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Some Slide Victims Get Good News

Residents of 18 Laguna homes may return in 10 days. Others are trying to move what they can from their red- or yellow-tagged houses.

June 07, 2005|Jean O. Pasco and Claire Luna | Times Staff Writers

Eighteen homes that were feared damaged or imperiled in last week's devastating Laguna Beach landslide were judged safe Monday, and residents could be allowed to return to their hillside homes in a week to 10 days.

The decision to clear the way for those residents to go home was a ray of good news in the town. Wednesday morning's slide in picturesque Bluebird Canyon brought homes tumbling down the hillside, leaving residents temporarily homeless and, some feared, on the brink of bankruptcy.

At one point, it appeared that 48 homes had been destroyed, damaged or at risk. The numbers improved Monday, however.

Of the 25 homes that were yellow-tagged, allowing daytime entry only, 18 have now been cleared as livable. Still, more testing will be done before residents of those homes can move back in to ensure that the earth isn't moving and properties are still safe. And one of the 22 homes that had been red-tagged -- no entry at all -- was upgraded to yellow.

As the city again took stock of the damage, many of the residents whose homes were destroyed went about the painful business of gathering up their belongings: wedding photos, clothing, surfboards and, in one case, the contents of an entire house.

As displaced residents shuttled in and out of the neighborhood, emergency crews brought in equipment to begin three days of drilling today. Laguna Beach Police Capt. Danell Adams said the instruments will be lowered into the holes in an effort to determine whether the ground has stabilized and what caused the slide.

The assessment is being coordinated by the state Office of Emergency Services, and includes geologists with the California Geological Survey and officials with the Federal Emergency Management Agency.

The governor has 30 days to request federal assistance, a step that would make the city eligible for state and federal money to reimburse recovery costs. The damage could be covered through severe-storm declarations for Southern California signed earlier this year by President Bush and Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger.

"We want to move along the process as quickly as possible and yet do a thorough job," said Greg Renick, a spokesman for the Office of Emergency Services. "We're here to find out everything we can."

In other developments, longtime Bluebird Canyon resident Bob Burnham, who retired last year after 27 years as Newport Beach city attorney, was appointed Monday to oversee the city's efforts to obtain recovery money and restore public services in the landslide-ravaged area. Burnham met privately Monday night with residents.

The landslide, which occurred just before 7 a.m. Wednesday, triggered the evacuation of 350 households in the woodsy neighborhood southeast of downtown. In 1978, a landslide in the canyon destroyed 24 homes.

Residents not yet allowed to move back in have been sorting through years of keepsakes and valuables, often in the briefest spurts.

Louis and Kay Wright discovered Monday afternoon that 27 years of memories can be moved from a house in just two hours. The city-allotted span of time was enough for the Wrights and a fire brigade of family members and hired workers to cart out household items, including slides from family vacations, dozens of landscape paintings and a 1944 grandfather clock.

Everything had to be toted from the wooden 1964 home down to the road, displaced almost 80 feet by the slide. The helpers had to dodge dead power lines and step gingerly on the wooden planks covering deep cracks in the ground before carting them to a truck that was waiting beyond another hill of loose dirt and a road of buckled asphalt. But things just kept coming from the house -- the dining room table and chairs, cushioned armchairs, black trash bags of clothes.

"You're going to get the sofa?" an incredulous Louis Wright, 86, asked one of the workers after being told that nearly every item could be retrieved.

"Unless you don't want it," the man replied.

"Oh," Wright said, "we want it."

Among the treasures carried from the house were slides from the family's 1968 vacation to Hawaii, photos of the Wrights as children and a plaque commemorating the 50th wedding anniversary of Louis Wright's grandparents. Landscape paintings by Wright's brother were wrapped in sheets and mattress pads. Dressers made it down the slope one drawer at a time. One of Kay Wright's prized orchids was gently passed down in a cardboard box.

The couple had moved into the house just over a decade after it and several neighboring houses were built.

"They were all built the same time," Wright said, then added, smiling good-naturedly, "and they're all coming down around the same time."

As the Wrights collected their belongings, animal control officers checked for remaining lost pets -- all cats --and inspectors from FEMA and the state Office of Emergency Services took tours of the houses.

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