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Mixed news in landslide area

David Scherer surveys the damage Thursday after returning to his home after Wednesday's landslide in Laguna Beach Calif.
 (Associated Press / The Spokesman-Review)
David Scherer surveys the damage Thursday after returning to his home after Wednesday's landslide in Laguna Beach Calif. (Associated Press / The Spokesman-Review)
William M. Welch USA Today

LAGUNA BEACH, Calif. – Evacuated residents of Blue Bird Canyon began returning to their homes Thursday, some just to retrieve vital items and others to resume their lives, on a picturesque Pacific hillside devastated by a landslide a day earlier.

A light rain fell, an unwelcome complication to a disaster that city officials blame on unusually heavy rains earlier this year. Geologists hired by the city said water took weeks to soak through layers of soil and undermine the foundations of million-dollar homes.

But City Manager Ken Frank told exhausted residents at an afternoon meeting that “we believe the slide is grossly stable at this point.” Frank suggested there was no apparent danger of another major collapse.

“There doesn’t appear to be much movement around,” he said. He added that the city was establishing ground monitors and that geologists would begin drilling through the layers of soil and bedrock to learn more about the cause of the landslide and determine the boundaries of the weakened areas. The tests could take months, he said.

Residents of homes outside the “hot zone,” where the most heavily damaged and threatened homes are located, were given permission to begin returning late Thursday evening. They were being allowed in on a staggered schedule based on address, city police Capt. Danelle Adams said.

Adams urged residents, however, to delay their return by a day or two to give utility crews and city workers time to restore water, sewer and gas service. “If you want to stay, that’s up to you,” Adams told residents.

But for residents of 48 homes, the news wasn’t so good.

The city tagged homes it said were destroyed or no long habitable. Residents would be allowed back to some of them to retrieve medicines and valuables on a case-by-case basis. Frank warned residents of the most heavily damaged homes, a dozen or more, that the wreckage was too dangerous for them to enter even for a few minutes. To those residents, he said, “You’re not going to get in your houses for months.”

A few people managed to get to their homes before officials conducted a briefing at the City Hall. There, hundreds of evacuated people waiting for word about their homes jammed a meeting room and spilled out the doors and down the hall.

Lynda Sharp, 65, was allowed past police lines with her daughter Stacia Marin, of nearby Mission Viejo, for a few minutes. Her two-story home sits at the base of the slide area and was untouched. In front of her house, police cars, utility trucks and pieces of heavy earth-moving equipment idled noisily or moved slowly. “This is what we’ll live with for the next two years,” Marin said.

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