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Slide Leaves Little to Pin a Hope On

Some Bluebird Canyon residents may never get to rebuild, and federal relief could be meager.

June 04, 2005|Seema Mehta and Daniel Yi | Times Staff Writers

It will take at least two to three years to restore the Bluebird Canyon hillsides that came crumbling down this week in Laguna Beach, but some of the destroyed homes may never be rebuilt, city officials said Friday.

Officials hope to determine within a week the cause of the landslide that destroyed, severely damaged or endangered 48 homes, a critical step if the city and the displaced residents hope to qualify for federal relief, said City Manager Ken Frank.

But for the residents whose homes were destroyed or damaged in the early morning landslide Wednesday, the relief funds may do little to ease the enormous cost of replacing residences valued at more than $1 million. On average, federal emergency funds provide only $5,000 per homeowner.

"Five thousand isn't even a drop in the bucket," said Vera Martinez, 65, who purchased her now-destroyed home 11 years ago for $300,000. "We're being portrayed as millionaires because we live in Laguna, [but] some of us are working folks who saved for a long time to be able to live here."

Geologists will determine if the ground is still moving and whether it is safe to begin cleaning up the debris and rebuilding the hill. The city will also take measures to stabilize the hillside, Frank said, but he could not detail what those measures would be.

"It will take several weeks before we get any type of useful report," he said.

One thing is certain: There will be no significant work, such as road and utility line restoration, until next year after the rainy season, which could delay construction efforts, he said. Residents may not be able to occupy their homes for months.

Meanwhile, crews will cut a new pathway for Bluebird Canyon creek, which has been blocked by the landslide and may swell with heavy rains.

On Friday, the mood was still tense in the usually laid-back enclave.

Early in the morning, there were reports that another house might have crumbled.

"There was a little noise up there, but nothing happened," said Police Capt. Danelle Adams. "Everybody's on edge."

Mayor Elizabeth Pearson-Schneider was spotted crying in front of City Hall after visiting some of the displaced residents.

With Bluebird Canyon's electricity and running water slowly returning Friday, most of the 750 to 1,000 residents evacuated from about 350 homes were expected to go back today.

But for about two dozen families whose houses took the brunt of the landslide, the future is uncertain.

They "will need housing for a few months, or a couple of years, or maybe indefinitely," said Frank.

That's because some of those families lost not only their homes, but also the land under them. A number of houses on Madison Place and Flamingo Road, on the upper side of the canyon, cascaded several feet from their original location, leaving nothing behind but the sheared face of the hill. Those that didn't slip were sitting precariously by a sudden precipice.

Todd and Stefanie MacCallum were given 20 minutes to go through their Bluebird Canyon Road home Friday, just enough time to grab their 1-year-old daughter's stroller, their wedding photos, a couple of guitars and some jewelry.

They found their home, which they bought last year on an interest-only loan, in ruins. The walls were cracked, a sundeck was jammed into the back of their house and what used to be a 30-foot canyon had been replaced by a 50-foot-high mountain of dirt and brush.

"We just kept hoping it wouldn't be this bad," Stefanie MacCallum said. The couple plan to stay with relatives in Dana Point and eventually rebuild in Bluebird Canyon if the city can stabilize the hillside.

"The area that we're worried about is the 'head scarf,' where the landslide broke away from the cliff," said Pam Irvine, a state engineering geologist who is investigating the slide. "It's so steep it makes it unstable."

The cost of restoring and stabilizing the hill are unknown, said Frank, the city manager. The federal government helped pay for hillside restoration after the 1978 landslide in Bluebird Canyon that destroyed 24 homes, allowing the structures to be rebuilt. But because of the high cost, the Federal Emergency Management Agency no longer covers such projects.

"My house is valued at nothing," said Martinez, whose home in the 1000 block of Madison Place is among the 22 that were red-tagged by the city. There were also 26 yellow-tagged homes, which have suffered damage or are downstream from the landslide and therefore too dangerous to occupy.

Authorities have allowed residents of the red- and yellow-tagged homes to return for belongings on a case-by-case basis and often escorted by police or fire officials. The fate of their homes will be determined by how stable the hillside is and whether the city will fund full restoration.

Local, state and federal officials tried to assure residents that better days are ahead.

"We will rebuild. This is Laguna," said Councilwoman Cheryl Kinsman. "We did it before and we will do it again."

State Sen. John Campbell (R-Irvine) and U.S. Rep. Chris Cox (R-Newport Beach) toured the area and pledged to help secure state and federal funds.

City officials and geologists said last winter's torrential rains probably saturated the hillside soil, causing it to give way. If confirmed, the area would qualify as a federal disaster area under a declaration announced by President Bush in February after the near-record rains.

Several fundraising efforts have been set up to help such residents as Martinez, including an event this morning at Bluebird Canyon Park.


Times staff writers Christine Hanley, Claire Luna, Jean O. Pasco, H.G. Reza and Andrew Wang contributed to this report.

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