As her neighbors pick up the pieces of their lives and move back into their houses, Mary Barnes can only experience it vicariously because her life and home are still in a shambles.
Barnes is among a handful of residents whose houses were so damaged by the Anaheim Hills landslide that they cannot move back in although the city has lifted its evacuation order.
"People think that this nightmare is over for us, but it's not," said the 38-year-old mother of two. "In fact, in some ways it's getting worse."
For her, the family's plight has evolved from a natural disaster into a bureaucratic one.
The Barneses' house has been declared "uninhabitable," but the city has not officially condemned it. Barnes needs condemnation to get financial assistance from the U.S. government. Although she submitted her application for federal help months ago, a loan officer was assigned to her case only last week.
Meanwhile, her husband started a new job in Minnesota and she has been left here alone to care for her young children and a dog while trying to resolve what she describes as "this messy situation."
Barnes, a flight attendant who has taken leave from work because of the landslide, has gone through nearly every level of government to get answers to her predicament. She has talked to city officials and congressional representatives from the governor's office. Still, nothing encouraging has happened.
"This whole ordeal has been extremely frustrating. You feel helpless," she said.
Before the ground started to slip down the hill of this upscale community, there was a "For Sale" sign in front of the Barneses' spacious two-story home at 6931 Avenida de Santiago.
On Jan. 18, any hopes that the Barneses entertained of selling their house faded when it started cracking along with 45 other dwellings, which had to be evacuated under a city order.
Heavy rains that month aggravated the movement of an ancient landslide from Avenida de Santiago to Serrano Avenue, an area of about 25 acres that started to slide on its own last spring.
Today, the Barneses' "For Sale" sign is on the back patio, next to a three-inch fissure that runs through the entire house.
"Nobody is going to buy this home," Barnes said. "Nobody."
A contractor told her it would cost about $300,000 to repair just the foundation. And, even if repairs are made, it is very possible that her home could be damaged in the future because it sits on the border of a piece of earth that is pulling away from the hillside.
"It's not worth it," she complained.
Barnes and her husband have about $450,000 equity in the home, which was once worth about $800,000. All that money, she said, is lost. They have hired an attorney who is negotiating with their mortgage company to accept the deed, in lieu of foreclosure.
"We'll lose all the money invested in the house, but at least we won't have our credit ruined," Barnes said.
That's important for the couple because they want to buy a new house in Minnesota. In fact, they had to pull out of escrow on one house in Minnesota because of the slide.
"We didn't know what was going to happen," Barnes said. "It's a good thing we did too, because we are now looking for a less expensive place."
Without the equity in the Anaheim Hills home for a down payment on a new house, the Barneses are counting on a $100,000 low-interest loan from the Small Business Administration. That assistance has been slow in coming not only for the Barneses, but for other residents who want the financing to help buy new houses.
Gerald M. Steiner, another resident whose home was damaged by the slide, said he continually gets conflicting information about the status of his loan from government officials.
"You never get the same story twice," said Steiner, whose offer on a new house in Mission Viejo has been accepted. "I keep having to extend the escrow because the loan is not coming through on time."
Rick Jenkins, an SBA spokesman, said that loans might have been delayed initially because of the uncertainty of the landslide. But, he said, "those delays seem to be behind us and we are processing the loans as quickly as possible."
Some loans, however, are being held up because of the city's condemnation process. Many landslide victims who want a $100,000 loan--the maximum amount--need to get official condemnation from the city to get the SBA financing.
So far, the city has not condemned any homes. City officials say the condemnation process takes time, but they are working on it. Bret Colson, a city spokesman, said the process could take weeks or months.
While Barnes waits for financial assistance, many of her neighbors are being allowed to move back home. Yet many of them are upset as well, complaining that the city's reoccupation plan requires homeowners to do too much work.
As a condition of reoccupation, residents must have their sewer lines checked by certified plumbers, and they are encouraged to have structural engineers examine the integrity of their houses.
So far, the owners of 14 of the 46 evacuated homes have been granted permission to move back in.
Barnes, however, will never return. With or without federal assistance, she is packing up her things and two children this week and moving to Minnesota to rejoin her husband.
"I just want to get out of here and be a family again," she said. "I want to leave this behind. Hopefully in time it will all work out."