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Laguna Beach Family Copes With Loss of Their Home

Tragedy: Insurance doesn't cover landslide damage, they learn. But they say they are grateful to be alive and heartened by neighbors' help.

March 10, 1998|TINI TRAN and SHELBY GRAD | TIMES STAFF WRITERS

LAGUNA BEACH — Dressed from head to toe in donated clothes, Paul and Kitmen Gunther sat Monday in the living room of a friend's home trying to cope with the enormity of their loss one day after their hillside home collapsed into a ravine.

Although they carried homeowners insurance, along with earthquake insurance, the Gunthers have been told that landslides, considered "acts of God," are not covered.

"People look at my calm demeanor and don't think I'm freaking out, but it all sank in yesterday," said Paul Gunther, 36. "I realize full well what we've lost, but we have to, in the American spirit, move on. There's no choice."

The Gunthers said they are heartened by the outpouring of support from neighbors and others. Donations of clothing, shelter, even a crane to sift through the rubble, have flooded in.

The early morning landslide began with little warning. Paul Gunther had awakened at dawn Sunday after hearing popping and creaking noises. Realizing that something was wrong, he woke his wife. They grabbed their 3-year-old daughter and 18-month-old son and fled the home.

Within 45 minutes, as they watched helplessly, the house buckled and plunged into the ravine behind it, collapsing within a few feet of a neighbor's home.

The family spent Monday retrenching from the disaster and counting their blessings that no one had been harmed.

"I'm just so grateful that we're alive," said Kitmen Gunther, 34, a financial analyst. "I'm so thankful for everyone's generosity."

In one corner of Scott and Veronica Sumner's home, where the Gunthers are staying temporarily, sat donated clothing and toys. Offers of assistance have flooded in from the PTA, the Laguna Beach Assistance League and local churches. City Manager Ken Frank offered the use of a home for three weeks.

The Gunthers returned Monday morning to the site to see what belongings they could salvage. But city officials were still drilling holes in the hill and prohibited the couple from reaching the site.

The area appeared to stabilize Monday, officials said, but experts said the record El Nino rains have so saturated coastal hillsides that destructive earth movement elsewhere is likely.

City workers also were trying to determine the severity of the slide along Cerritos Drive and whether neighboring homes were in jeopardy.

The Gunthers spent Monday afternoon meeting with officials from the city as well as the Federal Emergency Management Agency.

"We're just trying to regroup," said Paul Gunther, a Fountain Valley businessman. "If we can recover anything at all, we can try and restart our lives. It's not just been a financial loss, it's emotional losses as well. We lost things . . . that can never be replaced."

The 3,600-square-foot home and its belongings were valued at $600,000.

A geological report was done before the Gunthers bought the home three years ago. They were told then that the land was stable.

"This was a total surprise. There were no previous fears in this area," Paul Gunther said.

But the Gunthers are convinced that Laguna Beach will remain their home, and are planning to rebuild on the site.

"Laguna is a wonderful place," Paul Gunther said. "The amount of help that we're getting from the neighbors and others prove that. We'll be staying here."

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