LAGUNA BEACH, Calif., June 1 - A large landslide destroyed at least 15 expensive hillside homes in this oceanside community early today, sending them sliding slowly to their demise and prompting the authorities to evacuate residents from about 350 nearby homes.
The police, who said as many as 18 houses may have been ruined, said they knew of no serious injuries so far, although at least four people sustained minor injuries. Officials said they would not begin determining until later tonight how many families could go back into their homes or when.
Residents in the area, about 50 miles southeast of Los Angeles, said they felt the ground moving about dawn, and shortly after felt their homes shifting.
Sherry Way, who lives in one of the homes that was considered destroyed, said she was getting ready for work when she heard a cracking sound, and then saw glass in her skylight shattering.
"It sounded like it was hailing," Ms. Way said. "I ran out of the house. The streets were already blocked because they were cracked. Then the adventure started."
Ms. Way, 56, who has lived in the canyon home for eight years, said she and her boyfriend and a neighbor they did not know climbed onto another neighbor's sport utility vehicle and tried to get away from what they knew by then was a landslide.
"My neighbor said, 'Oh my God, this is like Jurassic Park.' We didn't know where to go," Ms. Way said. "The side of the street was coming down. Water was shooting up. The ground was splitting. You watch your car go into the concrete. It sank into the earth."
Ms. Way said she lost her Mercedes, and her house was hanging off the edge of a cliff.
Another resident, Carrie Joyce, a fire department office manager who lives in the neighborhood, told The Associated Press, "The pipes started making funny noises and the toilet sounded like it was about to explode." "I could see one house - huge, we call it the mausoleum, 5,000 square feet or more," Ms. Joyce said. "It had buckled, the retaining wall in the front of it was cracked. It just looked like the whole house was going."
The landslide may have been prompted by unusually heavy rainfalls this winter, possibly weakening hills in the Bluebird Canyon area of Laguna Beach that had experienced an earlier landslide, in 1978, when 24 families lost homes. All but six of those homes were rebuilt there.
Lately, however, there has been no rainfall in the area.
Hours after the first report, the Laguna Beach police chief, James Sprein, said there was still a danger that the hillside was continuing to move and could collapse onto Bluebird Canyon road, a narrow but important route for residents and emergency workers that runs into the higher hills of the town.
According to The A.P., safety inspectors were preparing to screen the area, telling residents to make extended plans for temporary accommodation.
"You can see it still creeping onto Bluebird Canyon Road," Chief Sprein said this morning. The police were also worried that further water main breaks could hamper any firefighting efforts.
Another homeowner, Dale Ghere, told CBS News that he and his wife noticed that there was no water pressure or electricity this morning.
Mr. Ghere, a resident of the area since 1969 who lived through the landslide of October 1978, said he became concerned at once.
"I walked out in the street, walked out on the corner and saw a house sliding, so I immediately started banging on all the doors and getting people to evacuate out of the area with their cars - so their cars wouldn't get trapped up there," Mr. Ghere said.
The slide moved slowly, he added, and took an hour to move 50 feet.
"That gives you a lot of damage," Mr. Ghere said, "but unless someone is bedridden, I would imagine everybody got out. When I said pack your homes and get out, they said yes."
Mr. Ghere told the television station that his home, which was in an area that was restored after the 1978 slide, has so far been spared any damage from today's landslide.
On the beach below Bluebird Canyon, the ocean was already murky with the runoff from a broken water main.
Janice Heller, another resident of Bluebird Canyon, told the local NBC television station that she saw people running downhill so fast that they lost their shoes.
"We thought we were safe," she said. "We thought we lived in a safe area."
Laguna Beach, an upscale community of multimillion-dollar homes, features some of California's most coveted real estate. The area affected today is about 15 blocks from the ocean.
In January, a landslide devastated the coastal community of La Conchita, in Ventura County, northwest of Los Angeles, killing 10 people.