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California and the West

Hillside Residents Fear More Rain

Weather: People in Laguna Beach's Canyon Acres say they should get relocation aid. But agencies say they can't qualify until storm damage occurs.

March 05, 1998|TINI TRAN and ROBERT OURLIAN | TIMES STAFF WRITERS

LAGUNA BEACH — The inhabitants of funky, iconoclastic Canyon Acres, one of the most storm-vulnerable neighborhoods in Southern California, are scurrying to prepare for what some fear is another date with disaster.

Two people were killed, nine were injured and dozens were driven from their homes last week when heavy rains unleashed a wall of mud on Canyon Acres and a nearby enclave of artists, writers and other devotees of rural canyon life.

More rain is possible late today and survivors of the last calamity are worried. The next mudslide "is like the barrel of a gun pointed right at my house," Jerry Colburn said Wednesday.

His two-story place is one house away from the shattered remains of the 900-square-foot cottage where Nicholas Flores, a 43-year-old caretaker to an elderly man, was buried under an avalanche of mud in the last storm. With the upcoming rains, Colburn, 44, a freelance writer, figures that he could be the next victim.

Colburn complains that relief agencies only help people whose homes already have been damaged or destroyed, but not people who feel endangered but have no place to go.

"I'm trying to get out of here and they won't give me any help," said Colburn, who wants relocation assistance. "They say their hands are tied."

For others whose homes are a shambles, moving is the first priority. Some are veterans of earlier crises to hit Laguna Beach, including the firestorm four years ago that scorched more than 400 homes.

"They lived through the fires in '93 and all that disaster," said Bridget Hoff, 37, pointing to a neighbor's house across the street. "But this last time, the fear is just too real. It's a real tragedy."

Judy Iannaccone, a spokeswoman for the American Red Cross, said canyon dwellers whose houses haven't been damaged and who haven't been advised to evacuate do not qualify for disaster aid from the Red Cross.

"If there's no damage and they haven't been asked to leave, it's a sad thing, but our service is about disaster-caused needs," Iannaccone said.

Federal Emergency Management Agency officials in Sacramento have similar guidelines. Federal disaster assistance is limited to those who have suffered damage or are in a "mandatory evacuation area." Residents who fear that they will suffer damage but have not been advised to leave do not qualify.

"Those people who are really stressed out over this really should contact the county mental health department to try and resolve some of these anxieties," said FEMA spokesman Eugene Brezany.

During sunny weather, the picturesque community, where vegetable gardens bloom and dirt footpaths meander, is a secluded country paradise, just off Laguna Canyon Road. But with the heavy rains, it becomes dangerous.

Mud-flattened trails streak both sides of the hill overlooking the home he rents, markers of mudslides to come, Colburn said. The weight of last week's slide gouged a giant crevice in the slopes above his window.

Yet his home and the two beside him haven't been tagged by city officials as dangerous.

"It's ridiculous," he said. "The guidelines only consider the condition of the home, not the condition of the terrain around you. That's fine if you live in the flatlands of the Midwest, but here, it's the terrain that's the threat."

By those guidelines, "this was a house that was in 'no danger' until 9:13 p.m. Monday night," said Colburn, pointing to his neighbor's cottage, now a broken hull of dirt and rubble. "There needs to be some common sense here."

More than 300 homes were damaged by last week's rains, City Manager Kenneth Frank said. Two homes were destroyed and 18 were "severely damaged," he said.

Those 18 homes have been inspected by the city's building official, John Gustafson, and two consulting geologists. Gustafson has red-tagged 10 homes, including seven in the Laguna Canyon area, which means that they are uninhabitable and cannot be occupied even for a few minutes. Eight homes, including six Laguna Canyon residences, have been yellow-tagged, which allows limited access to parts of a house still considered uninhabitable.

Extra police officers, firefighters and road crews will be on duty today.

Residents are preparing as best they can for the next round of rains. Those who haven't decided to move are simply digging out the mud from their backyards and preparing for the next storm.

"We've packed up our valuables and we're putting them at a friend's house today, but we're going to stay here till they say leave," said Christopher Cunningham, 44, who has lived in his home for three years.

Wednesday afternoon found Anastasia Sepulveda, 22, shoveling out the six-foot wall of mud that surrounded her home. She was getting volunteer assistance from a Southern Baptist Convention disaster relief crew.

"We're clearing out this stuff as fast as we can," Sepulveda said. "We've got some sandbags up, but I don't plan to be here when it starts raining. The Red Cross is putting us up at a hotel."

Once the rain stops, she said, she will be back at her home with rubber boots and shovel in hand.

"In '84, the mudslides took out our kitchen. In '93, the fires took another building, but we've made it for 22 years. If the hills don't all come down, we'll be here a little longer," she said.

Despite residents' fears, the weather service isn't overly pessimistic. Rain is possible in Southern California, but forecasters said it wouldn't be like last week's pounding storms that resulted in landslides.

"We might not even see any rain," said Jeff House, a meteorologist with WeatherData Inc., which provides forecasts for The Times. "If there are some sprinkles or showers, it shouldn't be any problems in terms of what there's been for the last few weeks."

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