RIO NIDO, Calif. — Phyllis and Gary LaCombe survived the mudslide that destroyed their Russian River home last winter. But they have yet to emerge from the bureaucratic maze they entered the night a wall of mud knocked their house from its foundations and sent the LaCombes fleeing.
Even as this winter's rains begin, the LaCombes and more than 150 other California families still are waiting to see whether local officials accept a federal offer to buy slide damaged or destroyed homes across the state.
When the federal government offered $22 million last month to help buy out California landslide victims, state officials rejoiced. Washington has helped buy out flood victims for years, but this was the first time it had ever made such an offer to landslide victims.
But the offer came with a big caveat: Local governments from Orange County to Humboldt would have to take title to the properties, demolish the structures and agree to leave the land in a natural state forever. Local officials are hesitating, fearful that their counties or cities will be legally liable if the land later gives way and slides cause further damage.
It is a program that has worked in the Midwest, where the federal government has for years bought out property owners in flood plains on the condition that local governments take title to the land and promise never to develop it again. But it is a lot riskier, California officials say, to take title to active landslides.
"We told our council publicly that this was a 'buy a landslide program, and our question was: who would want to?' " says Tim Casey, city manager of Laguna Niguel, where the City Council is still debating whether to accept the federal government's offer to pay more than $6 million for 32 homes.
Banks Seek to Foreclose
While city councils and county boards of supervisors weigh the risks, some homeowners have had to fight banks seeking to foreclose on mortgages. Nearly all are still living in temporary rental housing, unable to either go home or move on.
Some are angry with their local governments for hesitating to take the federal government up on its offer. No private or public insurance is available to cover mudslide damage.
"They don't really care," Phyllis LaCombe says bitterly of the Sonoma County supervisors who will decide her fate. "They don't have a concept of what this is like, or that it could happen to them."
Rio Nido, a Russian River community about 60 miles north of San Francisco, was one of the communities hit hardest by last year's El Nino storms. Some 34 houses were irreparably damaged or destroyed when the redwood-forested hillside above Upper Canyon Three gave way in February. Homeowners below the slide were evacuated for weeks, as a safety precaution.
Now the hill where the LaCombes lived for 11 years is fenced off with chain link and posted with hazard signs. Guards hired by the county restrict access to the site, which state geologists say could be subject to more slides. The LaCombes stopped visiting when the county bulldozed their home in October. But they still mourn their loss.
"It was the little cushion we had," says Phyllis. "Every time there was extra money, it went toward the house."
Vice President Al Gore visited Rio Nido soon after the landslide made the national news and promised to help. Since the federal government had never before offered to help buy out landslide victims, it was up to state and federal officials to find a way to make such a program work within existing federal regulations.
After months of negotiations with California officials, the Federal Emergency Management Agency announced last month that it was granting $22 million to help buy 165 properties scattered across 11 counties, including 14 homes in Los Angeles County. Each homeowner was to be offered 75% of the pre-disaster assessed market value of the damaged home. The rest of the funds would have to be raised by the homeowner, or come from local government.
FEMA hailed the program as innovative. Local officials initially welcomed the offer.
"All I can say is that last February, we were in a situation where there was basically no relief, public or private, for these folks," says Sonoma County Supervisor Mike Reilly, whose district includes Rio Nido. "This is the first time I've seen FEMA develop an entire program to help a classification of people in just 10 months."
Then local governments started taking a harder look at the requirements of the program. Government lawyers didn't like what they saw.
Sonoma County's Board of Supervisors must decide whether to accept $3.4 million to buy 34 Rio Nido homes and another 10 homes elsewhere in the county.
"If the county takes the money and buys these people out, then the county owns that property," says Sandy Covall, Sonoma County's emergency services coordinator. "If the slide cuts loose from that mountain and inundates other houses below, the county would be on the hook. There is no way to indemnify the county."