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Just Another Disaster in Paradise

As soon as the tears dry up, head for the multiple listings.

June 05, 2005|Shawn Hubler | Shawn Hubler is a Los Angeles Times staff writer.

On the day after the Laguna Beach landslide, the local schools had their annual choir concert. The auditorium was on the grounds of the high school, which the day before had sheltered victims of the emergency. On a palm-lined street from which you could see the breathtakingly blue Pacific, the high school and middle school choruses squeezed onto one set of risers. "The Wizard of Oz" was the theme of the program. The chorus instructor lived in Bluebird Canyon. Her show went on even though, for the past 36 hours, she'd been an evacuee.

"There's no place like home," she reminded the shellshocked parents, some of whom had lost their every worldly possession, some of whom wept as the students sang, "somewhere over the rainbow." Afterward, people talked, as people do when bad things happen in small towns.

They talked about who had no insurance. About who had been heartbreakingly displaced. Who'd suffered this catastrophe only months after losing a loved one. About who, by inches, had been spared.

But because this is Southern California -- and not just Southern California but Orange County, where home lust hangs in the air like perfume, like sea salt, like tropical infection -- people glanced around to make sure no one in pain could overhear them.

And then they talked about real estate.

They did it in hushed tones, so as not to offend their neighbors. But they did it. Would the slide mean that $2-million, three-bedroom cottage on the next hill might be knocked down now to one-eight? Or one-six maybe? Was this it, the act of God that would finally burst the real estate bubble? Hadn't people asked that two disasters ago?

Newcomers wondered aloud whether Bluebird Canyon would be rebuilt. Old-timers looked at them as if they were insane. Had they not heard about, say, the last big wildfires? How low-ballers had besieged real estate agents with calls, scrambling to snap up half-destroyed houses at a discount, even as they were burning?

Had they not hiked up to survey this week's damage and seen the speculators, perched like so many Hawaiian-shirted vultures? Did they not know what passed for "recovery" in this disaster-prone place? The lines that it drew through the neighborhoods?

"People here love their neighbors, but there are haves and have-nots and you can feel the tension," a friend who'd moved in a decade or so ago confided. "The people who had, say, fire insurance in the 1993 fire and the people who didn't. The people who lost whole houses and the people who just lost, like, one room. The people who bought burned lots for nothing, and then put huge new houses on them, and then the people who could barely rebuild their old homes but who had to then look every day at these big Newport Beach-looking mansions."

"Oh, it'll all be rebuilt," another friend said. "And the houses will be even bigger and more expensive. And then, bit by bit, of course, paradise won't be the same."

He's right. To live here for any time is to know that the only certainty is change.

A block will go along for years and then, boom. Earthquake. Brush fire. Mudslide. An economy will be stable and then, boom. Layoffs. Mergers. Corporate relocation.

Whole neighborhoods will transform -- altering the food, the signs, the lingo right out from under the disgruntled townies; one person's paradise is another's prelude to exile. All we truly own, as it turns out, are our memories.

But Californians are Californians because they want more. The lesson of Bluebird Canyon, here in Laguna, is the lesson of the last three, four, five natural disasters: What goes down eventually comes back. And when it does, it will be breathtakingly lovely and it will belong to someone, someone lucky. Someone like you, maybe. Or me.

This knowledge is in the air like perfume, like sea salt, like some tropical infection: There's no place like home. And there's no home like this place. And that fact is so shot through with such yearning that you will do anything, believe anything, just to make it yours for a moment. Even as the ground shifts under your feet.

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