California beach mansions wrecked in landslide

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The Independent US

The first signs of trouble were the unusual noises - what sounded like the rushing of a nearby creek, then metallic pops and the crack and rustle of trees toppling. Then the hilltop residents of Bluebird Canyon, one of the most desirable neighbourhoods in Laguna Beach, south of Los Angeles, felt the ground begin to give beneath their feet. And they ran for their lives.

The first signs of trouble were the unusual noises - what sounded like the rushing of a nearby creek, then metallic pops and the crack and rustle of trees toppling. Then the hilltop residents of Bluebird Canyon, one of the most desirable neighbourhoods in Laguna Beach, south of Los Angeles, felt the ground begin to give beneath their feet. And they ran for their lives.

Yesterday, in the aftermath of a landslide that was as dramatic as it was utterly unexpected, the once-proud multimillion-dollar homes looked like they had been hit by an earthquake: 17 had slid off their foundations and crumpled, another 11 were damaged. Streets buckled and collapsed on to each other, telephone and electricity poles toppled and gas and water pipes were ripped from the ground.

Extraordinarily, almost nobody was hurt. Emergency services reported nothing worse than a few cuts and a twisted ankle. The landslide hit at 7am on Wednesday, just as residents were getting ready to go to work or school. Those who did not leave their houses on their own initiative were hauled out in time by rescue workers. About 350 homes were evacuated, their residents told they could retrieve their belongings only under expert supervision.

The spectacle of southern California's super-rich being overwhelmed by the forces of nature has become familiar in recent years as land prices continue to soar and the temptation to build on geologically dubious foundations becomes ever more alluring.

Bluebird Canyon is a typical example, a growing community in the hills above one of the most desirable towns on the Orange County coast, with views of the ocean and, on clear days, Catalina Island some 20 miles offshore. Never mind that the canyon suffered a similar landslide in 1978, or that Laguna Beach in general - beyond its art galleries and boutique cafés and restaurants - is known for its vulnerability to flooding and land slippage. In southern California, with its seismic faults and periodic raging hill fires and capricious tides and any number of other natural liabilities, the tendency is to think in the short term and adopt an attitude of fatalism or outright denial in the face of nature.

The whole city of Malibu, the playground of Hollywood's richest, north-west of Los Angeles between the Pacific and the Santa Monica mountains, is regularly tormented by high tides, fires, landslides and environmentally damaging disruptions of its septic waste system. Were it not for its desirability, and the dizzying price tags attached to its homes, it would probably have no rational business existing at all.

Bluebird Canyon's already precarious status was further undone by last winter's near-record rains, which have already been responsible for a fatal mudslide in a coastal resort near Santa Barbara and could yet - even now the weather has dried up - wreak further havoc in communities on the Pacific coast.

In Los Angeles proper, authorities sounded the alarm in the Hollywood Hills and other areas, where hundreds of finely appointed homes belonging to actors, entertainment lawyers and musicians are perched delicately on the edge of steep inclines. (When the main character in the Steven Soderbergh filmThe Limey asks what is holding up one particularly dramatic Hollywood canyon terrace, he is told: "Trust.")

During the winter rains, rushing streams in Laurel Canyon and Coldwater Canyon played havoc with the roads and caused water damage. Now the fear is that the experience of Bluebird Canyon could be repeated - also without warning. "We're not out of the woods yet," Randall Jibson, a landslide expert with the US Geological Survey, told The Los Angeles Times. "This could happen for some time."

Some of the most vulnerable areas are in southern Orange County, which is known for the price of its plush suburban homes and also the regulatory vacuum in which property developers have operated for several decades. Geologists also put out a further warning about La Conchita, the beach community near Santa Barbara where 10 people were killed in a landslide in January.

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