Searchers pulled the body of a 43-year-old man from several tons of mud and debris Wednesday, as local officials issued a preliminary count of 14 homes and several businesses damaged or destroyed by the devastating mudslides that began late Monday night.
Nicholas Allen Flores was the second person confirmed dead in the slides. Searchers earlier found the body of his neighbor, Glenn Alan Flook, 25, buried in mud outside a house in which he had taken refuge.
Estimates of the scope of property damage are expected to rise after state and federal disaster officials survey the area this morning, said Laguna Beach Fire Chief William Edmundson.
Of the 14 houses known damaged, five were red-tagged, meaning no one is allowed in, and six were yellow-tagged, which means they may be entered for repairs or relocation, but not lived in. The status of the other three houses was not clear, Edmundson said.
“Outside of that, we’re still digging out,” Edmundson said, adding that several businesses and houses that obviously had been damaged by the slides had not been counted, simply because officials have yet to reach them.
Meanwhile, crews hired by Caltrans struggled to remove hundreds of tons of mud and debris from Laguna Canyon, using two front loaders and 13 dump trucks. Caltrans officials estimated the cleanup had cost $115,000 so far, and probably would rise.
Contractors were dumping the mud wherever they could find spots, including on the median of Laguna Canyon Road just south of the San Diego Freeway.
Laguna Canyon Road remained closed. Edmundson said it might be opened to limited local traffic by late today, but that it would be several days before normal traffic can resume.
The only other access to the city is via Coast Highway, which also has been closed periodically during this winter of rains.
“We have a business district to support,” Edmundson said. “We wanted the body recovered, and now we’re concentrating on getting the roads open,” Edmundson said. “One reason is that it gives everybody the psychological comfort that they know things will be cleaned up and returned to order.”
The recovery of Flores’ body came as a relief but not a surprise to his neighbors. Even before it was found, they presumed he was dead. Flores had moved into the cluster of homes along Laguna Canyon’s Victory Walk six months ago, when he began taking care of Ricardo Duran, 93. But Flores quickly become a fixture, whizzing around on his bicycle as he steered with one hand and waved greetings with the other, chatting with neighbors over the fence, watching a pot-bellied pig that roams the yards looking for handouts.
Flores hadn’t been seen since Monday night’s storm, when a mudslide slammed into the 900-square-foot white cottage he shared with Duran. His one-speed beach cruiser was still in the yard, his set of keys still hanging on a tree outside the house, where neighbors said he always left them.
“We knew he was gone because if he would’ve made it out, he’d be fussing over all of us,” said Maureen Cunningham, a neighbor, as she watched rescue crews dig through a mound of dirt behind what used to be her friend’s cottage. “That’s just how he was, always looking out for others, always helping out everybody else.”
The mudslide crushed all but one section of the house, which was pushed several hundred feet by the flow.
“The force was incredible, but it was like it was focused right on this house,” said Fire Department spokesman Patrick Brennan. “It barely brushed the homes on either side . . . but it sure barreled down on this one.”
Flores’ body was found in a fetal position on a green sofa from the family room, which neighbors said he used as a bedroom. Police dogs looking for the body had reacted to an area behind the house about 5 p.m. Tuesday, allowing firefighters to zero in on a rescue site, Brennan said. The unstable hillside forced searchers to move slowly, shoring up the ground as they went.
Duran escaped unharmed and was taken to a relative’s home in West Covina, officials said.
When neighbors learned the body had been found, they hugged each other, then stared quietly as it was covered and carried away by coroner’s officials.
One neighbor, a woman in a wheelchair who gave her name only as Daisy, covered her mouth and sobbed as she recalled how Flores pushed her up the walkway to her house Monday evening before the storm.
“Just the thought of him being in there . . . it kills me,” she said. “I just thank God he didn’t know what hit him.”
Neighbors said the care Flores gave to Duran probably saved the older man’s life. The two met shortly after Duran’s wife died last year, and the attention he received from Flores “gave him a reason to keep going, to keep on,” said Regumba Connolly.
“He put [Duran] back on a schedule and made sure he got outside and moved around every day,” Connolly said. “He was a ray of sunshine.”