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An Avalanche of Mud, Panic and a Race for Life as HomesTumble

Published:June 2, 2005

LAGUNA BEACH, Calif., June 1 - A wide swath of hillside, packedwith expensive houses and weakened by winter rains, collapsed hereearly on Wednesday, sending homes, garages and cars plummeting downthe slope and their inhabitants screaming into the streets.

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Monica Almeida/The New York Times

Crumbled homes in a neighborhood in Laguna Beach,Calif.


Some people fled down the cactus-covered slope in bare feet,trying to outrun the falling hill.

Miraculously, no one was seriously hurt. Four people - two of themchildren - were sent to hospitals, while about 1,000 were evacuatedfrom 350 homes in bucolic Bluebird Canyon, southeast of downtownLaguna Beach. Seventeen houses, some worth $1 million or more, werelost; another 11 were damaged, some seriously; and 20 others wereconsidered threatened.

Residents said they awoke to the sound of cracking and popping,most likely the rumble of foundations shifting.

"I heard this crackle, and thought it was birds on the roof," saidDonna Kilgore, a 19-year resident of the canyon. "The cats werescared - they were clawing and scratching. The neighbors came out andsaid, 'Our house is moving.' That's when panic set in. I got my jeansand grabbed some jewelry."

Within seconds, she said, her three-bedroom house had shifted sothat she could no longer open the kitchen door. She tried the frontdoor; that too was stuck. The windows started breaking.

"That's when I got really scared," said Ms. Kilgore, a retiredproperty manager. She managed to get out of the house through asliding glass door. Accompanied by neighbors, she scrambled down a53-step staircase on the hill, she said, and then through brokenearth.

"These people were just as petrified as I was," said Ms. Kilgore,who lost her shoes and ripped her pants during the descent. Her eyesteared as she thought of her two cats, Nefertiti and Tigertail, whoremained unaccounted for on Wednesday afternoon. As she spoke, shepointed to her house way up on the hill, its roofline dipped at aweird angle. Nearby, some houses had slid as much as 100 feet.

"It's Mother Nature, and she doesn't care," Ms. Kilgore said."It's a risk you take when you live on a hillside."

A statement from the United States Geological Survey on Wednesdayascribed the landslide here to winter rains - which led to thesecond-wettest season on record in Southern California - "percolatingdownward through the soil."

But some residents of Bluebird Canyon attributed the latestlandslide, at least partly, to a single house, an uninhabited,5,000-square-foot structure known as the Sinatra house, which theysaid was named after a former owner. Residents said that the house,which has been under construction for four or five years, was too bigfor the hill, and that it had been constructed with pilings that didnot penetrate the slope's bedrock. When the house shifted, they said,the rest of the hill came down with it.

Kirk A. Nelson, a builder and architectural designer whose1948-vintage house overlooks the canyon but was unaffected by theslide, said he had studied the wreckage of the Sinatra house'sretaining walls early Wednesday and concluded that the caissons hadnot been driven into the bedrock.

"It's a combination of things," Mr. Nelson said, referring to thepossible cause of the slide. "It's the volume of water and the factthat that house has not been stable since the beginning."

Another resident, Julie Swain, whose house was also saved, saidshe looked across Bluebird Canyon Creek at the bottom of her gardenas she heard the hill rumbling and saw debris falling from beneaththe driveway of the Sinatra house.

"There were big chunks of earth, rocks and trees coming at us,"said Ms. Swain, a lawyer for the Orange County government. "It wasjust surreal, the earth coming down. It just didn't seem like itwould happen."

Several of Ms. Swain's neighbors were not so lucky. Just a fewhouses away on Bluebird Canyon Drive, two homes were virtuallydestroyed, and two others showed extensive damage. At one, the frontdoor remained ajar, a testament to the speed of the inhabitants'departure; a half-eaten cracker lay on a bench outside; on the groundby the door, a child's toppled drinking glass, a flashlight, adiscarded toy.

The landslide here was an echo of familiar events on the fragilecoast of California. On Jan. 10, in La Conchita, just east of SantaBarbara, 10 people were killed when a landslide enveloped 15 housesthere. Other houses were damaged by winter landslides in Malibu,Glendale and Los Angeles.

Laguna Beach, a picturesque oceanfront town where real estateprices have skyrocketed in recent years, has been hit by a series ofdisasters. In October 1978, a slide in Bluebird Canyon wrecked asmany as 50 homes. Most were rebuilt.

In 1998, another landslide here killed two people and damaged 300houses, only five years after a wildfire destroyed about 400 homes.In February, the authorities declared several houses uninhabitableafter the earth beneath them became saturated with rain.

At a Red Cross evacuation center at Laguna Beach High School, oneof the first arrivals was a neighbor of Ms. Swain, John Gustafson,54, an ultrasound technician. He lived in a 1950's-era, two-bedroomhouse along the base of Bluebird Canyon. The slide, he said, camewithout warning and pushed through the back of the house, destroyinga backyard garden that had taken 21 years to create.

"I heard a crack on the back deck," said Mr. Gustafson, "andthought, What was going on? Then I saw the land come down like awave."

Mr. Gustafson said that in 1993, he had taken out a sizablemortgage to remodel the home. Now, though, his insurance was unlikelyto cover its destruction, he said.

With scratched, mud-covered legs, Jill Lockhart, 35, stood onFlamingo Road, just below the ruined four-bedroom house she and herhusband, Bobby, bought eight years ago for $380,000 and until todaywas probably worth $2 million.

Ms. Lockhart said she was just beginning her day at 6:45 a.m. whenshe heard popping and cracking all over her home. "I'll never forgetthat sound," she said. "All the glass breaking. It's just like youimagine your home would be getting hit by a wrecking ball. And then Ithought, my house is sliding. I grabbed my 2-year-old and ranupstairs and grabbed my 4-year-old. We ran out into the street, andit was chaos. The street was just buckling.

"I grabbed my kids and said, 'We've got to run down the front ofthe mountain.' "

Her husband, Bobby Lockhart, said his immediate concerns were thefamily cat, photos and a collection of 400 vintage surfboards that hesaid was worth about a half-million dollars. One, he said, dated tothe 1930's. "I have surfboards up there," he said, "that are one of akind. Everything we have is in that house. All I have right now is mywallet."

"I'll definitely rebuild in Laguna," he added. "But I don't thinkwe'll ever live on a hill again."