Wary Residents Helplessly Await More Mudslides


Sad-eyed Don Chiapuzio watched 600,000 tons of rain-soaked mud nuzzle up behind his house Sunday and shove it inch by inch toward destruction.

It was about all he could do.

Chiapuzio and his wife were already safely outside this seaside village in Ventura County when the cliff dissolved Saturday, crushing seven houses and two mobile homes.

After learning that his insurance was worthless, the 63-year-old electrical contractor returned Sunday--like many of his neighbors--to see what he could salvage. But as a county building inspector hurriedly tacked a red condemnation tag over a yellow warning tag on his home, a resigned Chiapuzio said: “It looks like it’s gonna go.”


With a driving rain saturating the already unstable hillside, county geologists warned that at least 10 more houses were in imminent danger of being destroyed by another landslide. Gravel and mud continued to roll down the ruddy, brown fan of the landslide, which crept downhill a few inches at a time, pressing up against more homes.

“Right now, the soil up there is like maple syrup,” one geologist told emergency officials.

Late Sunday afternoon, about 50 La Conchita residents huddled elbow-to-elbow in a tent for a briefing by emergency officials.

Sheriff’s Cmdr. Richard Purnell warned anyone living inside a 60-house evacuation zone, “You must gather up your personal belongings and leave tonight. We cannot guarantee that we can provide you with adequate warning if the earth starts moving.”

Purnell said anyone who stays is “in our opinion, trying to commit suicide.”

Sheriff Larry Carpenter said emergency workers would try to sound sirens in case of a sudden collapse, but he told residents not to wait for a signal: “Don’t depend on us. If you hear the earth moving or a roar, get out. Run.”

Throughout the day, sheriff’s helicopters ferried county geologists up for a close look at the pond of rainwater swelling atop the slide that threatened to unleash another destructive wall of mud.


Orange-helmeted search-and-rescue teams escorted residents one by one to their homes, letting them grab vital possessions in five-minute spurts before hustling them back to safety. So far, more than 100 people have been evacuated.

A sheriff’s snowmobile stood by, ready to zip to the rescue in case the hillside collapsed again. Traffic crept past on U.S. 101, the looky-loos backed up for miles in either direction.

At a sheriff’s command post, Chiapuzio stood numbly by as he pondered what to do next. “I never thought anything was going to happen to it,” he said of the home he built 16 years ago. “I’ll never live there again. I’d be afraid. It’s too frightening.”

Ventura County officials warned in October that cracks had developed in the hillside overlooking La Conchita, 75 miles northwest of Los Angeles. That was a clear indication, the officials said, that earth was in danger of tumbling onto the houses below.

County sheriff’s and fire officials immediately began drafting a plan to respond to any emergency. They mapped the entire enclave of 190 houses, logged the name, age and physical description of every resident, and even built a scale model of the hillside and a slow-moving slide that started months ago.

Senior Sheriff’s Deputy Darryl Dunn said the cooperation residents gave him “was instrumental in saving lives” when the hill finally collapsed Saturday. Although many residents scurried out the front of their homes just as mud entered the back, no one was injured.


“I started getting calls at three or four minutes to 2 (Saturday),” Dunn said. “We had two units up there and immediately started putting out a warning on the P.A. system. . . . People were asking, ‘Darryl, is this the big one?’ ” he recalled. “And I said, ‘Just turn around and look.’ And that’s when it started to go.”

By Sunday afternoon, county geologist Robert Anderson said he was looking hard at three definite threats:

* Pooled rainwater was filtering down into the original slide, lubricating it enough for him to worry the mud could roll onward toward other homes.

* The rippled hillside to the left of the original slide was in imminent danger of collapsing in Sunday’s hard rain onto at least 10 more houses below.

* Torrents of mud were beginning to break up a house on eastern Vista del Rincon Drive that had been spared by the original slide.

“It’s nature in action, there’s no question about that,” said Anderson, a Camarillo geologist hired by the county to monitor the slide. “What we’re really worrying about is the part of the mountain to the left of the slide. There’s a real high possibility that that’s going to go.”


In the shadow of the looming mound of mud, resident Vivian Cordova and a search-and-rescue team rushed into her house to retrieve some belongings. There was a mountain of earth where her back yard used to be.

Cursing breathlessly, the 36-year-old garden-designer flung everything she could into trash bags--clothes, checkbook, compact discs, irreplaceable sketches and cooking utensils she would need to feed her two children.

“I sure wish I could take my stereo,” Cordova said, hovering anxiously with her hand to her lips, before she dove back into the bedroom to grab her jewelry and more clothes.

Down the hill, Elizabeth Martin-Novy looked up at the wall of wet earth that had buried homes across the street and shoved right up to the door of her trailer.

“The mountain looks like it’s always been there,” she marveled. “But it hasn’t.”

Times correspondent J. E. Mitchell contributed to this story.

* ASSIGNING BLAME: County, residents disagree over responsibility for damage. A3