Staying Put

TIMES STAFF WRITER

Dick Harley mentally checks off the critical details of Thursday morning's landslide in Laguna Niguel. South-facing slope. Rain-soaked ground. A hillside slowly succumbing to gravity with a crescendoing rumble.

Familiar description. In fact, it sounds like a morning nearly 20 years ago, when Harley's house was one of 24 destroyed by a massive slide in the Bluebird Canyon area of Laguna Beach.

The Harleys found themselves suddenly homeless, owners of land too unsafe even to walk on. Yet they rebuilt on that same patch of ground, designing for themselves a bigger house with a better view.

Whenever disasters descend on California--high surf on the coast, landslides inland, wildfires in the canyons--people who live in less-threatened environs ask themselves the same questions: Why do people live there in the first place? And why do they decide to stay?

The question of whether to flee or rebuild forces the victims to balance gut fear against the comfort of the familiar, the pain of recent loss against a sense of connection to place. Yet the deciding factors often have more to do with the prosaic--money and logistics--than deep-seated emotion.

"We didn't have enough money to do anything else," said Barbara Harley, a teacher, who was single and had just begun dating Dick Harley when she bought the house in 1972 for $40,000. She still owed $32,000 when the 1,400-square-foot structure surfed down the hillside.

It would have been hard to sell the lot right after a landslide, so the Harleys decided to swallow the loss, take advantage of low-interest disaster loans and start over.

Money also was a crucial issue for the Rubin family of Malibu; in their case, there wasn't enough of it to rebuild.

Susan Goldman Rubin and her husband, Michael, were among 270 families who lost homes in the 1993 Malibu wildfires. For 18 months they planned to rebuild on the footprint of the original home.

In the end, changes necessary to level the lot made it too expensive and too time-consuming for the Rubins to rebuild, Susan Rubin said.

"It was very painful to give up the design," she said. "But our son is a junior in high school, and we wanted him to have a home before he graduated."

So the family worked out a deal to rid themselves of the lot and bought a house elsewhere in Malibu similar to the one destroyed. The original lot remains vacant.

"I'm glad we did," said Rubin, a children's author. "Recently there was a huge slide exactly where we lived. We shudder to think how our friends and neighbors have suffered through it, and how we would have suffered."

Still, Rubin said, she remains oddly connected to the home that burned down.

"I loved our place," she said. "Whenever we go on a trip or go away, and we think of home--you know, let me buy this for our house--the home I always picture is our old home. I almost want to buy the land back just for ourselves."

Jane Waas never thought twice about rebuilding her home after fires destroyed 123 houses in the canyons of Altadena in 1993. She moved there in 1974 because of the rural flavor and the sense of the community. The fires incinerated sections of the canyons, but they couldn't char the spirit.

"I love the neighborhood," said Waas, whose family owns Beadle's Cafeteria in Pasadena. "I knew I'd rebuild. It's very rural, very quiet and 10 minutes from downtown Pasadena."

Her house was appraised at about $450,000 before the fire, and her insurance settlement exceeded the appraisal, so she built a better house than the one that burned, she said.

"Nothing erases the trauma, but I'm still very pleased to be there," she said. "I came out on the good side."

Loren Lutz, a retired Alhambra dentist, wasn't so lucky. He and his wife, Marion, are as enraptured by the Altadena canyons as Waas is, but his experience with insurance wasn't as good.

Lutz has been wrangling with the California Fair Plan, an insurance carrier that provides coverage for high-risk property owners. Lutz said the plan paid his mortgage company $381,000 on a house worth more than $800,000, part of a claim that totals about $1 million, including possessions. Compounding the problem: The mortgage firm has since gone out of business, leaving Lutz with no money to rebuild his 5,000-square-foot house.

Meanwhile, Lutz is fighting a similar battle over a fire-ruined lodge on his Wyoming ranch that he said a different insurance company has refused to cover.

So he and his wife live in a 40-foot trailer on their one-acre lot, working 12 hours a day on the lawsuits to try to recapture the retirement that the fire stole.

"We're just going to build on the same footprint," Lutz said before going out on his daily horseback ride through the canyons. "It's been approved by the county. But between [the court battle] and our other vicissitudes, well, with no money, it's pretty hard to rebuild."

Of the 24 families who lost homes in Laguna's devastating Bluebird Canyon slide in 1978, all but about six rebuilt there. Five of the families who rebuilt, including the Harleys, still call the canyon home.

In a sense, the landslide, as catastrophic and unnerving as it was, became an opportunity. The new house, built largely by Dick Harley after the couple hired an architect to finalize their plans, covers 2,400 square feet with mostly canyon views. A wedge of ocean can be seen glistening at the canyon's end.

The rebuilding project forced the couple to immerse themselves in strange waters--architectural review panels, building codes and the rest of the bureaucracy that guides home building. But they have no regrets. Homes in the area now list at $500,000 and higher.

In Bluebird Canyon, Harley and his neighbors live with a surprising sense of peace and confidence that the earth that shifted beneath them once 20 years ago will not do so again.

Unlike the recent slides of surface mud in Laguna Canyon, a couple of miles north, the Bluebird Canyon slide began deep in the earth, more similar to last week's Laguna Niguel slide.

Harley said steady, heavy rains in the winter of 1977-78 slowly percolated down 50 feet, making a subterranean grease slick of what had been a 1 1/2-inch-thick layer of clay. About 3 1/2 acres of earth 50 feet thick slid in one massive chunk, which Harley likened to the top half of a layer cake slipping on the frosting below.

Harley, who has collected studies and geological reports from the time, said geologists discovered that the area had slid once before, between 10,000 and 15,000 years ago, on a similar layer of clay 65 feet below the surface.

To stabilize the hill and the public roads above, the federal government underwrote the cost of digging up the hillside to a depth of 85 feet, 20 feet deeper than the previous slide, mixing up all the dirt and clay, then repacking the hole. Crews took about nine months to finish the job, which involved shifting 300,000 cubic yards of earth--about 30,000 dump-truck loads. The project cost about $1.5 million.

"By the time they got done, you just about needed a jackhammer to plant a tree," Harley said.

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