California Homeowners Deal with Landslide Aftermath

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The coastal community of Laguna Beach in southern California is picking up the pieces after Wednesday's landslide that destroyed nearly two dozen homes.

MELISSA BLOCK, host:

South of Los Angeles, more than 300 residents of a hillside neighborhood have been allowed to return to their homes. On Wednesday, a landslide destroyed part of Bluebird Canyon in Laguna Beach. Emergency workers have tagged the damaged homes. Yellow tags mean people can go in with a police escort, collect what they can and leave. The houses with red tags are just splintered reminders of the cost of hillside living in California. From member station KPCC, Rob Schmitz reports.

ROB SCHMITZ reporting:

The last time Robert Pompayo(ph) and his wife, Donna Marie(ph), were at home, tons of earth carrying 17 of their neighbors' homes rumbled down the hillside towards their house. This time they were escorted by Laguna Beach police and allowed a few minutes to grab life's essentials.

Mr. ROBERT POMPAYO: We don't have any underwear, we don't have any socks, you know, no toothpaste, no toothbrushes, nothing.

SCHMITZ: Pompayo and his wife were lucky; the slide narrowly missed their house. But all the houses around them were yellow- or red-tagged. A yellow tag means you can return to it under supervision during the day. A red tag means you can't go back; it's simply too dangerous.

(Soundbite of gathering)

SCHMITZ: Hours later at City Hall, 200 residents crammed into a stuffy meeting room while a hundred or so more craned their necks outside to peer through the windows. All were there to see when or if they'd be able to return to their homes. City manager Ken Frank explained how secure the area is.

Mr. KEN FRANK (City Manager): The slide is grossly stable at this point in time. There may be some movement, but there doesn't appear to be much movement around the outside.

SCHMITZ: Frank told the audience that the residents of 310 houses near the slide will be able to return to their homes, but each resident will have to carry a pass to enter. This system, he said, could last for months. The news wasn't as promising for residents of 48 other households that have been red- or yellow-tagged. Geologists will have several more weeks of work to figure out how the slide occurred and how to reinforce the hillside before these folks will be allowed back.

(Soundbite of siren)

SCHMITZ: Back at the landslide, a utility crew passed what looked like a metal detector over a street directly in front of red-tagged houses. The device is used to locate electrical lines under the pavement. Nearby, the animal control unit was searching damaged homes for abandoned pets.

Unidentified Woman: Careful.

SCHMITZ: Down the street, Robert Pompayo and Donna Marie gathered their belongings. Donna Marie says there was some inkling the earth was shifting prior to this slide. About a month ago she and her husband noticed their new patio had separated from their house. She pointed at a 3-inch gap between the two.

Mrs. DONNA MARIE POMPAYO: And this is the area where it's come away from the house, and I just sort of backfilled dirt all along this edge as well. So it has been moving, and if it's been moving, it's been doing it for a little while.

SCHMITZ: Donna and Robert don't have landslide insurance; they can't think of anybody here who does. It's just too expensive, they say. Robert says he doesn't even want to think about how his neighbors are going to deal with their insurance companies. Most of his neighbors, he says, are stressed as it is from the actual landslide.

Mr. POMPAYO: One of our neighbors ran down the hill with one child under each arm with the concrete following her down the hill yesterday. It was absolutely frightening. I mean, I was in Vietnam for 18 months during the heaviest fighting there, and this was just about as scary as anything I went through there.

SCHMITZ: And for many, dealing with the aftermath of this landslide could be almost as scary. But, says Robert Pompayo, everyone got out alive, and that's the most important result. For NPR News, I'm Rob Schmitz.

BLOCK: This is NPR, National Public Radio.

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