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U.S. Denies Aid for Rebuilding of Laguna Hillside

Times Staff Writers

A federal agency has rejected Laguna Beach’s request for emergency financial aid to repair the saturated hillside that collapsed June 1, destroying or severely damaging more than 20 homes.

“We’re stunned,” Laguna Beach Mayor Elizabeth Pearson-Schneider said. “We have been completely caught off-guard by their response.”

The decision by the Federal Emergency Management Agency leaves the city financially pressed. Laguna Beach officials have trimmed city expenses to fund repair work, but had counted on receiving federal money.

In a letter to the state Office of Emergency Services on Tuesday, FEMA said it had declined funding after determining that the landslide “cannot be attributed specifically to rains that occurred in January or February.”

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Greg Renick, a spokesman for the Office of Emergency Services, said state officials were puzzled by the decision.

“It’s inconsistent with what the federal geotechnical experts at the United States Geological Survey had said,” Renick said.

Pearson-Schneider said the city, state and federal geologists all had agreed the rains were to blame for the landslide.

The city plans to appeal, but Pearson-Schneider said it could be months -- or years -- before it received a response.

City officials estimate that it will cost about $15 million to rebuild the hillside. Their priority is to stabilize the hill to prevent any more homes from sliding this winter. The flood channel also needs to be cleared of debris, concrete and mud.

“We need cash now,” the mayor said. “We’ve exhausted what we have on hand.... We are in crisis mode here.”

The city has hired geotechnical consultants and knocked down some damaged homes. City officials also have helped displaced residents find temporary housing.

Besides dipping into reserves, the city has been cutting corners where it can: Capital projects have been postponed, as have the purchases of a firetruck, police cars and a street sweeper, Pearson-Schneider said.

City departments have not filled open jobs. Money that had been earmarked for special projects is being funneled to the landslide effort. And the city is now considering selling assets, including some property used by Girl Scouts.

Bluebird Canyon residents whose homes were wrecked in the slide were frustrated with FEMA’s decision.

Robert Power, whose home was bulldozed after the slide, said the decision “sounds like it came from the usual Washington, D.C., double-digit-IQ idiots.”

Tripp Meister, whose Bluebird Canyon Drive home was partially crushed, said, “If I could cede myself from the nation, I would. It’s like, where are my tax dollars going?”

He said independent geologists and Laguna officials made “a compelling case” that winter storms caused the slide. “Even my insurance company employed a geotechnical firm to see if they could pay me, and they said it was the rain. Apparently, everyone but FEMA thinks it’s the rain.”

FEMA spokeswoman Anjanette Stayton said the agency would “thoroughly review any appeals or additional information we receive.”

The brief FEMA letter does not explain how officials reached their conclusion, nor does it provide an alternative cause for the landslide.

The City Council has cobbled together about $7 million to fund the first phase of winterization and stabilization, but members had been relying on as much as $1.5 million in federal funding, Pearson-Schneider said.


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