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Restored canyon to be dedicated

A pounding rainstorm tested the Bluebird Canyon restoration last week, but the hillside held its ground.

The completed restoration will be dedicated Saturday, two years, six months, 13 days, five hours and 49 minutes after the first 911 call was logged by the Police Department at 6:51 a.m. June 1, 2005.

“It gives me great pleasure that with all the work done by so many to see people getting their lives back,” said Councilwoman Elizabeth Schneider, mayor on that fateful June day. “I want to see the families start to rebuild.”

The miracle was that no one died or was even seriously injured when the earth ripped apart that June dawn and sent homes and hillside crashing into the canyon and the homes below. Firefighters were on the scene with search and rescue equipment by 7:05 a.m. and less than two hours later, the safe evacuation of an estimated 750 to 1,000 canyon residents was under way.


Division Fire Chief Jeff LaTendresse and Police Motorcycle Officer Robert Van Gorder were awarded medals for their heroics, but all emergency personnel were lauded for their response in an all too-familiar-scenario of catastrophe.

“Unfortunately, we have seen too many disasters, between landslides, floods and fires,” City Manager Ken Frank said. “We are good at coping.”

“I think we did an excellent job in our initial response and I think assigning a staff member to [displaced] individual homeowners was excellent.”

The City Council declared a local disaster at noon, a declaration good for only 21 days and renewed at every council meeting since the landslide.


When the dust settled on June 1, 22 homes were red-tagged, meaning they were too dangerous to enter, and 15 were believed to be beyond repair. Another 14 homes showed no structural damage but were yellow-tagged for their location on the perimeter of the “hot” zone. All told, more than 40 homes were considered too dangerous to reoccupy that day.

“Once again, the community proved itself by coming together when there are people in need,” Schneider said.

Donations of money, clothing and temporary shelter poured in. By 5 p.m. on the afternoon of the landslide, every evacuee had a place to stay. Some of them were able to return to their homes late that afternoon, escorted by emergency personnel. Some are still waiting.

  Evacuee turned coordinator

Bluebird Canyon resident Bob Burnham was among the evacuees whose home was undamaged.

“I was just thinking about the safety of my family when we were evacuated,” Burnham said.

A short four days later, City Manager Ken Frank would ask the retired Newport Beach City Attorney to serve as Community Disaster Coordinator for the duration of the repairs.

“I didn’t have a clue — no concept of what my role would be and I don’t think Ken did either,” Burnham said. “The biggest challenge was learning on the fly.”


Frank said the project would not be where it is today without the remarkable efforts of Burnham.

“It is hard to find somebody who wants to work more than full time on a stressful project,” Frank said. “He has devoted his time — really his life — to get this done. He has dealt with the staff, government officials, construction workers and people under great stress and kept the project going.

“He has been a godsend for me.”

And he worked cheap, always a plus with Frank.

In the beginning, Burnham was paid $50 an hour, later raised to $100 an hour; his real value incalculable.

Schneider said the fact that none of the displaced families resorted to litigation is a tribute to Burnham’s skill, tact and genuine concern for them.

Laguna Beach civil engineer Hannes Richter of Geofirm, who worked on the project from the get go, also described Burnham as a blessing.

Burnham said the credit goes to the community, the displaced families who hung together, city staff, and all the people who worked on the project, with special nods to John Schiller of Steve Bubalo Construction Co. and Craig Greenman of the Moote Group engineering firm.


“There were [a] million people who played a huge role in the restoration,” Burnham said.

Frank has in his office a list of more than 150 donors, including the Laguna Board of Realtors, who contributed $45,000 to assist the devastated families.

However, Burnham was the linchpin on which displaced families pinned their hopes for the future, made bleaker by the fact that landslide damage is not covered by insurance. And Schneider was dubbed Laguna’s Angel for her unflagging efforts on behalf of the distressed families.

Within a week of the landslide, Schneider had enlisted the aid of Assemblyman Chuck DeVore in her quest for state permission to house the families in vacant El Morro Village mobile homes and she and Frank never stopped working for federal and state financial assistance.

Even without a parachute, work began.

By the last week in June, the property owners had agreed to allow the city to begin demolishing the 12 irreparably damaged homes, with the understanding that if their insurance had a demolition payoff, it would be turned over to the city.

The homes and the debris that littered the slumped land had to be removed to make way for the restoration of the hillside and repairs to city infrastructure.

Bob and Joan Power’s home was the first to go. The Powers now live in San Diego County, near Fallbrook, and do not intend to rebuild.

“We are settled here and we like it,” Power said. “It is less crowded.”

Nonetheless, he is delighted the restoration has been completed.

“It’s marvelous that they got it done,” Power said Tuesday. “If not, I wouldn’t have anything to sell.”

  Costs spiraled upward

The city did not have the luxury of a prolonged review, usual in a project of the magnitude of Bluebird Canyon — one of the reasons for the upward spiral in estimated costs.

“We had to take emergency measures to protect the health and safety of the public, without fully exploring the site, to prevent more homes or hillside from falling down,” Frank said. “We didn’t know what we were going to find, but it had to happen.”

For sure, something had to be done to restore crumpled streets, shore up others and remove the dirt piled on top of sewer and water pipes in the canyon, clogging the drainage.

“We had a pretty good idea of what was going on even before we started moving dirt,” Richter said. “Timing was one of our two biggest challenges. Everything was an emergency. We were trying to do six months’ investigation in six weeks.

“And during the construction, we were trying to keep the site stable while we were digging out pieces of it and not having a place to put the dirt. We were always in our own way.”

  Nearly 1M cubic yards of dirt moved

Eventually, 64,000 cubic yards of dirt were removed from the site and almost 900,000 cubic yards of dirt were rearranged to rebuild and buttress the hillside.

At one point the large shoring wall at the base of the hill moved eight inches north to south, a serious complication that added time and cost to the project.

When restoration began, city officials assumed that the Federal Emergency Management Agency would help fund the project, based on the belief that the previous winter rain storms were the culprits, which would qualify the city disaster for financial assistance. They and state officials were shocked to hear that FEMA declined the city’s application.

“Ken got busy figuring out how to fund the emergency repairs,” Burnham said. “Without FEMA, draconian cuts would have to have been made in city services and capital improvement projects — even more draconian than we estimated at the time.”

Frank quickly identified $5 million in budget cuts to get the project started: winterization had to be completed before the rainy season. But costs were to escalate dramatically.

Winterization estimates had climbed to $6.5 million by mid-July, capped in early August at $7.5, about the same time that Schneider launched the Adopt-A-Family program, assisted by Planning Commissioner Ann Johnson.

The council decided to ask residents if they would approve a sales tax increase to help fund the restoration and seed a disaster fund for the future.

  Sen. Feinstein visited site

Then, Schneider sought the help of California Sen. Dianne Feinstein.

Feinstein visited the site Oct. 11, where she met with Jill Lockhart and her sons, Tyler and Trey, then 2 and 4, who had lost their Flamingo Road home.

“It breaks my heart to see this,” Feinstein said.

The Senator pledged to get funding in some appropriation bill or another — maybe a transportation bill since public roads had been destroyed. She also directly contacted the Department of Homeland Security asking for FEMA funds to be approved.

The state Office of Emergency Services also supported Laguna’s application.

Feinstein’s successful intervention, which she announced Nov. 14, was applauded by even the most conservative of the city’s Republicans.

“We were fortunate to have Dianne Feinstein who helped us get FEMA funding,” Frank said. “We won’t know the exact amount we will get for three to six months, but we are hoping it will pay for the preponderance of the project.”

  Tax increase needed

City officials said that FEMA’s revised decision did not obviate the need for the sales tax increase, which was approved by the voters in a special election on Dec. 13, 2005, by which time Frank estimated the total job would cost $15 million to $17 million.

In January, 2006, Frank announced at the mid-year budget update that $8,236,000 had been spent on emergency repairs and another $7,355,000 on permanent restoration, but he was able to restore much of the $5 million borrowed from city funds.

Contracts for grading and related work were awarded in April and the project was on track.

As of July 2006, the total recovery was expected to cost $20,500,000.

Burnham reported in September that the drainage project had been completed, the headscarp — the sharp cliff at the top of the slide — was stabilized and measures had been taken to minimize water penetration in the upcoming winter. Erosion and flow control devices had been installed.

Burnham also reported that the initial stage of the Flamingo Road restoration was complete. Grading was expected to be completed by mid-January 2007 and all road, utility, slope protection and surface drainage facility work to be completed by March 2007.

Crews were working 11 hours a day, six days a week, and sometimes seven, but the deadline couldn’t be met. Time, labor and materials are all costly commodities that continue to increase.

The city suffered a setback in November 2006 when a geological investigation uncovered evidence of an unstable area between the 2005 and 1978 slides.

The slope failure would have impacted the Flamingo Road restoration and the council appropriated $225,000 from Measure A receipts to add the project to the 2005 tab, the cost to be shared by the city and the affected property owners.

In January, 2007, the total cost of the project was estimated at $21.9 million for the landslide recovery and $8.2 million for Flamingo Road, expected to reach $13.6 at completion.

“It’s been a long process,” said City Manager Ken Frank. “We have spent close to $35 million and it is the largest construction project in the history of the city, but it is certainly one of the city’s outstanding accomplishment in my 28 years here. I hope it is the last one.”

The dedication is set for noon Saturday. Parking and shuttle service will be available at St. Paul’s Lutheran Church, 1190 Morningside Drive. Refreshments will be served.