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Rain-Filled Winter Blamed for Laguna Beach Landslide

June 02, 2005|Dan Weikel, Christine Hanley and Jean O. Pasco | Times Staff Writers

A landslide that sent multimillion-dollar homes crashing down a hill Wednesday in Laguna Beach was apparently a delayed consequence of last winter's heavy rains in Southern California, and could foreshadow more devastation to come, authorities said.

No deaths or serious injuries were blamed on the slide, which announced itself with a bang just before 7 a.m., and sheared away part of the face of Laguna's scenic Bluebird Canyon. But 17 homes were destroyed and 11 seriously damaged, fire officials said.

The soil gave way near the site of an even more devastating 1978 slide, which destroyed 24 homes. Like that disaster, this one left behind a surreal landscape: houses, cars and streets that had been tilted and buckled, collapsed and smashed, with residents left to stare numbly from a distance.

It also appeared to validate the warnings of geologists, some of whom had questioned the wisdom of building in the canyon. And it raised questions about the safety of other hillside communities in Southern California in the aftermath of the near-record rainfall.

Among the areas to be closely watched, geologists said, are those that have already seen slipping: parts of Laurel Canyon, Culver City and Glendale in Los Angeles County; Anaheim Hills and Mission Viejo in Orange County; as well as La Conchita in Ventura County, where a fast-moving landslide killed 10 people and destroyed two dozen homes in January.

"We are not out of the woods yet," said Randall Jibson, a geologist and landslide expert for the U.S. Geological Survey. "This could happen for some time."

Some residents blamed the Laguna Beach slide on new construction, and city officials said they were reexamining two recent projects to see if they had destabilized the slope.

But City Manager Ken Frank said only 10 houses had been built since 1978 in the area affected by the new slide. And officials said they believed that the rain was primarily responsible for what happened Wednesday.

The crashing slope was particularly painful to critics who had fought efforts to build homes in an area prone to landslides.

"This just makes my heart sink," said Judy Rosener, a business professor at UC Irvine who served on the California Coastal Commission from 1973 to 1981. "Historically, it is known as a slide area. In 1973, I was told that this is known as a slide area. They told us that 30 years ago."

The slide occurred without warning on a typically foggy June morning, just as residents were stirring in well-maintained homes overlooking the Pacific.

Clara Candelaria, a physical education teacher at a local elementary school, was getting ready to go to work when the power went out at her home on Bluebird Canyon Drive, where she has lived for 36 years.

"I heard this big explosion like a giant gunshot," she said. The noise was apparently the sound of an electrical transformer exploding in the early stages of the slide as utility poles gave way to the moving ground.

Candelaria looked outside. "All of the sudden, right in front of me, the earth started moving, and I heard 'pop, pop, pop,' glass breaking and plants falling down the hillsides," she said.

Then she saw a gray home nearby begin "twisting and turning" as it was racked by gravity and slipping earth.

David Hurwitz, a 37-year-old business consultant, said he realized something was odd when he heard the sound of Bluebird Creek gushing.

"That was unusual because it only happens when it rains," said Hurwitz, who has lived on the same block as Candelaria for six years.

"Then I heard a sound that was very different," he said. "At first I thought it was the guys starting construction early on the house above me. But then I knew it was something else, because all of a sudden there were firetrucks and police vehicles coming up and down the hill. It was gridlock."

Authorities ordered the evacuation of 750 to 1,000 people living in 350 homes. Later in the day, some were allowed to return.

During the early stages of emergency response, word spread that two men had warned residents and helped them evacuate from the slide area. The two were a part-time city lifeguard, Craig Lockwood, 67, and his neighbor, Dale Ghere, 65, who both live on Meadowlark Lane.

Lockwood credited Ghere, saying, "Dale's the Paul Revere of our Meadowlark neighborhood."

About 6:46 a.m., Lockwood said, his neighbor phoned and then ran over and started pounding on his front door, yelling at him to get up.

"I threw on my trunks and shoes, went to the door and saw Dale standing there saying we got to warn other people to get out of here," Lockwood said.

Together, the two men began running to other homes, pounding on doors, warning people to leave.

"We were telling them to get out ... and move their cars to get out of the way of emergency vehicles that may be coming," Lockwood said.

Laguna Beach Fire Capt. Dan Stefano, who responded to emergencies during the Northridge earthquake of 1994, said some of the slide areas Wednesday looked worse than after that disaster.

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