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Mudslide Buries Houses, Kills 3 in Ventura County

Times Staff Writers

Saturated by the record-setting deluge that has pounded Southern California for the last two weeks, a hillside gave way Monday and collapsed onto the small coastal community of La Conchita in Ventura County, burying homes under tons of mud and leaving at least three people dead and up to a dozen still trapped.

“It made a roar when it started,” said one resident, Barbara Bell, who watched as the V-shaped section of hillside gave way. “Then it just came down.... It popped out the retaining wall they built to stop it.

“I saw part of it -- it was just a huge mass of dirt coming down. Then we ran over to it because we heard people yelling. They were yelling because their loved ones were still in the houses. They said they could hear people inside, trapped.”

Rescuers raced into the evening trying to free as many as 12 people believed to be buried in the wreckage of homes before more of the hillside could come down. But just before 9 p.m., the search was halted as a heavy downpour threatened a new mudslide.

The collapse destroyed 15 homes and damaged five others, according to Ventura County fire officials. About half a dozen people were reported hurt, at least one critically.

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The slide unleashed a scene of panic and chaos, as residents ran for safety and then returned in a frantic search for loved ones.

Matthew Gregorchuk, 21, a photography student who lives in La Conchita, said he ran to the balcony of his home when he heard yelling and saw “a whole bunch of people running down the hill, screaming. And there was a house chasing them.”

Gregorchuk said he then joined others in searching for those who might be trapped in the wreckage. At one point, he said, he found the body of a friend.

The rescue operation relied in part on highly sensitive microphones on guide sticks and on video devices that could be slipped into crevices.

As bystanders and rescue workers tried to pull away rubble, sheriff’s deputies periodically asked for silence, shutting down generators and chain saws so they could better listen for survivors. In one instance, hopes rose only to be crushed when a voice that seemed to be coming from the rubble turned out to be that of a firefighter working from the other side of the wreckage.

The hill collapse, captured in a breathtaking sequence by a Los Angeles television news crew, was the most devastating event of a day that saw the destructive power of nature on display throughout the region. The storm closed roads and highways, destroyed homes and bridges and forced evacuations across a broad swath of Southern California.

Since Friday, at least four deaths have been attributed to the weather, in addition to those killed in La Conchita. They include a 2-year-old girl who died late Monday when she fell from her mother’s arms as firefighters attempted to rescue a family from atop a car trapped in a flooded wash near Palmdale.

Dan Keeton, a National Weather Service meteorologist, said Monday afternoon that 16.47 inches of rain had fallen on downtown Los Angeles since Dec. 26, making it the wettest 15-day period in the city on record.

Forecasters said more heavy rain was expected this morning before skies finally start to clear tonight. Dry weather was forecast for the rest of the week.

La Conchita is a community of about 60 homes tucked into a narrow shelf between the ocean and the hills south of Santa Barbara. Its beautiful natural setting has drawn residents despite the known dangers of landslides.

The hamlet was last hit by a major landslide in 1995, when an estimated 600,000 tons of mud slowly slid over nine homes during a powerful March storm. That slide led to years of recriminations between property owners and county officials, each of whom considered the other responsible -- the owners for building in the path of an unstable hillside, the county for allowing the construction and failing to safeguard it.

The county ultimately put up an 18-foot-high, $400,000 retaining wall, which quickly gave way against the violent force of Monday’s slide. County officials insisted that the wall had only been intended to stop debris, not another landslide.

“I don’t think the county is any more responsible than it was for the last slide,” said Public Works Director Ron Coons, noting that residents were aware that the area was part of an ancient landslide.

The slide devastated a four-block area.

“This was quite different than the slide in 1995, which was a lot slower,” said Ventura County Fire Department spokesman Joe Luna. “This was a sudden release and a loud noise. The hillside just moved violently.”

Officials had worried that La Conchita could give way again and had been monitoring it with remote sensors. Still, they said the slide came without warning while county crews were a short distance away cleaning up a smaller mudslide that had closed U.S. Highway 101.

“It’s surprising it went with this kind of magnitude and this kind of volume,” Sheriff Bob Brooks said.

Barbara Bell and her husband, Mike, residents of La Conchita since 1983, said the landslide struck without warning about 1:15 p.m. The Bells were cleaning up after a smaller mudflow hit their street on Sunday.

“We were standing on the street and just talking and somebody said, ‘Oh, my God!’ and then the hill came down,” Mike Bell said. “It covered the same three or four houses it hit the first time [in 1995], then came across the street and hit six or seven more houses.... It just blew them apart. Now I’ve got to get a backhoe and try to save my own house.”

A crew from KCBS-TV Channel 2 and KCAL-TV Channel 9, which operate a joint news team, happened to have a camera trained on the hillside when it came down, providing vivid images of the roiling mass of brown dirt and green brush as it tumbled and slid toward La Conchita. The video footage was aired repeatedly on local and national newscasts.

Kathleen Wood, who has lived in the community since 1985, was taking a walk with a friend when she saw the earth tumble down, snapping the retaining wall. “It hit an old school bus,” she said, “and the force of the mud drove the bus through a home. It was silent and [then] there was this huge roar.”

She said her son, Taylor, 17, now wants to move. “He was walking through a devastated block and saw a hand poking out of the mud,” she said, as she began to cry. “He felt it and there was no pulse.”

The latest siege of heavy rain in Southern California began before dawn Friday and continued, with only scattered letups, through Monday.

Rainfall totals between Thursday night and 5 p.m. Monday included 27.64 inches at Opids Camp in the San Gabriel Mountains above Pasadena, 23.74 at the San Marcos Pass in Santa Barbara County, 20.83 at Matilija Dam in Ventura County, 18.04 at the Mount Baldy fire station, 14.74 in Altadena, 10.84 in Claremont, 10.57 in Beverly Hills and 8.26 in Burbank.

“That’s an awful lot of rain,” Keeton said. “There are some more records in there, although it could take us some time to work up the data. Suffice it to say, these are the heaviest rains we’ve seen since the big El Nino rains during the winter of 1997-98, when we set all those records.”

In the 1997-98 season, 31.01 inches of rain fell on downtown Los Angeles. The all-time seasonal record is 38.18 inches in 1883-84. Normal for a season, which runs from July 1 through June 30, is 14.77 inches. As of 4 p.m. Monday, the total so far this season already was 21.85 inches.

Slides and flooding shut down traffic on scores of major highways and local roads throughout the Southland, including U.S. 101 at La Conchita and Pacific Coast Highway near Dana Point.

Other major routes blocked included Mulholland Drive, Coldwater Canyon Drive and Beverly Glen Boulevard.

Los Angeles County

Near Palmdale, 2-year-old Jamaia Davis, was swept away early Monday as firefighters in a helicopter were lifting her mother from the roof of the family’s car near Palmdale. Jamaia’s body was found downstream from the wash where the car was stuck near Avenue 10 and 70th Street East, Los Angeles County sheriff’s deputies said.

The girl’s mother, brother and sister, who were not identified, were rescued. Sheriff’s deputies said the mother had driven around flood barricades.

Three others died over the weekend in flood-related incidents, and a man was missing and feared dead Monday after he tried to swim across rain-swollen Topanga Creek in the Fernwood area on a dare.

Just before 9 a.m. Monday, a man spotted bobbing in the surging Los Angeles River was rescued from 10- to 12-foot-deep water by a pair of Long Beach marine safety officers near the Long Beach Boulevard overpass. The man was not identified and it was not immediately clear why he was in the river.

Rising runoff took out three bridges across the San Gabriel River in the San Gabriel Mountains above Azusa, temporarily stranding 200 residents of a mobile home park at Follows Camp. Sheriff’s deputies said it probably would take several days to build a new bridge to the park.

A mobile home was swept from its foundation by the fast-rising Santa Clara River in Santa Clarita. Along with others at several parks in the area, the home had been evacuated earlier and no one was injured.

About 150 people registered at an evacuation center set up at Hart High School in Newhall. The center later was moved to the College of the Canyons in Santa Clarita, where officials said there was room for about 1,000 people.

A fallen tree in South Pasadena temporarily interrupted service on the Metro Gold Line.

An uncontrolled 40,000-gallon per hour raw sewage spill into Los Angeles River that began Sunday was expected to dump at least a million gallons of untreated waste into the ocean, the city of Long Beach announced late Monday.

Inland Empire

In San Bernardino and Riverside counties, mudslides and rain-engorged rivers destroyed two homes and ruptured a pipeline that spilled treated sewage into the Silverwood Lake reservoir, which provides drinking water to 12 million people in Southern California.

Officials said erosion ruptured the 18-inch pipeline on Sunday night. The break dumped about 4.5 million gallons of waste water into the 23-million gallon reservoir. Metropolitan Water District officials said the waste water had been heavily diluted by rainwater and promised to treat the water with chemicals until it meets state and federal quality standards.

In Crestline, an area in the San Bernardino Mountains burned in the 2003 wildfires, mudslides destroyed two homes and damaged several others Sunday night.

A 19-year-old man who said he fell into the Santa Ana River near Mira Loma was saved Monday when a member of the Riverside County Fire Department swift-water rescue team was lowered down to pluck him to safety during an afternoon downpour, officials said.

In Highland, San Bernardino County sheriff’s officials said an unidentified woman was swept away Monday evening when she got out of her car after it stalled in a flooded intersection. A helicopter search was fruitless.

A Highland man who got stuck in a cave in Lytle Creek over the weekend remained stranded Monday morning as waters outside the were still too dangerous for rescuers to cross and heavy fog precluded a helicopter rescue, said Cindy Beavers, spokeswoman for the San Bernardino County Sheriff’s Department.

Orange County

Heavy rain caused flooding in low-lying coastal areas, especially in Seal Beach and Huntington Harbor.

The swollen Santa Ana River, which is usually dry, was 5 1/2 feet deep and running at about 4 million gallons per minute, officials said.

A combination of runoff and big surf forced health officials to close two beaches because of sewage spills. Corona del Mar State Beach in Newport Beach was closed to swimmers from the breakwater to Inspiration Point. Capistrano County Beach in Dana Point was closed after roots and other debris blocked a line, causing 600 gallons of sewage to spill into the water.

Ventura County

For the second day in a row, the small farm town of Piru was cut off by floodwaters and mudslides along California 126, prompting authorities to evacuate the entire community about 3 p.m. Mudslides damaged half a dozen houses in Fillmore, and rising floodwaters on the Coyote Creek invaded dozens of homes in Casitas Springs.

“It’s not going to take much more rain to wipe out the community,” said Casitas Springs resident Dona Cranata.


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