LAGUNA BEACH, Calif. – A landslide sent 17 multimillion-dollar houses crashing down a hill in Southern California early Wednesday as homeowners alarmed by the sound of walls and pipes coming apart ran for their lives in their pajamas. Five people suffered minor injuries.
About 1,000 people in 350 other homes in the Blue Bird Canyon (search) area were evacuated as a precaution.
In addition to the 17 houses destroyed — earlier reports said as many as 18 had been destroyed — 11 were damaged and a street was wrecked when the earth gave way around daybreak in this Orange County (search) community about 50 miles southeast of Los Angeles.
Residents were alerted to the slide shortly before 7 a.m. 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 were running down the hill like a bomb had gone off. I mean literally, they had their bed clothes on," said Robert Pompeo, 56, a retiree whose home is about 75 yards from the ridge where the most homes were lost.
The cause of the disaster was under investigation. But Ed Harp of the U.S. Geological Survey (search) said it was almost certainly related to the winter storms that drenched Southern California. A geologist contracted by the city agreed the cause was most likely rainfall, but said more tests were needed.
Laguna Beach (search) 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.
The slide occurred about a mile from the beach on steep sandstone hills covered with large homes.
"The pipes started making funny noises and the toilet sounded like it was about to explode," said Carrie Joyce, one of those who fled. "I could see one house, huge, we call it `the mausoleum,' 5,000 square feet or more. It had buckled, the retaining wall in the front of it was cracked. It just looked like the whole house was going."
Jill Lockhart, 35, was awakened by the noise of shattering glass and walls. Barefoot and in shorts, Lockhart fled with her son Tyson, 2, over her shoulder and Trey, 4, stumbling along in his pajamas.
They got into a neighbor's SUV, but their path was blocked by a utility pole, forcing them to the road. A teenage neighbor grabbed one child from her. They abandoned Flamingo Road as it buckled and plunged beneath them. They scrambled down the shrub and dirt-covered hillside. Lockhart's two-story home was destroyed.
"We had to run for our lives," she said. "I don't know how everyone got out alive."
Multistory homes came to rest at odd angles, some nearly intact and others splintered and trailing debris. One house, snapped in two, had an American flag fluttering from a balcony.
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 said he 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 were going to be allowed to retrieve belongings under supervision Thursday.
Two children were admitted to a hospital in good condition, and two others were treated at the scene for minor injuries, authorities said. A 71-year-old woman whose house was destroyed was taken to the hospital, suffering what appeared to be the effects of stress.
Laguna Beach, offering vistas of the Pacific from coastal bluffs, has some of Southern California's most desirable real estate. The damaged homes generally sell for $2 million or more, residents said.
The neighborhoods have been hit before by flooding, mudslides and wildfire. In February 1998, a rainstorm triggered slides that damaged 300 homes, 18 of them severely, and killed two people. An October 1993 fire 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.
Last January, a landslide crashed down into the coastal community of La Conchita, in Ventura County northwest of Los Angeles, killing 10 people.
Laguna Beach's Pageant of the Masters — a festival in which famous artworks are recreated with live actors — has drawn crowds for decades. The community was prominently featured on the MTV show "Laguna Beach: The Real Orange County" that debuted in September, chronicling the lifestyle and love lives of local teens.