For La Conchita Residents, Deadly Slide Is Still Fresh

Times Staff Writer

The county sign at the entrance to La Conchita may as well be painted with a skull and crossbones.

It marks the little seaside community as a "geologic hazard area"; it warns of the hills above town toppling "at any time and without warning"; and in big red letters, it hammers the point home: ENTER AT YOUR OWN RISK.

It's the kind of warning that has become all too familiar to the couple of hundred people who live in the once-idyllic spot between Ventura and Carpinteria. A year ago Tuesday, 400,000 tons of rain-soaked mud suddenly came crashing down from the hills, killing 10 residents and, in a matter of seconds, changing La Conchita forever.

Ever since, the residents who stuck around have been pleading for help from government officials, most of the time getting nowhere. They also have been making their own plans for dealing with the next slide, from acquiring a tractor to stationing emergency air-horns around town. And, with the slide's anniversary at hand, they have been doing what they can to deal with the painful memories it left behind.

One recent morning, Marisol Harmon, 41, trudged over the huge, weedy, fenced-off dirt mounds in the center of the Ventura County town. Beneath them lay a dozen homes that had been crushed, including the one where she and her friend Christina Kennedy had spent endless hours staring into a koi pond and confiding to each other about the ups and downs of their lives.

Kennedy, a 61-year-old welder and a single mother, died last Jan. 10 -- the day that La Conchita stopped being magical for Harmon.

"The energy's different," Harmon said. "It's missing. La Conchita is missing."

White crosses on the mounds are dedicated to each of the 10 people who died. Signs, faded ribbons and stuffed animals on the fence memorialize the Wallet sisters -- Hannah, 10; Raven, 6; and Paloma, 2, who died with their mother Mechelle, 37.

Harmon only recently has felt up to visiting the cross dedicated to her friend Kennedy.

"We were so close," she said, choking back tears. "I would help her out when she was down with horrible back problems, and she helped me after I was brutally raped. She earned my respect and I earned hers."

Now Harmon and her husband, John, plan to hop into an RV and leave -- for Texas, Colorado or, simply, the road.

"I'll come back," she said, "but I won't live here again."

Rodleen Getsic, 30, was busy last week planning a Saturday observance remembering those who died. A musician, she had lived in La Conchita on and off over a decade and was packing up to return there from Port Angeles, Wash., when she saw a TV report on the slide.

"The first people I called were Christina and then Charly Womack," she said. "But their phones just rang and rang. They were under the mud."

Getsic was part of an extended family woven together by Womack, 51, a guitarist whose rambling, patched-together house was an informal community center and temporary home for other musicians, artists and free spirits. Even today, a couple of handwritten signs around town pay tribute to the "Llama Tribe" -- the people who clustered around Womack and his spontaneous, free-form jam sessions.

"He always said wise things and he had such an open, generous heart," Getsic recalled. "He was the Charly Lama."

Like many others in La Conchita, Getsic is angry that government has done nothing to stabilize the steep slope looming above the town. She's heartened by a planned meeting of state and local agencies on the issue but asks: "What about homeland security right here in California's frontyard? There's the possibility of death here at any moment."

Ventura County Supervisor Steve Bennett has fielded complaints like that for a year, and for a year has issued the same kind of reply: Nobody knows for sure that the slope can be stabilized. If the county tries it and the hill fails anyway, county residents could then be on the hook for hundreds of millions of dollars in damages.

"That's not a liability we can expose taxpayers to," Bennett said. "It's a frustrating situation for everyone."

Hopes were briefly raised just days after the disaster, when Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger toured the devastation and promised state aid to rebuild the stricken town. But over the next year none was forthcoming, and Bennett said the governor's office has not responded to his inquiries.

Residents believe terracing the hill, which belongs to the avocado grower whose La Conchita Ranch sits atop it, would keep it from sliding. They also believe excessive irrigation at the ranch contributed to the slide, despite a court ruling otherwise in a lawsuit over a 1995 slide that destroyed nine homes. Terracing could cost as much as $30 million, and geologists differ on its probable effectiveness.

About 140 claims have been filed against the county in connection with last year's slide. The claims, which allege that the county was negligent in failing to shore up the hill after 1995, are a prelude to a lawsuit.

Mike Bell, head of a La Conchita citizens group, has advanced a compromise solution: Get the Federal Emergency Management Agency to throw in some money for terracing part of the most recent slide area and have the county float a bond for the rest of the cost. Under his plan, only a portion of the slope would be fixed and only La Conchita property owners would pay extra taxes for the bond.

But Bennett was skeptical. FEMA probably wouldn't chip in, he said, despite its contribution of $5 million to repair a collapsed hillside in Laguna Beach. FEMA initially rejected that city's request for help despite geologists' reports that winter rains caused the June 1 landslide that destroyed or damaged 20 homes. The reversal came after U.S. Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.) toured the area and petitioned FEMA to take a second look.

Bennett's basic concern remains: What happens to county taxpayers if a devastating landslide occurs anyway?

Meanwhile, Bell's group has done what it can. With the help of the Ventura County Community Foundation and other charities, it has acquired a tractor to keep the town's only access road clear of mud. It has bought lights and tents, emergency generators and first-aid kits. And it has completed a town census so rescue workers can quickly determine the number of residents in each house.

"The whole town feels we're much better prepared than we were before 2005," Bell said.

But disaster preparedness isn't enough to satisfy a community that gets justifiably nervous at the first sign of rain.

James Hotchkiss, 43, has lived in La Conchita for seven years and heads across the freeway to the beach for surf-fishing every chance he gets. Like others, he senses a spiritual hole in the place he loves. And, like others, he wants the hillside fixed.

"If they don't do it, though, we'll just continue living on," he said. "I mean, this is home."

For The Record Los Angeles Times Wednesday January 11, 2006 Home Edition Main News Part A Page 2 National Desk 1 inches; 32 words Type of Material: Correction La Conchita mudslide -- An article in Monday's California section about the one-year anniversary of the La Conchita mudslide incorrectly gave the age of victim Christina Kennedy. She was 45, not 61.
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