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California and the West

Life Still Unsettled for Residents of Slide Area

Real estate: In wake of evacuation of Anaheim Hills neighborhood in 1993, repairs have been undertaken but disagreements--and lawsuits--persist.

January 20, 1998|ESTHER SCHRADER | TIMES STAFF WRITER

ANAHEIM — Five years ago, 46 families fled their dream homes atop an Anaheim hill, rushing away as a landslide cracked walls, split driveways and tore swimming pools apart.

Since then, pipelines, sidewalks and sewers outside the homes have been repaired. Millions of gallons of water that had turned a 100-foot bluff into mud have been pumped out. The city has spent more than $8 million to ensure that the attractive streets at the pinnacle of Anaheim Hills look as inviting as ever.

But while geologists differ over whether the ground that slid more than 14 inches in two weeks is finally stable, the future of the area, and of the people who lived there, definitely is not.

"For Sale" signs hang forlornly outside many of the homes. Renters in some houses say they hear walls creaking at night and believe the hill has not stopped slipping. Owners who remain in homes still riven by cracks caused by the 1993 landslide say they are prisoners of vast houses they cannot sell at prices anywhere near their former value.

With damage from landslides not covered by insurance companies in California--and most residents making too much money to qualify for low-interest loans the federal government offers to disaster victims--there has been little financial help to rebuild.

"The landslide was just like a boat passing through, and now we're in the wake. It's not just the disaster that has ruined us, it's everything that has gone on since," said Cliff Tatro, who bought his 9,600-square-foot Anaheim Hills home for $2.1 million four years before the landslide.

The slide cracked Tatro's pool and driveway and left fissures several inches wide through the center of his patio. His homeowners insurance did not cover landslide damage, and when the value of his home dipped below what he owed on it, Tatro stopped making mortgage payments. In 1995, with the bank about to foreclose, he sold the house for $725,000. Now he rents a home one-fifth the size in Huntington Beach.

"I had a dream home. . . . I had a lot of money in the bank. I was 42, and things were just starting to get good, really good," Tatro said. "And then in one day it all changed. That was the day of the landslide."

Anaheim officials say they have the slide area under control and that the hillside has not moved a centimeter since February 1993.

Potential home buyers are wary of city assurances, and lawsuits filed by homeowners against the city are dragging on with no resolution in sight. Home prices have never fully recovered.

"In effect, you've got damaged goods up there in more ways than one," said Louis Masotti, director of the program in real estate management at UC Irvine.

The landslide had no easily discernible beginning or end. It crept along for at least nine months before January 1993, moving about an inch a month. After a series of rains saturated the hillsides, the landslide moved about an inch a day over the course of two weeks.

The damage to homes did not show up at once. Cracks that started as thin lines in concrete turned months later into gaps big enough to swallow a basketball. Walls broke open, gas lines pulled from their supports and began to leak, and lavishly tiled swimming pools began to crack.

By Jan. 18, 1993, city officials feared that the hillside would collapse. It never did. The city condemned one home and demolished it after the slide. The rest still stand, the cracks hidden by rugs and furniture, plants and paint.

In the years since the slide, the city has poured money into shoring up the hillside.

Along Avenida de Santiago, Rimwood Drive, Georgetown Circle and Pegasus Street, the 25-acre area that lay at the center of the slide, 120 wells installed by the city pump and pipe ground water out of the soggy earth 24 hours a day. In 1997, 39 million gallons of water was removed from the area.

Dozens of underground monitoring devices measure earth movement and ground water. In December, with El Nino-related rains threatening, the city installed two more wells.

Emergency repairs, maintenance and study of the site have cost the city $8.18 million. Federal authorities have reimbursed the city about $5 million. But no more federal aid is expected, and bills continue to mount. Maintaining the wells, which the city says are needed to prevent future slides, costs the city $185,000 a year.

"We can keep it from moving as long as we maintain this system. The homes will be able to stay there," said city engineer Natalie Armas. "But someone needs to maintain those wells forever."

Meanwhile, attorneys hired by the city have been fighting 17 lawsuits filed by 250 homeowners, running up $8.78 million in legal fees. None of the suits has been resolved.

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