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A City’s Burden Is Bigger This Time

Times Staff Writers

After a landslide destroyed 24 houses in Bluebird Canyon just after dawn on Oct. 2, 1978, it took Laguna Beach almost a year and roughly $4 million in federal money to reconstruct the hillside so homes could be rebuilt.

But history will have difficulty repeating itself in the aftermath of the latest Bluebird Canyon slide.

The Federal Emergency Management Agency no longer pays for slope stabilization or restoration after landslides. If the city wants to rebuild the failed slope along Flamingo Road -- as council members have pledged -- the money must come from somewhere else.

Despite the uncertainties, Laguna Beach officials have tried to reassure anxious residents that they’ll work to put the fallen hillside back together again so residents can rebuild, even if their original lot boundaries now seem to be somewhere in midair.

The latest slide struck just before 7 a.m. on June 1, forcing the evacuation of 350 homes -- more than 1,000 people.

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As of Friday, 22 homes bore red tags to prohibit entry, being destroyed, severely damaged or imperiled. Fifteen others had yellow tags for restricted entry, and 11 more had yellow-green tags because officials hoped to allow those residents to return starting today.

At a meeting last week with Bluebird Canyon’s displaced residents, Mayor Elizabeth Pearson-Schneider and other council members insisted there was no question about putting homes back in the crumbled canyon.

“Our goal is for everybody to get their lots back,” the mayor said Friday to applause. “It’s going to cost millions and millions of dollars, but we’ve contributed to all these [disaster recoveries]. We’ll leave no stone unturned looking for funds.”

Though more study is needed, rough estimates show that restoring Bluebird Canyon would cost $9 million to $10 million, more than double the first stabilization effort. The price tag would be a stretch in a small beach community with an annual budget of about $50 million.

Federal reimbursement rules have changed in the past 10 years, triggered by high costs and questions about the wisdom of rebuilding collapsed slopes in landslide zones. The state won’t pay for that work either.

Without such assistance, the cost will have to be shouldered by Laguna Beach, and residents may be asked to approve an assessment district to pay for rebuilding. It also may create a precedent for the city to pay for restoring hillsides if there are future slides.

“For the folks who live up there, this is a tough call,” said David Ellis, a political consultant and former Laguna resident. “You have people with property rights, but their property’s gone. Rebuilding after disasters is an age-old California question, and we keep doing it.”

Residents of Laguna Niguel faced that sobering question after a landslide in 1998 took out two homes and damaged six others. The city decided the hill was too unstable and the cost to rebuild too great.

After buying out homeowners, in part with settlement money paid by the homes’ developer, the city turned the ruined slope into Vista Plaza Park.

But even that fix wasn’t without a hitch: Laguna Niguel officials are still wrangling with FEMA to get a $5.5-million grant that was approved but never awarded.

For Laguna Beach, rebuilding was an easier question 27 years ago, with the federal government paying for almost all the restoration work.

Bluebird Canyon’s 1978 slide occurred between 5 and 6 a.m., while most residents slept. It took 40 minutes for the slow-moving earth to ruin 24 homes and cause $15 million in property damage.

Three roads and all the utility lines in the area -- including electric, gas, water and sewer -- were destroyed. Only one person was injured.

As with this month’s disaster, geologists said the ’78 slide was triggered by the winter’s heavy rainfall, which had slowly percolated down, saturating the slopes.

Ten months after the ’78 slide, geologist F. Beach Leighton submitted a final report on the restoration of the damaged hill, declaring that it was safe to rebuild the 24 homes. Leighton and Associates, his soil engineering firm in Irvine, was in charge of grading some 340,000 cubic yards in the 3.6-acre area. The remedial measures included a new storm drain, a horseshoe-shaped buttress of compacted fill for support and 66 steel “soldier piles” driven into the ground around the perimeter of the buttress and tied together with welded beams.

An earthen dam of compacted soil also was created in front of the slide area and a subterranean drainage system of perforated pipes was sunk in underground trenches to drain groundwater from the slide area.

Stabilizing a landslide area “requires more than just putting the slope back. You try to lock the layers in place like building a dam in the earth,” said Randall Jibson, a geologist and landslide expert for the U.S. Geological Survey.

The work also probably saved 22 other homes on the periphery of the slide.

“It was well worth the investment,” said Iraj Poormand, a geotechnical engineer with Leighton who managed the restoration project. “It was supposed to hold up, and it has.”

Residents who rebuilt their homes after that slide said they had not had any problems, aside from some minor cracking, which could indicate normal settling.

They also said their homes had not been affected so far by the June 1 landslide. The new slide is immediately east of the old slide boundaries on Oriole Drive.

The first residents to rebuild after the ’78 slide were Richard and Barbara Harley, whose single-story stucco house, at 928 Meadowlark Lane, was destroyed.

“It looked like a crazy funhouse,” Barbara Harley recalled. “Everything was at odd angles. The back of the house was three feet higher than the front.”

Using their savings and a low-cost federal loan, the couple replaced the lost dwelling with a two-story structure that cost about $75,000 and had a sturdier foundation than the last. The couple and their two sons returned in October 1980.

“Everything still looks just like it did before” the disaster, Barbara Harley said, “until you look around the corner,” where the latest slide occurred.

City officials have asked FEMA to declare that the slide is part of the damage caused by February’s severe storms. Such a designation would allow federal and state reimbursements of up to 94% of the costs for repairing and replacing streets, utilities, sewers and other public facilities. But not the hillside itself.

If the damage is ultimately deemed part of earlier storm damage and individual assistance is authorized, residents with slide damage could apply for up to $200,000 in low-interest reconstruction loans and up to $26,200 for rental assistance and minor structural repairs.

One thing is certain: The city doesn’t expect to begin any significant work, such as road and utility line restoration, until next year after the rainy season.

Meanwhile, crews will cut a new pathway for Bluebird Canyon Creek, which has been blocked by the landslide and may swell with heavy rains.

Whatever money the city will spend must be authorized in next year’s budget, which is being drafted. The allocation must be approved by July 1.

Steve Huberty’s house, at 980 Bluebird Canyon, still stands, though much of his uphill neighbors’ yards are pressing against it. He said he’d be willing to pay a parcel tax, or into an assessment district, to rebuild the hillside and put up retaining walls.

“This is clearly a disaster and a lot of people are hurt,” said Huberty, a computer engineer. He is living temporarily in a donated duplex with his wife, Dorit Goossens, a teacher, and their 19-month-old son, Noah.

“Right or wrong, you expect your government will protect you,” he said. “I have faith they’ll try to figure it out.”


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