A test of the local emergency sirens interrupts Kathy and Dennis Godbout's… (Irfan Khan / Los Angeles…)
When your closest neighbors include Southern California's only nuclear power plant and its largest military base, you hardly even blink when the thunder of high explosives echoes over the hills or sirens wail a nuclear alert drill.
Exposure to danger comes with the geography of San Clemente, a prosperous, laid-back Orange County beach town flanked on three sides by steep, brush-covered hillsides, the San Onofre power plant and the Pacific Ocean.
Wildfires often break out during military exercises in the brush-covered hills of Marine Corps Base Camp Pendleton or in coastal canyons that creep down the hillsides toward the ocean. Heavy rains sometimes saturate the hillsides, causing destructive landslides. There are tsunami warning signs posted near the shoreline. And medicine cabinets are stocked with potassium iodide tablets because of the remote, but real, possibility of a nuclear accident.
It's a quiet weekday morning when a piercing electronic tone bellows from a tower-mounted siren near the San Clemente pier, drowning out just about every conversation in town.
Distraught tourists look up from their breakfasts at beachfront cafes. Apartment dwellers emerge onto their balconies, hands cupped over their ears.
It's only a test. In the annual siren drill, emergency planners transmit a series of tones to make sure a network of more than 50 sirens scattered around San Clemente, Camp Pendleton, San Juan Capistrano and Dana Point is in working order.
"Still, it scared me," said Kathy Godbout, who had been enjoying a breakfast of eggs and crepes with her husband, Dennis, when the sirens began to howl. "I'm thinking, 'Is it a tsunami coming this way?' If it wasn't a test I would've gotten up and ran away."
Like many in San Clemente, the retired couple are moderately concerned about the city's vulnerability to wildfires, landslides and the risks posed by the aging nuclear reactors that sit just outside the city limits, protected by two colossal concrete domes visible from the 5 Freeway.
In January, when a nuclear-emergency siren near the beach accidentally went off for 25 minutes in the early morning hours, the Godbouts turned on the television to see if something had gone wrong at the plant. Seeing nothing, they went back to sleep.
Others didn't react as coolly. Dozens of residents called 911. Some got into their cars and fled.
The following month, a siren went off again near the 5 Freeway — another false alarm.
Although local officials quickly determined what happened in both cases — water intrusion from a storm and a faulty signal, respectively — the false alarms refueled concerns in San Clemente about how the community could possibly protect itself if something were to go wrong at the nuclear plant.
"They may have driven past it a million times, they may have surfed right next to it and they just want to know it's safe," said Jen Tucker, the city's emergency planning officer.
The minor panic this year seems out of place in the low-key beach community, known best to outsiders for its gently rolling surf breaks, signature pier and the Rainbow sandals factory.
The densely packed houses along San Clemente's five miles of beaches give way to sprawling gated communities farther inland that look out on the Pacific Ocean.
Former Seattle Mayor Ole Hanson founded the community in the 1920s, calling it San Clemente by the Sea. He envisioned the place as a seaside Spanish village and built matching revival-style homes with red tile roofs in the hills above the ocean.
The city gained national attention when then- President Nixon came to town and bought La Casa Pacifica, dubbed the Western White House. He sold the estate in the 1980s, but its legacy remains.
Today, San Clemente has about 65,000 residents and is for the most part a politically conservative community where professionals and retirees settle into lives of quiet prosperity with ocean views. The biggest employers include grocery stores, the local high school and the seafood restaurant on the pier. It struggles from time to time with how to restrict its growth and maintain the feel of a seaside village.
Yet every once in a while, something happens to remind people that they live on the edge of danger.
There wasn't just one thing that revived concerns about the potential for disaster in San Clemente. It was a coinciding series of events.
Over the last several years, Southern California Edison, which operates the San Onofre nuclear power plant, has undertaken its biggest project at the plant since building the reactors 28 years ago: Spending $670 million to replace four steam generators, the largest pieces of equipment there.
Last year, the city replenished residents' supply of potassium iodide tablets.
And this year, after finding that some power plant workers felt they would face retaliation if they raised safety concerns, the Nuclear Regulatory Commission stepped up inspections of the plant.