Newport Beach house on problematic bluff where landslide hit is demolished
After a March 3 rain-induced hillside collapse in Newport Beach’s Dover Shores neighborhood caused the evacuation of three houses — including one that on Thursday had to be demolished — all eyes are on Galaxy Drive.
That’s where sprawling homes sit precariously perched atop a slope overlooking a portion of Upper Newport Bay where sensitive species have been known to live and where human activity is largely prohibited.
Gov. Gavin Newsom’s office in late February declared a state of emergency to support storm response and relief efforts in 13 counties across California ravaged by recent winter storms. The announcement came days before the Newport Beach slope degraded.
On Tuesday, the state widened the geographic footprint of the emergency to include Orange County, granting a request from the county’s Board of Supervisors to extend relief and resources to Newport Beach, along with the storm-damaged cities of Laguna Beach, Seal Beach and San Clemente.
District 5 Supervisor Katrina Foley, who initially requested the inclusion be considered, said she went out Sunday to survey the damage at Dover Shores and was concerned by what she saw on the 1900 block of Galaxy Drive.
The hillside behind a home at 1930 Galaxy had completely deteriorated, leaving one corner of the structure unsupported, causing it to be red-tagged as too dangerous to enter. On Thursday, under still-cloudy skies, a hulking excavator began the work of tearing down the property, its steel tracks crushing over wood and roofing tiles.
Houses on either side of the demolished property, whose occupants were also forced to evacuate after the landslide, were yellow-tagged following the incident, meaning homeowners could enter to collect belongings but could not stay on the premises.
“I’m concerned if we don’t get resources in here to build up that hillside, we could see a catastrophe,” Foley said Tuesday of the remaining properties on Galaxy Drive.
“If these three homes fall, a cascading effect may happen to the 50 other homes on the bluff, and we must be prepared in case that happens.”
Historic hillside troubles
Developed for residential use by the Irvine Co. in the 1960s, Dover Shores and the surrounding acreage that skirts the bay are places where homeowners, with help from civic engineers and state agencies, have long battled the elements.
One Galaxy Drive resident, who lives a few houses up from the scene and declined to give her name, said the land around her home and two others on the street was previously stabilized by caissons drilled deep into the hillside. She expressed cautious optimism that those efforts would provide some security following the landslide.
“I think we’re fortunate,” the resident said. “We feel bad for our neighbors. It’s the last thing you’d want to happen to anyone.”
Stabilization improvements are not uncommon for residents living on the bluff. Records provided by the city indicate that the homeowner at 1950 Galaxy submitted a request in 1992 for a geotechnical report as the result of a backyard “bluff failure.” A neighbor living at 1942 Galaxy was included in the investigation after having reported a similar failure.
The report that was later issued referenced early geotechnical work done in 1982 to respond to the “slumping” of the slope sometime shortly after the houses were built. One year later, multiple permits were pulled for the installation of “minipiles” — high-strength steel bars drilled into bedrock to provide additional foundation stability — on both properties as well as 1958 Galaxy Drive.
Those installations were followed up with retaining walls, hillside grading and slope repair, soil engineering and construction permits in a stabilization effort that took three years to complete.
City crews survey the damage
During a March 8 inspection of the scene, Newport Beach geologist and engineer Sergio Gutierrez explored the hillside encompassing the five homes between 1930 and 1958 Galaxy Drive as part of the geological investigation into the collapse.
“I’m looking for tension cracks and surficial slope failures — surface slumps that are characteristic that the soil is creeping,” he said, adding that V-ditches running along the bottom of the hillside needed to be maintained. “What’s problematic is to see water running through cracks, like tension cracks.”
Newport Beach Councilman Erik Weigand, who lives nearby and visited the site multiple times following the March 3 incident, watched firsthand as generator-powered pumps diverted storm water away from a nearby storm drain, which was not fully operational during the slide, and directly into the Back Bay.
“Utilities staff has been there 24/7, ensuring that the pumps were working properly,” Weigand said, praising the city’s swift response.
“From sourcing the equipment necessary to have staff present [day and night] shows dedication to the community.”
Protecting resources, securing resources
The hillside beneath Galaxy Drive, part of the Upper Newport Beach Ecological Reserve, falls under the jurisdiction of the California Department of Fish & Wildlife and runs right up to the property lines of the homes built there, according to CDFW spokesman Tim Daly.
Daly said the department was monitoring potentially shifting soil on the slope, in part, by employing a drone to get a clearer picture of how far debris has moved.
“We’re working with the homeowner and any contractor brought in to allow emergency access to our property as needed and with CDFW’s prior review,” he said in a March 9 interview.
Foley was hopeful the county’s inclusion in the governor’s storm state of emergency would free up resources that could help in the rebuilding process in Newport Beach and other impacted municipalities.
“A city in crisis cannot declare an emergency and get resources from the governor’s office. The county has to make that request,” she said Tuesday. “I just hope we can get some resources out here, rebuild the hill and help save these families’ homes.”
Staff writer Sara Cardine contributed to this report.
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