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LAGUNA BEACH LANDSLIDE

The Stricken Return, for Scraps of Hope

With 48 homes damaged or endangered in the disaster, some residents make brief visits.

June 03, 2005|Dave McKibben and Claire Luna | Times Staff Writers

The day after a massive landslide tore through a Laguna Beach enclave of million-dollar homes -- leaving 48 of them damaged, destroyed or imperiled -- scores of residents returned to the steep sandstone bluffs Thursday to recover possessions, survey the damage and search for pets they left behind in the scramble to safety.

For many of the more than 200 Bluebird Canyon residents who made the trek, the brief visit brought them face to face with shattered dreams and a painful question: Do they continue living in the precarious canyon or abandon their homes at a near-certain loss?

About 18 homes are destroyed or badly damaged, said City Manager Ken Frank, down considerably from confused first-day reports by City Hall staffers.

As police escorted Robert Powers to his Bluebird Canyon Drive home of 35 years, the artist and tax specialist shook his head as he surveyed the scene. The house had caved in and leaned into the street. After reading a sign on the wreckage -- "Unable to check, no access" -- Powers said it was time for him to move to Nevada.

"Seriously, I want to move there," said Powers, 71. "It's going to cost me twice as much to rebuild here.... I don't regret anything about living here. What I regret is yesterday."

Others, though, found reassurance when they discovered that their houses were barely touched.

Walt Scott, 83, returned to get clothing and medicine and found his home spared. A resident of Laguna Beach for 55 years, he said his house had been destroyed in the 1978 slide and that he spent $40,000 to rebuild, adding a second floor and deck. He said he wasn't about to leave the canyon anytime soon.

"I spent five years rebuilding my house," said Scott, a retired tile worker. "There is no better place on Earth. I can sit on my deck and look out to the sea or look out to the canyon. I am never leaving."

City officials announced that they would begin a series of drilling tests to determine whether the slide was caused by the winter's torrential rains. Residents said the results would tell them a lot about whether they would continue living in Bluebird Canyon, a picturesque neighborhood that suffered a similar, devastating slide in 1978. If the drillings show that the rains were to blame, homeowners could find some financial relief in federal disaster funds. Otherwise, residents must shoulder the repair costs because landslides are not covered by the vast majority of homeowner insurance policies.

While geologists plan to install devices in the ground to measure any movement in the slide area, city officials said water, electricity and sewer lines will be operating by today to most homes. Gas lines will take longer to reconnect.

For those who were allowed to return to their homes Thursday, the trip was a difficult one.

On Bluebird Canyon Drive, at the foot of the massive slide, patio decks were flipped by the force of the earth rising beneath them. Decks that once stood 30 feet above the ground now rested on mud -- the open space now occupied by the fallen earth. In one house, a tree that was carried downhill had exploded through the flooring of one home and now stood upright, as if it had been planted in the middle of the living room.

Kay Wright, 78, said she opened her front door Wednesday morning to find that her home had slid 80 feet down the canyon wall.

"Evidently, we just rode the slide," she said. "I was shaking like a leaf. It's a terrible thing to watch your house just kind of break up."

Wright and her husband, Lewis, said they had no insurance and didn't know whether they would have to pay to demolish their house.

Still, she said, "we were lucky. We got each other."

City officials say they red-tagged 22 homes, meaning the homes can't be entered, and yellow-tagged 26, meaning daytime entry only -- no overnight stays. A tag could mean peril, not necessarily damage. Seven of the red-tagged homes were largely unscathed but next to stricken properties.

"Red tag does not mean your house is destroyed," said John Piepig, assistant city manager. "This doesn't mean your house can't be saved."

Some residents were barred from their homes Thursday and told they would have to wait because they had no "urgent need" to return.

Newlyweds Terry and Tricia McInnis were still groggy from a sleepless night in an Irvine hotel when they learned that they would not be allowed back inside their two-bedroom ranch-style home, which had nearly been dumped off a cliff. They were feeling uncertain about the future.

"Even though our house is not damaged, we might not be able to live there for at least a year," said Terry McInnis, a civil attorney at an Irvine firm. "And that means we'll have to pay a $3,000-a-month mortgage for a place we can't live in, and $2,000 to $3,000 a month to rent a place that isn't really ours."

Wearing jeans and polo shirts they bought at a Laguna Hills mall, the McInnises couldn't help but think back a few days.

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