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Laguna to Name Slide Coordinator

The official will oversee recovery efforts in devastated Bluebird Canyon, seek storage space and work with state, federal authorities.

June 06, 2005|Seema Mehta and Dave McKibben | Times Staff Writers

Laguna Beach officials today expect to name a director to oversee recovery efforts in Bluebird Canyon, struck last week by a landslide that destroyed or seriously damaged 22 homes and left more than two dozen others at least temporarily unsafe.

City officials said Sunday that they planned to choose the recovery director as they await a state disaster declaration that would allow the city and residents to qualify for emergency funds.

Residents who could return to their homes settled in over the weekend. Those whose houses are gone or still deemed uninhabitable continued retrieving what they could and safeguarding items left behind -- escorted by city safety personnel and building inspectors.

Some homeowners may not be able to return to their property for more than a year, Laguna Beach officials said. The delay, they said, would make transitional housing and long-term storage space priorities for the recovery director, who also would serve as a liaison between residents and state and federal agencies. City Manager Ken Frank declined to say who had been interviewed for the job.

"People are just kind of catching their breath today," said a weary-sounding Mayor Elizabeth Pearson-Schneider on Sunday. "But we're moving forward. The most important thing is to let the victims know that we're not going to abandon them."

The landslide, which occurred early Wednesday, led to the evacuation of 350 households in the secluded neighborhood southeast of downtown Laguna Beach. The neighborhood has a history of landslides, the last serious one occurring in 1978.

Dale Ghere lost his house in the 1978 landslide. He is credited by neighbors as a "Paul Revere" who warned of danger Wednesday morning. His rebuilt home escaped damage this time, and now he is helping organize cleanup efforts.

"If somebody out there had a warehouse a reasonable distance from Laguna Beach, I'm sure we'd be interested," Ghere said. "Maybe we could use part of the El Toro Marine Base or even a corner of that old blimp hangar on the [Tustin] Marine base. We're looking to store big items for a long period of time, maybe up to two years."

Pearson-Schneider said the city was looking for transitional housing for residents who cannot return to 22 red-tagged homes. She hopes some residents can soon return to undamaged or slightly damaged homes that were yellow-tagged because of their proximity to the slide.

"Those folks may be able to get back in the next week and a half, or two weeks," she said.

But Terry McInnis, whose two - bedroom Flamingo Road house is yellow-tagged, said he still was waiting for news.

"It's frustrating to see your neighbor 20 feet away green [tagged], living a normal life, and you're living out of a suitcase," said McInnis, who spent Sunday night in the third location since he and his wife, Tricia, were evacuated.

"I need some certainty; I can't keep bouncing around from house to house," he said. "I'm still cautiously optimistic the city will say we can move back in a couple weeks, but I fear it'll be probably be at least a couple months."

A team from the Federal Emergency Management Agency is scheduled to visit the site today, and geologists are scheduled to begin drilling up to 100 feet on Tuesday to extract core samples that may help reveal why the slide occurred, the extent of the earth's movement and the hillside's current stability, Frank said.

Pearson-Schneider said the state Office of Emergency Services could recommend by midweek that Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger declare the slide part of the severe-storm emergency declared earlier this year. This would make the city eligible for state and federal emergency funds.

But federal and state dollars will not cover all the costs to rebuild and buttress the hillside.

"We've got to find funds to rebuild the hill and replace the pads for those homes that have no pads right now," Pearson-Schneider said. "It's going to be very expensive."

She said city officials planned to explore options for financing the rebuilding, though she declined to name specific proposals.

Meanwhile, more fundraisers are planned, including an art museum benefit and a rock concert. City leaders urged donors to send checks to the Laguna Relief Fund, care of South County Bank, 540 S. Coast Highway, Laguna Beach, CA 92651.

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