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San Diego vows to help rebuild

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Times Staff Writer

SAN DIEGO -- Even before the rubble had been cleared and a massive street rupture repaired, homeowners in the pricey Mount Soledad neighborhood of La Jolla began to return Thursday to their landslide-threatened homes and city officials were vowing to help rebuild.

San Diego Mayor Jerry Sanders said he had appealed to the governor and White House for disaster funds. Crews were working around the clock to find ways to shore up the remaining part of the hillside that thundered down Wednesday, destroying nine homes and severely damaging several more.

This time, officials said, the city will use much tougher grading and filling standards than those in effect in 1961 when building was allowed to continue after a similar slide destroyed seven homes under construction.

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The city also has hired a forensic geologist to determine what caused the landslide and whether the city was negligent. Some residents said they complained bitterly in the weeks before the slide that water was bubbling up from underground lines, possibly making the soil unstable.

Sanders said the city would move quickly to repair Soledad Mountain Road, a heavily traveled street.

“I want to apologize to our citizens who have been inconvenienced by this,” he said. “Our sympathies are with you.”

No further sliding was reported as city engineers scrambled to stabilize the hill below the broken road. At the height of the evacuation Wednesday, 75 homes were under mandatory evacuation. But late Thursday afternoon, Sanders said that nine homes were considered uninhabitable and only 17 others remained “yellow-tagged” -- meaning that residents could enter only if escorted by police or firefighters to retrieve valuables. City officials said they hoped more than half of those 17 homes would soon be declared safe.

Most insurance policies do not cover landslides, experts said. But they said that if the slide was caused by leaking city waterlines, that could bolster homeowners in their bid to file claims or lawsuits.

Sanders said that although he did not think that water caused the landslide, the forensic geologist would find out.

“I don’t think the city dropped the ball, but we’re investigating,” he said.

The area has had several landslides in recent decades, including the one in 1961, when the neighborhood was being built. That slide forced the City Council to adopt more stringent rules about grading and filling on hillsides, but building in the Mount Soledad area continued.

John Lockwood, a city employee for four decades who retired as city manager in 1991, said that although the geological hazards were known, the mood in the 1960s was to encourage residential growth. Of the council meeting at which a decision was made to let the seven homes be rebuilt, he said: “The consensus at the time was that it was probably not a good idea, but we weren’t going to prohibit building.”

In the 1960s, he said, San Diego wanted to emerge from obscurity and take its place among major cities.

“It was a big deal every census: We wanted to be bigger and bigger. We were envious of Los Angeles. We wanted to be bigger than San Francisco.”

John Fowler, another longtime city employee who over his career was the city engineer and deputy city manager, said that after the 1961 slide, a consultant experienced with landslides in Los Angeles and Orange counties helped draft new rules. But the rules were not as stringent as those in place today.

“It wasn’t rebuilt for several years, as I remember,” Fowler said of the 1961 slide area, where the dirt was graded and re-compacted. “At the time, it looked stable. It looked like the cures had done it.”

San Diego lawyer George Berger, who specializes in construction defects, said the area was “a fertile ground for landslide problems” because of builders’ tendency to construct large homes at the top of canyon walls to lure buyers with panoramic views.

“People at City Hall used to feel that if the soil sat there for several years without moving, everything was fine to build on,” Berger said. “We found otherwise in the 1970s and 1980s.”

Lockwood agreed, adding that later slides that damaged homes in the city caused political uproar and that the council had to bail out homeowners by buying the damaged residences.

The city government’s 1960s pro-development attitude contributed in the early 1970s to the election as mayor of a young assemblyman with environmental leanings: Pete Wilson. Under Wilson, much power was wrested from the bureaucracy and developers were made to meet higher standards.

Geologists said that similar slides were possible throughout Southern California. The ancient earthquakes that created Mount Soledad and other promontories and canyons left certain spots vulnerable to shifting, they said.

On Thursday, many homeowners who had slept in hotels Wednesday night returned to their once quiet neighborhood. Even those whose homes were fine were worried about the damage to their property’s value.

“We’re very depressed,” said John Scranton, 59, whose Soledad Mountain Road home was undamaged. “We would never have bought this house if we had known about the landslide problem. Now the value will drop and we’ll take a hit. This was a big portion of our retirement investment.”

Gary Pyles, 70, who lives on Desert View Drive, evacuated just after the slide but was cleared to return Thursday. He was delighted to see no damage.

“We bought here in 1969, and the builder told us nothing about the slide of 1961,” he said. “We only found out by a guy installing our TV antenna. I guess I could get mad, but it’s not worth losing hair over. Besides, I don’t have any hair.”

County Assessor Greg Smith said owners whose homes were damaged or destroyed would be eligible for an immediate property tax reassessment. Those whose homes were undamaged but suffered a decrease in resale value may be eligible once sales figures bear out that decrease, he said.

“The calamity stuff is easy,” Smith said. “The others are more difficult.”

The issue of whether city waterlines caused or contributed to the landslide is bound to be controversial. In the weeks before the slide, city crews replaced an underground line to prevent leakage.

Mohammad Ali Afshaar, who lives on Desert View Drive, beneath Soledad Mountain Road, said residents had complained a month ago about two leaking fire hydrants, but that the city apparently did nothing. On Thursday afternoon, Afshaar was still prohibited from returning to his home.

“I’m not a geologist, but I know that water can soak soil and make it very unstable,” he said. “We told them, but nothing happened.”

On Wednesday, Afshaar, who owns a dental laboratory, was in the shower when officers pounded on his front door and told him to flee.

“I don’t know who to blame,” he said. “I’m under so much stress, I can’t even concentrate properly.”

Tom Rockwell, a geology professor at San Diego State, said the water leaks may have been a sign, not a cause, of the slide as earth began to move slowly downhill.

Like other geologists, Rockwell said the slide was not a surprise.

“We have a number of areas like this in San Diego,” he said. “You have weak geological material and steep slopes and add heavy items like homes, and you’re going to have landslides.”

Jennifer Kerns, a spokeswoman for the state insurance commissioner’s office, said the office lost a lawsuit that would have required insurance companies to provide homeowners with coverage for “earth movement.”

Cracks in Soledad Mountain Road began appearing in July. The city hired a consultant in September and began warning residents. Tuesday night, residents in several homes were told to leave.

The slide occurred shortly before 9 a.m. Wednesday, with the street breaking apart, one home slipping from street-level view, and tons of dirt moving toward Desert View Drive.

Firefighters evacuated 49 people from 55 homes. Police swept into the area to prevent looting and vowed to remain indefinitely.

“This neighborhood is going to remain safe,” Police Capt. Boyd Long said.

Rob Hawk, the city’s engineering geologist, said Thursday that he did not anticipate any further sliding. “It’s reached a kind of dynamic equilibrium; it’s come to a rest,” he said.

Sanders declined to estimate damage.

“This is an expensive part of San Diego, and it’s going to be expensive to fix,” he said.

tony.perry@latimes.com

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Times staff photographer Don Bartletti contributed to this report.


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