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Landslide Hit California Amid New Luxury Housing

RENEE MONTAGNE, host:

A landslide in Laguna Beach here in Southern California sent 17 multimillion-dollar houses crashing down a hill. Landslides there have caused about a thousand people to be evacuated from more than 350 homes. There were no serious injuries. From member station KPCC, Rob Schmitz filed this report.

ROB SCHMITZ reporting:

This is what it sounds like after a neighborhood falls down a hill.

(Soundbite of natural gas pipe leak; helicopter)

SCHMITZ: At the bottom of the quarter-mile-long landslide, a tight row of single-story homes are crushed by the movement of the earth, a single pipe juts into the air above them, broken by the slide and spewing out natural gas. For police officers at the scene, the odor is too strong to go near. Two blocks away, utility crews worked frantically to turn the gas line off. Helicopters hover above, assessing the damage. Clara Candelaria lives here at the bottom of the landslide. Popping noises from the power lines woke her up at 7 in the morning.

Ms. CLARA CANDELARIA (Resident): And right after the electricity went off, heard this sharp explosion that sounded almost like gunfire.

SCHMITZ: Beams of the houses on the hillside above her home were popping as the earth under the neighborhood gave way.

Ms. CANDELARIA: And then I saw people coming out of their houses and running down the hillside and knew right away that it was sliding.

SCHMITZ: In less than half an hour, homes were destroyed, leaving the hillside a hodgepodge of mangled houses, slabs of flower gardens jutting up here and there, and on top of the hill, mansions dangling over a newly formed cliff. Their floors had fallen hundreds of feet below them. Another 20 homes were considered to be in danger of sliding. As it turns out, almost everyone in this neighborhood managed to escape unscathed. There were only four minor injuries related to the slide.

The cause of the disaster is still under investigation, but geologists on the scene said it was almost certainly related to the winter storms that drenched Southern California. Laguna Beach alone received 28 inches of rain since last July, more than double the annual average. Geologists think the hillside is located on what they call an ancient landslide zone, an area that experienced a lot of slides in prehistoric times. Pam Irvine works for the California Geological Survey.

Ms. PAM IRVINE (California Geological Survey): You have a lot of these ancient landslides that occurred when the climate was wetter that cover large areas, and then when there are heavy rainstorms in the here and now, then you can get smaller slides coming off of the ancient landslides because the material has already been weakened.

(Soundbite of helicopter)

SCHMITZ: But for Carrie Lang(ph), who lives just houses down from homes that buckled under the landslide, this was no small slide. Lang, who lives in what she calls a small cottage, says as long as the demand for bigger homes on steeper hillsides in Southern California continues, more and more of these slides will dominate the headlines.

Ms. CARRIE LANG (Resident): You've got laborers on top of the hill building a huge--they're mansionizing and building these ridiculously large homes and then they've got to build bigger and bigger and bigger, and for what? And now what do you have? You have nothing. You know, you get evacuated, you leave with your dog and yourself. I've got nothing. I've got $80 in Trader Joe's rotting in the refrigerator right now. I just went to the store last night.

SCHMITZ: And to add to her sour mood, Lang says, the first call she received immediately after the slide was not from concerned family or friends. It was from her credit union. They called to tell her that her home equity line of credit was canceled. Geologists and emergency crews will continue their cleanup and assessment of the slide throughout the coming weeks. For NPR News, I'm Rob Schmitz in Orange County, California.

MONTAGNE: This is NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Rob Schmitz is NPR's international correspondent based in Berlin, where he covers the human stories of a vast region reckoning with its past while it tries to guide the world toward a brighter future. From his base in the heart of Europe, Schmitz has covered Germany's levelheaded management of the COVID-19 pandemic, the rise of right-wing nationalist politics in Poland and creeping Chinese government influence inside the Czech Republic.
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