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2 years since home losses, and still on shaky ground

Times Staff Writer

In a sense, the heavy rains of winter 2004-05 are still falling for Abid Karim and Keith Razza. The blue skies over Pomona this winter mock the ordeal they’ve endured for more than two years.

The fickleness of the climate is evident in the precipitation statistics: During the winter two years ago, an unprecedented 42.61 inches of rain descended on Pomona, causing the ground beneath Karim’s and Razza’s homes, as well as those of seven of their neighbors on Meadow View Drive, to shift and fall away. Their houses were either destroyed or rendered unlivable.

The rainy season was the second heaviest in Southern California history and triggered landslides that wrecked dozens of homes in the Hollywood Hills, Anaheim, Yorba Linda, Anaheim Hills, Pomona, San Clemente, Laguna Beach and, most tragically, La Conchita, where a giant mudslide killed 10 people.

This winter, fewer than 2.5 inches of rain have fallen in Pomona.

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Benign weather has prevailed, in fact, since almost immediately after a rainy Presidents Day in 2005, when Karim and Razza first noticed odd geological phenomena on their properties. Ever since, a sense of dislocation and the specter of financial ruin have afflicted the homeowners, whose wealth, like that of many Southern Californians, existed principally in the value of their houses. Standard homeowner insurance policies do not cover damage from landslides.

“If I end up with financial liability for this,” said Razza, 49, an electrical equipment salesman, “it would basically ruin me, and I would think it would do the same to the other families.”

The homeowners initially filed claims against the city of Pomona, contending that a landslide on the city-owned slope behind their houses caused their property to sink, in some cases undermining homes so drastically that they were declared public nuisances and quickly demolished. The city rejected the claims.

The homeowners’ hopes now rest with a pending lawsuit against the city and the developer of their subdivision in the Phillips Ranch area.

The failed slope behind the houses on Meadow View is owned in part by the city and in part by Pacesetter Business Properties, which grew from the firm that originally developed the homes.

Irvine attorney Michael Hearn, who represents the nine homeowners who brought the lawsuit, said the slope was the site of an old, inactive landslide that the developer should have repaired. Hearn said the 2005 slide was very similar to the previous landslide.

In legal documents, the city denied being liable for the damage.

“The issue is, did our land really slide?” said Anaheim lawyer Robert Gokoo, who is representing the city in the case. “It came down on our land, but the head scarp of the landslide is located on the homeowners’ property. It’s very well defined. That’s where the landslide started.”

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The slope was part of the attraction of the hillside neighborhood. It was a greenbelt with a bracing view of the San Gabriel Mountains.

After a winter of voluminous rain, the city’s part of the slope, the homeowners contend, slid down and away, causing the earth above it to begin to sink.

“It was raining that day. I came back early from work, looked at the backyard and saw a lump running through it like a straight line,” recalled Karim, 41, a project manager for a dental specialties company and an immigrant from Pakistan. “It didn’t make sense to me. The next morning when I got up, the bump was more profound. I just went to work. I didn’t know what to do.”

Razza, whose house is two doors up from Karim’s, was alerted to something amiss the next night. The neighbor whose home was between Razza’s and Karim’s came knocking and reported that “he had a 3-inch crack going through his house and that Abid’s backyard had dropped 3 feet,” Razza said.

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Upon inspection, Razza discovered that the crack from his neighbor’s house ran up to his own property and along the entire back of his house’s foundation. “I didn’t know what was causing it,” he said. “I didn’t know what the hell was going on.”

What ensued for Razza and Karim the next day had a tinge of the surreal. They arrived home from work to find their street blocked by emergency vehicles. They were told by city officials that their houses would be red-tagged and that they must quickly remove whatever belongings they could and leave the premises.

They didn’t know where to start. Karim instructed his wife to put in a plastic garbage bag the 10 most important things in each room. “Then I realized I had no place to put all the bags,” Karim said.

Razza painted in white block letters on his brown garage door, along with his phone number: PLEASE HELP!

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The message, he said, was intended for “just about anybody, pretty much” and was indicative of the confusion and helplessness that gripped all the affected homeowners.

Neighbors, including many they didn’t know, came to their aid, helping them remove belongings, opening their own garages for storage, bringing them food and clothing. One neighbor persuaded the manager of the local Wal-Mart to fill two shopping carts with such items as underwear, socks and toothbrushes that the displaced families might need. The local Albertsons gave gift coupons for food. The nearby Shiloh Inn provided weeks of free temporary shelter.

In the flurry of vacating the houses, the homeowners saw the paraphernalia of their private lives scattered and laid bare to public view on the ground outside.

Backyard chasms

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The earth beneath their houses, meanwhile, continued to fall away. It dropped as much as 12 feet in Karim’s backyard, as much as 20 feet directly below Razza’s dwelling.

Soon, Karim and his next-door neighbor were informed by city officials that their houses were in danger of falling. The city demolished the homes within weeks.

Karim watched from across the street as the four-bedroom house at 34 Meadow View, which he owned with his three brothers and which functioned as a focal point for his large extended family, was pulled down, one room at a time.

“That was the most traumatic part,” he said. “I saw my main bedroom wide open. Then I could see my main bathroom. I could see my kids’ room getting pulled down, my mother’s room.”

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Today, Karim’s property, behind a locked chain-link fence that runs the length of the affected properties, is a weedy lot, at the back of which is a deep trench covered with a plastic tarpaulin.

Razza’s house, at 38 Meadow View, is a wreck. Overgrown shrubs crowd the front of the house, a broken wooden candy-cane decoration from Christmas 2004 lies on a brown lawn. On the driveway is a pile of trash that includes a child’s sandal, a stuffed donkey and a four-slot toaster.

In the back, the foundation slab, partly covered with gray carpeting, droops from the house like a tongue from an open mouth, hanging over the void left by the departed soil.

Both men felt the emotional impact of losing their homes. Karim and his wife, Tehseen Desnavi, a native of Dubai, United Arab Emirates, found themselves uncharacteristically irritable, short with their two sons, ages 7 and 5, short with each other.

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“We were very edgy as a family,” he said. “Small things would get to us very quickly, and we didn’t know why. So we talked about it and decided we should take some time and be proactive with the kids and not let things get us down.

“My kids still ask, though, ‘When can I go back to my room? Where are my toys?’ ”

Karim’s late father bought the house at 34 Meadow View in 1990. Karim and his three brothers lived there while attending Cal Poly Pomona. The four brothers and their sister all got married in the house, and all lived there briefly after being wed.

His older brother Zahid bought the house next door at 32 Meadow View. (It, too, is red-tagged, though essentially undamaged; Zahid is also a plaintiff in the lawsuit.)

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“We’ve always loved that house,” he said. “Thirty-four Meadow View was the place for everybody to come. It was a unique family situation, and we purposely had it that way because we wanted it to be a close family place.”

Razza bought his four-bedroom house for $171,000 in 1988. He said similar houses in the neighborhood have been selling recently for $500,000 to $650,000.

The loss of the house occurred at a difficult time. His mother had died the month before, and he had just changed jobs after working for the same employer for 30 years. He was going through a divorce, and his estranged wife and grown son and daughter were living elsewhere.

“Put them all together, and you’ve got an incredible recipe,” he said. “It’s a major trauma to go through this. Losing your house, you can’t put that into words. This is your sanctuary where you go at the end of the day to get away from the rat race.”

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Karim and his family rent a two-bedroom house in Chino Hills for $2,000 a month while they await resolution of the lawsuit. “I live in half as much house now, and I pay twice as much,” he said.

Razza rents a two-bedroom apartment in Rancho Cucamonga.

Both men are displeased with what they see as the city’s early and continuing unsympathetic response to their plight. A trial is set for Aug. 14. Lawyers for all parties met Feb. 21 to begin exploring an out-of-court settlement.

Their case against the city, Karim said, has been “all paperwork, investigations, dates pending.” When he rented the house he currently lives in, he was wary of signing a year’s lease. “That had to be too long,” he said. “There had to be a resolution within a few months, right? Well, we’re starting our third year. For me, the chapter is still open. The book is not closed.”

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Razza has become convinced that the city is dragging its feet in the hope of wearing down the homeowners’ patience and inducing them to accept insufficient compensation.

“And I’m not going to do it,” he said. “It’s not going to be a matter of, ‘Here’s a check, now go away.’ ”

james.ricci@latimes.com


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