Landslide crumbles California streets, homes

Haley Stevens was getting ready for school when the 14-year-old’s morning routine was shattered by the sounds of trees and wood-frame houses being torn from their foundation.

The next thing she knew, her family was rushing out the door as a massive landslide bore down on the neighbourhood of hillside homes perched along one of the most picturesque sections of southern California’s coastline.

When they made it outside their Bluebird Canyon home, the ground was collapsing beneath them.

“We started to feel the street move and we just started sprinting,” she said.

Wednesday’s landslide destroyed 17 multimillion-dollar houses as it sent structures crashing down a hill. Residents alarmed by the sound of walls and pipes coming apart ran for their lives—many still in their pajamas.

Five people suffered minor injuries, officials said.
Eleven homes were damaged, and about 1 000 people in 350 other homes were evacuated as a precaution.

Miraculously, no one was killed.

“We were very scared, my brother and I. We were freaking out,” said Stevens, who suffered a minor injury from stepping on a cactus in her bare feet.

Throughout the day, Laguna Hills High School doubled as a Red Cross evacuation centre where residents filtered in and out of the school gym, hoping to learn when they might be allowed back into their homes to retrieve belongings and pets.

“It’s just been overwhelming,” said Vera Martinez, a 65-year-old retiree.

The cause of the disaster is under investigation. But Ed Harp of the United States Geological Survey said it is almost certainly related to the winter storms that drenched southern California. A geologist contracted by the city agreed the cause is most likely rainfall, but said more tests are needed.

Earlier this year, scientists warned that destructive landslides would be possible and they point to Laguna Beach as a wake-up call for other coastal communities to be on the lookout for any slight earth movement.

Laguna Beach has been dry since a trace of rainfall nearly a month ago, but before that, southern California had its second-rainiest season on record. The region has had nearly 71cm of rain since last July, more than double the annual average.

The daybreak landslide caught dozens of residents by surprise on Wednesday in this Orange County community about 80km south-east of Los Angeles.

“You could hear the homes breaking. You could hear the cracking wood,” said Jill Lockhart, who awakened to the noise of shattering glass and walls.

“It was like a nightmare,” said Lockhart (35). “We had to run for our lives.”

She fled with her two-year-old son, Tyson, over her shoulder and his four-year-old brother, Trey, stumbling along in his pajamas.

The family climbed into a neighbour’s car, but their path was blocked by a utility pole, forcing them to flee on foot. They had to abandon the road when it began to collapse, finally scrambling down a hillside to safety. Lockhart’s two-storey home was destroyed.

At the top of the hill, the foundations of several homes were left exposed, their corners jutting out with nothing underneath to support them. One road ended abruptly, with the edge of the pavement hanging over a tangle of debris scattered downhill.

City manager Ken Frank expected about a third of the evacuees—those farthest from the slide—to be back in their homes in the next day or two. Others will be allowed to retrieve belongings under supervision on Thursday.

Last January, a landslide crashed down into the coastal community of La Conchita, in Ventura County north-west of Los Angeles, killing 10 people.

Laguna Beach, offering vistas of the Pacific from coastal bluffs, has been hit before by flooding, mudslides and wildfire. In 1998, a rainstorm triggered slides that damaged 300 homes, 18 of them severely, and killed two people.

A fire in 1993 swept down into the city and destroyed about 400 homes. Most were rebuilt within six years. In October 1978, a slide in the same canyon destroyed 14 homes.

The area has some of southern California’s most desirable real estate. The damaged homes generally sell for $2-million or more, residents said. The community has been featured on the MTV show Laguna Beach: The Real Orange County.—Sapa-AP

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