. "I'm not showing the kids that I'm sad; I want to make them feel like it's their special day. However, deep in my heart, for my wife and for myself, it's very, very disappointing."

The holiday away from home caps a string of trying weeks. As gas continued to leak from the Aliso Canyon natural gas storage field, above Porter Ranch, the couple's two-year-old daughter Ava became sick. She developed a rash and headaches and bellyaches, and became listless.

The family was in and out of doctors' offices. Last month, Ava spent four days in the pediatric intensive care unit. She's perked up since moving into the new home.

They filed a lawsuit against Southern California Gas Co. and Sempra Energy earlier this month. But on Christmas morning, as she microwaved frozen hash browns and pancakes for her kids, Christine Katz said she didn't want to focus on the suit, choosing instead to stay positive.

"We're together," she said. "That's what's important to me – my family. There's always next year."