Rain-Filled Winter Blamed for Laguna Beach Landslide

Times Staff Writers

A landslide that sent multimillion-dollar homes crashing down a hill Wednesday in Laguna Beach was apparently a delayed consequence of last winter’s heavy rains in Southern California, and could foreshadow more devastation to come, authorities said.

No deaths or serious injuries were blamed on the slide, which announced itself with a bang just before 7 a.m., and sheared away part of the face of Laguna’s scenic Bluebird Canyon. But 17 homes were destroyed and 11 seriously damaged, fire officials said.

The soil gave way near the site of an even more devastating 1978 slide, which destroyed 24 homes. Like that disaster, this one left behind a surreal landscape: houses, cars and streets that had been tilted and buckled, collapsed and smashed, with residents left to stare numbly from a distance.


It also appeared to validate the warnings of geologists, some of whom had questioned the wisdom of building in the canyon. And it raised questions about the safety of other hillside communities in Southern California in the aftermath of the near-record rainfall.

Among the areas to be closely watched, geologists said, are those that have already seen slipping: parts of Laurel Canyon, Culver City and Glendale in Los Angeles County; Anaheim Hills and Mission Viejo in Orange County; as well as La Conchita in Ventura County, where a fast-moving landslide killed 10 people and destroyed two dozen homes in January.

“We are not out of the woods yet,” said Randall Jibson, a geologist and landslide expert for the U.S. Geological Survey. “This could happen for some time.”

Some residents blamed the Laguna Beach slide on new construction, and city officials said they were reexamining two recent projects to see if they had destabilized the slope.

But City Manager Ken Frank said only 10 houses had been built since 1978 in the area affected by the new slide. And officials said they believed that the rain was primarily responsible for what happened Wednesday.

The crashing slope was particularly painful to critics who had fought efforts to build homes in an area prone to landslides.


“This just makes my heart sink,” said Judy Rosener, a business professor at UC Irvine who served on the California Coastal Commission from 1973 to 1981. “Historically, it is known as a slide area. In 1973, I was told that this is known as a slide area. They told us that 30 years ago.”

The slide occurred without warning on a typically foggy June morning, just as residents were stirring in well-maintained homes overlooking the Pacific.

Clara Candelaria, a physical education teacher at a local elementary school, was getting ready to go to work when the power went out at her home on Bluebird Canyon Drive, where she has lived for 36 years.

“I heard this big explosion like a giant gunshot,” she said. The noise was apparently the sound of an electrical transformer exploding in the early stages of the slide as utility poles gave way to the moving ground.

Candelaria looked outside. “All of the sudden, right in front of me, the earth started moving, and I heard ‘pop, pop, pop,’ glass breaking and plants falling down the hillsides,” she said.

Then she saw a gray home nearby begin “twisting and turning” as it was racked by gravity and slipping earth.


David Hurwitz, a 37-year-old business consultant, said he realized something was odd when he heard the sound of Bluebird Creek gushing.

“That was unusual because it only happens when it rains,” said Hurwitz, who has lived on the same block as Candelaria for six years.

“Then I heard a sound that was very different,” he said. “At first I thought it was the guys starting construction early on the house above me. But then I knew it was something else, because all of a sudden there were firetrucks and police vehicles coming up and down the hill. It was gridlock.”

Authorities ordered the evacuation of 750 to 1,000 people living in 350 homes. Later in the day, some were allowed to return.

During the early stages of emergency response, word spread that two men had warned residents and helped them evacuate from the slide area. The two were a part-time city lifeguard, Craig Lockwood, 67, and his neighbor, Dale Ghere, 65, who both live on Meadowlark Lane.

Lockwood credited Ghere, saying, “Dale’s the Paul Revere of our Meadowlark neighborhood.”

About 6:46 a.m., Lockwood said, his neighbor phoned and then ran over and started pounding on his front door, yelling at him to get up.


“I threw on my trunks and shoes, went to the door and saw Dale standing there saying we got to warn other people to get out of here,” Lockwood said.

Together, the two men began running to other homes, pounding on doors, warning people to leave.

“We were telling them to get out ... and move their cars to get out of the way of emergency vehicles that may be coming,” Lockwood said.

Laguna Beach Fire Capt. Dan Stefano, who responded to emergencies during the Northridge earthquake of 1994, said some of the slide areas Wednesday looked worse than after that disaster.

Streets had cracked onto themselves, manholes had risen off the ground in the shape of volcanoes, and telephone poles were toppled everywhere. SUVs were stranded on islands of concrete, and one section of Flamingo Road had toppled 30 feet to a street bellow.

“It’s absolutely devastating up there,” Stefano said after returning from a late-afternoon survey of the area.


Remarkably, there were only four minor injuries Wednesday -- cuts, scrapes and a twisted ankle.

Bluebird Canyon is known as a secluded, woodsy neighborhood with an eclectic mix of homes, including half-century-old cottages, Craftsman bungalows and recently built mansions. Nearly all have ocean views, with Santa Catalina Island plainly visible on clear days.

Housing prices range from $1.5 million for a fixer-upper to $4 million or more for a contemporary home, real estate agents say. The average price is about $2 million, said John Stanaland, owner of Laguna Seaside Realty.

“It’s a beautiful place to live,” said the lifelong resident of the town. “Unfortunately, it can come with a price.”

The last reminder of that was in the 1978 slide, which affected 3 1/2 acres slightly below the site of Wednesday’s disaster. Houses in that area had inadvertently been built over an ancient landslide during the 1950s and ‘60s.

Property damage from that event was estimated at $15.5 million. At the time, it was the most expensive landslide relief effort the Federal Emergency Management Agency had ever undertaken.


Although most of the homes in Wednesday’s slide area are 40 to 50 years old, angry residents focused on new construction -- in particular, a large, controversial home recently built atop a hillside -- as a potential cause.

“This whole thing was a recipe for disaster,” said Jeff Tyler, 42, who lives across the street from the 5,500-square-foot house on Oriole Drive. “I don’t know why anybody should be surprised.”

Residents complained that the house was too big, and expressed concern about the amount of soil removed during construction.

City Manager Frank said officials were looking into construction procedures at the house on Oriole. He said the city was trying to determine whether anything was missed during the survey of soil under the site.

According to city records, there were several geological reports done in connection with the construction project. The most recent, completed in 1998, concluded that it was safe to build the house but that the surrounding land could be unstable. The report also noted that the project would be only 200 yards from the path of the 1978 slide.

On Wednesday, the house on Oriole had buckled partially, and there were visible cracks on the structure.


City officials, however, focused on the weather as the primary culprit.

“The rainfall was a big factor,” said Hannes Richter, a geotechnical engineer hired by Laguna Beach as a consultant. “At this point, this appears to be a very likely cause.”

Richter said the slide had caused the hill to drop 50 feet vertically and move 100 feet laterally.

Other geologists agreed that the landslide was not surprising, considering the rainfall that ultimately saturated deeper soils and bedrock.

They also warned that the threat to landslide-prone areas in Southern California would continue through the summer.

Doug Morton, a Riverside-based geologist with the U.S. Geological Survey, said water could take months to fully percolate into soil and bedrock. Once it does, the water table rises, which can result in a landslide.

“This was to be expected after the rains,” said Shell Medall, an engineering geologist with Associated Soils Engineering of Long Beach. “It just takes time for the water to seep down and get to a place of weakness.


“Take a jar of marbles,” Medall added. “The space in between the marbles is the pore space.... Water made its way into those pore spaces and caused the hillside to fail because of the weight.”

The 1978 disaster occurred in October, after the extremely wet winter of 1977-78. What happened Wednesday is a reminder that the effects of the recent winter may linger for months, geologists said.

In the Hollywood Hills, Los Angeles officials have seen unprecedented amounts of water gushing down like small streams, a possible precursor to additional slope failures in the next few months.

“You can see water running through the gutters that’s coming out of the ground,” said Bob Steinbach of the city Building and Safety Department. “There are streambeds and watercourses that are easy to see, but the underground springs that people don’t see is where it percolates.

“Some people call and say they think it’s a broken main.... We’ve looked underneath some homes. and it looks like a lake, the equivalent of somebody emptying their swimming pool,” he said.

It was not clear Wednesday whether federal disaster assistance would be available to those in Laguna Beach whose homes were destroyed or damaged.


FEMA’s David Fukutomi, the designee of President Bush for the recent winter storms, said it would be premature to speculate about whether state and local officials would request federal aid. If they do, he said, it’s not clear what, if any, assistance will be provided to individual homeowners. The federal government, he added, cannot indemnify residents from known threats.

“Sometimes we see unrealistic expectations that FEMA is going to come in and take care of things,” he said. “We’ll take care of the basics ... but we’re not going to indemnify you for all those hazards and the effects of those hazards.”


Contributing to the coverage of the Laguna Beach landslide were Times staff writers Jennifer Delson, Jeff Gottlieb, Christine Hanley, Mitchell Landsberg, Philip Le, Natasha Lee, William Lobdell, Claire Luna, David McKibben, Seema Mehta, Jean O. Pasco, Valerie Reitman, David Reyes, H.G. Reza, Mai Tran, Andrew Wang, Dan Weikel, Erica Williams, Daniel Yi and Nora Zamichow.