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Houses slid down, not hope

Some residents of Flamingo Road in O.C.'s Bluebird Canyon are ready to start rebuilding their homes. Others don't see the sense of living in slide-prone area.

January 05, 2008|Christopher Goffard | Times Staff Writer

The mammoth excavators are gone, the road is repaved, and the waterlogged hill that collapsed spectacularly in June 2005 -- taking a dozen expensive homes with it -- has been remade into what Laguna Beach officials call a strong, stable slope capable of bearing new homes.

As Southern California faces a round of punishing storms with their potential for devastating landslides, residents of picturesque Bluebird Canyon are still learning how hard it is to truly dig out.

For 2 1/2 years, many who lost their homes have shuttled their families from place to place, often sleeping on borrowed beds while they waited for the hill to rise again. They waited while workers built gas lines and sewer mains, added retaining walls, installed steel anchors into the bedrock and excavated and repacked a million cubic yards of fill dirt.

So the mood was celebratory when, on Dec. 15, city leaders marked the completion of the $35-million restoration -- the largest public-works project in the city's history -- with a ribbon-cutting, effectively returning the lots to their exiled owners.

Though the owners are now free to return, the question, for many, is whether it makes sense to try.

Nobody had landslide insurance, and the disaster left people paying mortgages on vanished homes while struggling to find temporary shelter. Now they face the cost of rebuilding.

The June 1, 2005, landslide destroyed 12 homes and damaged eight in a pandemonium of exploding fire hydrants, ripping power lines, splintering floors and fleeing people. Remarkably, no one died or was seriously injured.

Tim Saunders, the retired owner of a pest-control company, had lived on Flamingo Road about nine years when the landslide claimed his two-story house. It slid down the hill, he said, "like a ship leaving a dock."

He's staying in a second home in Laguna Hills and plans to rebuild the first using his retirement fund, but it was not an easy choice.

"I think I made the decision a thousand times. It depends on the time of the day, and the day of the week, as to whether it's a go or no-go," said Saunders, 66. "The big question is whether I have enough to build a house and live on. It depends on how long I live. If I live a long time, it will get close."

He said he spent a lot of time redesigning his house only to discover, when the city remade the hill, that the grading on his property was different than he expected. "It's like an emotional roller coaster," Saunders said. "I encounter an obstacle, work my way through it, feel elated, then encounter the next obstacle."

For Robert Power, a tax accountant who lost his home on Bluebird Canyon Drive, rebuilding wasn't worth it.

"It would be another year before I'd have a home," said Power, 74. "It didn't make any sense to me. I didn't want to live in an apartment for that length of time."

Instead, Power and his wife, Joan, 73, bought a house in Fallbrook with what he calls "an acre and a half of avocado trees and a big, wide view."

He and his wife had lived in Bluebird Canyon for 35 years; they bought their two-story home there for just $29,000 in 1970. They had paid off the mortgage, but "we lost about a million and a half dollars in equity" -- plus an art collection that took years to amass -- in the landslide. He thinks the disaster took a toll on his immune system and contributed to his hospitalization months later, when throat cancer forced surgeons to remove his larynx.

"I think maybe that had something to do with the stress of not having a place to stay after so many years," Power said.

Michael Tiffany, 52, a director of product management for an aerospace supplier, has not made up his mind whether to rebuild the house he lost on Bluebird Canyon Drive. Tiffany is renting a house on the same hill and is waiting to see what kind of price Power can get for his lot.

"For 2 1/2 years, I've been paying rent on top of a mortgage that didn't go away," Tiffany said, adding that he wouldn't consider any of the displaced families wealthy, despite the million-dollar-plus appraisals of the wrecked homes. "They were either working families or retired. It's paper value for sure."

Canyon residents are sensitive about this point. Given their ZIP Code, they know some question whether they can be suffering all that much.

"Especially with that MTV show, everybody's got this view of Laguna like everybody's rich here," said Laurel Meister, referring to that network's reality show "Laguna Beach: The Real Orange County." Meister, an artist whose family spent nearly a year in a donated trailer after the landslide damaged her Bluebird Canyon Drive home, said, "We're just normal people with a lot of debt, trying to be in a place where our family is safe and well-educated."

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