LAGUNA BEACH, Calif., June 2 - A day after a landslide destroyed or damaged almost 50 houses here and forced 1,000 residents to flee, hundreds began to return Thursday evening to homes that remained intact.
Earlier, dozens of residents crowded into the City Council chambers and demanded to know when life might return to normal.
The city manager, Ken Frank, tried to be reassuring, but the facts spoke for themselves.
"Some of you, you've got your houses down the hill," he told the packed room. "You're not going to get in now. You're not going to get in for months."
The owners of 22 houses considered in most cases to be beyond saving were ushered into a separate conference room to be told the bad news.
One of those was Tim Saunders, whose home of eight years on Flamingo Road was heavily damaged. He was wearing the same clothes he wore on Wednesday, and he was trying to figure out his next move. The first order of business for him and his girlfriend, Sherry Way, was to find temporary housing, and then, a new place to live.
"We'd like to stay," he said, "but after this, our days in Laguna may be numbered. The speculation is, we're high and dry. I've got a big mortgage and no house."
Each of the 22 houses worst damaged - some fell 100 feet or more - now bears a red tag, declaring it off limits for the time being. An additional 26 houses have been yellow-tagged, which indicates that they are safe enough to enter for a limited time during the day.
Each house's future will be determined on a case-by-case basis, the city manager said. Even a red tag could be flexible.
"It doesn't mean your house is destroyed or can't be saved," Mr. Frank said. At some point in the next few days, he said, owners of some of those houses might be able to enter the structures, under supervision, to collect a few essential belongings.
There was good news, though, for some people on Thursday. Of the 329 houses affected by the evacuation order, the city manager said, 264 could be reoccupied starting Thursday evening. The announcement put in motion a reverse migration into Bluebird Canyon, where the slide occurred early Wednesday.
To avoid bottlenecks on the narrow canyon roads, city officials urged returning homeowners to wait a day or so. At the City Hall meeting, an official said service might not be restored to most houses in the area until the weekend.
Residents were told to boil water before using it. They were also told that mail deliveries would resume almost immediately and that school buses would be back service in the area on Monday.
Before the City Hall meeting, Peggy Wolff, 40, said she was eager to return to the undamaged Bluebird Canyon home that she shared with her husband and two young children. While relieved that her home was safe, she said she was also saddened.
"Everywhere I go around town," she said, "I see the people who lost their homes, and my heart really wrenches for them."
Christine Fugate, 41, a documentary filmmaker, said that although the slide damaged three houses down the street from the house her family purchased on Meadowlark Lane last year, there was no way she, her husband, Jeff Jacobs, 39, and their two young children were leaving.
"I'm willing to go back without utilities, as long as it's safe," she said, "I love living there. I just want to be in our house. After living in L.A. for 14 years, this is my dream home. I used to love disaster movies when I was in high school. I must have seen 'Earthquake' eight times. But I don't think I'll be able to watch them anymore without breaking out in a sweat and feeling ill."
Ms. Fugate said her children, Caterina, 4, and Sara Jean, 3, "were really suffering."
"They don't understand," she said. "They saw the houses fall, and Caterina keeps saying, 'Our house is broke.' "
She added that the family would stay in their new home no matter what. "My family back in Kentucky thinks we're all nuts living here," she said. "My husband was like, 'That's it, we're moving to Kansas,' and I said, 'Yeah, then the locusts will come and a tornado will hit.' "
For some, the latest disaster is a haunting reminder of disasters past.
"It's déjà vu all over again," said Bing Boka, a retired captain in the Laguna Beach Fire Department, who worked a landslide here in 1978 that destroyed or damaged at least 50 houses. He also helped fight several major wildfires here.
"Slides are not that rare in this town," said Mr. Boka, a native son who retired in 1997 after 26 years on the job. "Laguna is not unlike Santa Barbara, or San Clemente, or Los Angeles, but you don't see the amount of disasters there that you do here. Maybe it's just a dark cloud over the place."
Pausing on Oriole Drive after returning to his home last night, Walter Viszolay, 56, motioned to the view of the ocean, including Catalina Island. "This is the view everybody lives here for," he said. "You've got Catalina in the background over there, and the beautiful sun setting over there."
Mr. Viszolay said the return to his four-bedroom home on Meadowlark Lane with his son, Eli, 13, daughter, Marissa, 17, and his wife, Kelly, 46, was bittersweet. "I'm glad I have my home," he said, "but I'm really sorry for the people who lost theirs. It's a lot of my neighbors and a lot of my friends."