msnbc.com staff and news service reports
updated 6/2/2005 8:58:32 PM ET 2005-06-03T00:58:32

Hundreds of evacuated residents were allowed to return to their homes Thursday, a day after multimillion-dollar houses with vistas of the Southern California coastline went slipping down a canyon in a landslide.

Though 48 homes remained at least temporarily off-limits, people were allowed back to about 310 undamaged homes as crews worked to restore gas and phone service to the area, City Manager Ken Frank said. Electricity was back on in most homes Thursday.

City officials said seven homes were destroyed and 15 suffered significant damage.

Twenty-two of the affected homes were considered uninhabitable because of damage or their proximity to the slide; access was limited to 26 because of damage or their proximity to the slide.

Assistant City Manager John Pietig said damage estimates had changed since the slide — and could shift again in coming days.

Nerves on edge
“Some of you, you’ve got your houses down the hill,” Frank told more than 250 people who packed a meeting at City Hall. “You’re not going to get in now. You’re not going to get in this month.”

More than 24 hours after the disaster, frayed nerves were clearly in evidence.

“We don’t have any clothes except the ones we have on our backs,” said 65-year-old retiree Ruth Castro. “There’s things that have to be done at home.”

Castro owns two homes in the affected area and had been monitoring them from a nearby hillside using binoculars. She will be barred from entering one; the other was unaffected.

‘A vast landscape changed’
Carrie Lange, 44, said she had used foot trails to sneak past police barricades back to her 1934 cottage, which wasn’t damaged. But Lonnie Duka, a 54-year-old photography professor who retrieved medicine at his house Thursday, noticed a nearby driveway had shifted 150 feet.

“The vista out of the house is so shocking: a vast landscape changed. You have this beautiful canyon view, and now there’s a driveway in it,” said Duka, who had lived in the home for 22 years.

Five people suffered minor injuries in the slide.

The cause of the disaster was under investigation. Ed Harp of the U.S. Geological Survey said it was almost certainly related to the winter storms that drenched Southern California. Laguna Beach got nearly double its usual yearly rainfall. A geologist contracted by the city agreed the cause was most likely rainfall, but said more tests were needed.

The slide occurred about a mile from the beach on steep sandstone hills that have been densely covered with large two- and three-story homes, many worth $2 million or more.

Insurance snafu ahead?
Officials said residents likely wouldn’t be able to recoup their major losses. Insurers have been eliminating coverage for landslides in recent years, though some still offer it. Poulton Associates Inc. said a policy covering a $1 million home would cost about $3,500 a year.

“Right now we have a moratorium on Laguna Beach,” said Josh Feinauer, an administrator for the Salt Lake City-based insurer.

About 1,000 people in 350 other homes were evacuated Wednesday as a precaution in this Orange County community about 50 miles southeast of Los Angeles.

Residents were alerted to the slide shortly before 7 a.m. that morning by popping and cracking as power poles went down, homes fractured and trees disappeared. People grabbed their children, pets and belongings and fled as streets buckled around them.

“People heard the noise and were very, very quick to get out of the area,” said police Capt. Danell Adams.

Residents recall events
Here's how some of the evacuees recalled the disaster:

Jill Lockhart said the nightmare began when she woke up to the sounds of her neighborhood falling apart — wood cracking, glass shattering and jackhammer-like noises she could not identify.

She pulled on a pair of shorts lying near the bed, grabbed her 2-year-old and threw him over her shoulder, then ran upstairs to get her 4-year-old.

“I said, ’Let’s go, we have to get out of the house, the house is moving.”

As they ran outside, she saw the homes around her slipping away. “You could hear the homes breaking. You could hear the cracking wood,” she said.

Barefoot and holding onto her children for dear life, she stumbled to a neighbor’s SUV, but their path was blocked by a utility pole.

“It was horrible. It was like a nightmare,” the 35-year-old mother said. The pavement was “shifting up and down” and then the road went nowhere, sheared off.

A passing teenager grabbed her older son and together they scrambled down the scrub-covered hillside to safety.

Her two-story home was destroyed.

“I don’t know how everyone got out alive,” she said at the bottom of the hill. “My cat’s still up there, our whole lives, everything.”

Haley Stevens was getting ready for school when the 14-year-old’s morning routine was shattered by the sounds of trees and wood-frame houses being torn from their foundation.

The next thing she knew, her family was rushing out the door as a massive landslide bore down on the neighborhood of hillside homes perched along one of the most picturesque sections of Southern California’s coastline.

When they made it outside their home, the ground was collapsing beneath them: “We started to feel the street move and we just started sprinting,” she said.

“We were very scared, my brother and I. We were freaking out,” said Stevens, who suffered a minor injury from stepping on a cactus in her bare feet.

Robert Pompeo, a retiree whose home is about 75 yards from the ridge where the most homes were lost, said “people were running down the hill like a bomb had gone off. I mean literally, they had their bed clothes on.”

Carrie Joyce, one of those who fled, said "the pipes started making funny noises and the toilet sounded like it was about to explode.”

“I could see one house, huge, we call it ‘the mausoleum,’ 5,000 square feet or more," she added. "It had buckled, the retaining wall in the front of it was cracked. It just looked like the whole house was going.”

School becomes shelter
The slide occurred about a mile from the beach on steep sandstone hills covered with large homes.

Nearby Laguna Hills High School is doubling as a Red Cross evacuation center where residents filter in and out of the school gym, hoping to learn when they might be allowed back into their homes to retrieve belongings and pets.

“It’s just been overwhelming,” said Vera Martinez, a 65-year-old retiree.

Wake-up call for the coast
Earlier this year, scientists warned that destructive landslides would be possible and they point to Laguna Beach as a wake-up call for other coastal communities to be on the lookout for any slight earth movement.

“We’re not out of the woods yet,” geologist Randall Jibson said.

Laguna Beach has been dry since a trace of rainfall nearly a month ago, but before that, Southern California had its second-rainiest season on record. The region has gotten nearly 28 inches of rain since last July, more than double the annual average.

At the top of the hill, the foundations of several homes were left exposed, their corners jutting out with nothing underneath to support them. One road ended abruptly, with the edge of the pavement hanging over a tangle of debris scattered downhill.

City manager Ken Frank expected about a third of the evacuees — those farthest from the slide — to be back in their homes in the next day or two. Others will be allowed to retrieve belongings under supervision Thursday.

300 homes hit in 1998
Laguna Beach, offering vistas of the Pacific from coastal bluffs, has been hit before by flooding, mudslides and wildfire. In 1998, a rainstorm triggered slides that damaged 300 homes, 18 of them severely, and killed two people. A fire in 1993 swept down into the city and destroyed some 400 homes. Most were rebuilt within a half-dozen years. And in October 1978, a slide in the same canyon destroyed 14 homes.

The area has some of Southern California’s most desirable real estate. The damaged homes generally sell for $2 million or more, residents said. Recently, the community was prominently featured on the MTV show “Laguna Beach: The Real Orange County” that debuted in September.

Last January, a landslide crashed down into the coastal community of La Conchita, in Ventura County northwest of Los Angeles, killing 10 people.

The Associated Press and Reuters contributed to this report.

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