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Landslide ruptures pricey neighborhood

Times Staff Writer

SAN DIEGO -- A massive landslide Wednesday morning destroyed two homes, damaged several others and ripped up more than 100 yards of a residential street in Mount Soledad, a pricey neighborhood in La Jolla.

There were no reports of injuries. Homeowners had been warned Tuesday night to evacuate because the city geologist and a city consultant thought a landslide could be imminent.

About 9 a.m. Wednesday, that fear came true as a portion of Soledad Mountain Road cracked and massive amounts of earth began sliding east toward Desert View Drive. One home along Soledad Mountain Road slid off its foundation so that it was no longer visible from the street.

“This is really a terrible event,” City Council President Scott Peters said.

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An emergency session of the City Council is set for this morning to ratify an emergency declaration by Mayor Jerry Sanders that could make the city eligible for state and federal disaster funds.

Peters said Wednesday afternoon that nine homes had been red-tagged as uninhabitable and 19 had been yellow-tagged, with residents permitted inside only long enough to gather key possessions.

In all, about 110 homes have been affected in some way by the slide -- suffering structural damage or having power and water interrupted, evacuations ordered or access limited, Peters said.

Maurice Luque, a spokesman for the San Diego Fire Department, said that firefighters evacuated 49 people from 55 homes.

The landslide may have been a shock, but it should not have been much of a surprise to residents.

The hillside began to slide and the road to crack in July. Homeowners complained to City Hall about cracks in the sidewalk in front of their homes. An engineering firm was hired by the city last month to investigate.

Two weeks ago, city officials sent a letter to homeowners advising them of the danger.

On Tuesday, the city upped its warning, as workers went door to door with a letter advising residents in several houses that “you should not sleep in your homes effective immediately.”

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On Wednesday, workers were at the site doing tests when the hill began its rapid slide.

Within minutes, a police helicopter was circling, using a public address system to order residents to evacuate. Several dozen homes remained under mandatory evacuation Wednesday night, but officials were evaluating homes individually to determine when residents could return.

The same streets -- Soledad Mountain Road and Desert View Drive -- have been hit several times with landslides. In 1961, when homes were being built, a landslide destroyed seven of them under construction along Desert View Drive, which is parallel to and down the hill from Soledad Mountain Drive.

Other slides occurred in the area in 1989 and 1994.

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Geologists say the land beneath the homes and in the backyards is unstable because of forces remaining from when an earthquake caused by the Rose Canyon fault eons ago in effect created what is now called Soledad Mountain.

“This is a geologically active area,” city engineering geologist Rob Hawk said.

In geological terms, the slide is called a “breakaway,” in which the earth pushes upward and then slips down an adjacent slope.

Anticipating trouble, city workers in September replaced a waterline along Soledad Mountain Road to avoid leakage. The speed limit along the road was changed from 35 mph to 25 mph to reduce vibration.

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On Wednesday morning, as panicked homeowners called 911, dozens of police officers, paramedics and firefighters rushed to the scene. San Diego Gas & Electric Co. workers turned off power as three poles fell. No gas leaks were reported.

Hawk said he had no doubt that the homes could be rebuilt or repaired.

“It’s just a question of what we have to do to make them safe and stable,” he said, adding that grading standards for hillside development are much tougher now than they were when the Soledad Mountain homes were built.

He said he doubted that any further large-scale sliding would occur.

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“The major event has already occurred,” Hawk said.

Mayor Sanders cut short a trip to Washington to return to San Diego.

Homes along the winding Soledad Mountain Road enjoy particularly desirable views eastward.

The road is buckled in the 5700 block of Soledad Mountain Road between Desert View Drive and Palomino Circle.

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About 2,500 customers were without power after utility poles fell, officials said. Within hours, power was restored to all but a few dozen.

Employees from the county’s animal control department were deployed to rescue animals from homes; within hours, 10 dogs and eight birds had been evacuated.

tony.perry@latimes.com


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