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Calif. Mudslide Kills 3, Traps Others

Hillside Buries Area of La Conchita as Storms Take Toll Across State

By Amy Argetsinger and Kimberly Edds
Washington Post Staff Writers
Tuesday, January 11, 2005; Page A02

LOS ANGELES, Jan. 10 -- A rain-saturated hillside collapsed on a small neighborhood just south of Santa Barbara on Monday, killing three people, injuring as many as eight and causing nine to be pulled from the mud that buried a dozen houses.

It was the most devastating single incident in a 24-hour period when the storms that have lashed the West Coast over the past two weeks began to take a toll of death and damage. Ventura County fire officials said as many as 12 La Conchita residents were missing, the Associated Press reported.

Utility workers Doug Quintal, left, and Eric Lawrence pass a collapsed house in Los Angeles. (Nick Ut -- AP)

_____Inclement Weather_____
Photo Gallery: Much of the nation braves conditions brought by winter storms.

Before Monday's mudslide, at least nine people had been killed in California in flash floods, isolated mudslides and traffic accidents on rain-slicked streets, including a 2-year-old girl who slipped from her mother's arms as rescuers tried to pluck them from their swamped car. A 13-year-old boy was killed near Las Vegas by an avalanche that swept him off a ski lift.

Yet the mudslide that struck La Conchita early Monday afternoon appeared to engulf a four-block stretch of the community, nestled alongside the small mountain range that faces the Pacific Ocean. Video on local television stations showed the hill as it virtually melted into a river of soil, brush and rocks that cascaded onto the homes. Residents were seen sprinting from the area in an attempt to outrun the muddy flow.

"It sounded like when you dump a wheelbarrow full of gravel and dirt," said Jerry Dunn, an art supplies salesman who has lived in the neighborhood for 23 years. "Unfortunately a lot of people were caught taking a nap. We had no warning."

Local fire officials said they had just begun evacuating the neighborhood when the slide occurred. While victims were taken to hospitals with injuries, rescue workers cautiously looked for others.

"One of the things we are real concerned about is we've got that real unstable hillside hanging over the folks who are trying to do the rescue," said Tom Kruschke, public information officer for the Ventura County Fire Department. "So we've got to watch both ends of the game."

The landslide came as the West endured the fifth straight day of rain and snow, part of a storm expected to continue through Wednesday and just the latest in a series that has buffeted the region since before New Year's Day.

In the first 10 days of 2005, this city has received more rain -- 15 inches -- than it usually collects in a year. In the Sierra Nevada mountains near Reno, meteorologists have recorded the deepest snowpacks since 1916.

"We usually see up to a week for a storm, but this is going on two weeks straight now," said Stuart Seto, a specialist with the National Weather Service in Oxnard, Calif. "Everything is totally saturated, and any additional rainfall is just runoff. We have a pretty monstrous storm, and it's just running off."

The rain triggered major flash floods across Southern California. A man whose car skidded off Interstate 5 near Cerritos was washed into a concrete storm channel. Local television news showed dramatic footage of firefighters trying to rescue him: As the force of the water ripped the clothes from his body, rescuers on an overpass threw him a rope and pulled him up, only to watch him lose his grasp and tumble back into the rapids. He was later pulled to safety from the channel bank.

Los Angeles County officials were considering whether to press charges in connection with the drowning of the 2-year-old. Her mother had allegedly ignored road barricades and driven into a flooded street.

Another vehicle slipped off the scenic Pacific Coast Highway in Malibu and plunged into the surf. One passenger was washed out of the car and later found dead.

Elsewhere in the Los Angeles area, a homeless man was killed when the hillside where his tent was pitched gave way. A home worth $1.5 million in the Hollywood Hills collapsed, undermined by a cascade of mud. A man who was house-sitting was rescued along with his two children.

After devastating wildfires in 2003, officials in Southern California feared that deforested areas would be vulnerable to mudslides. Some of those areas have had minor mudslides, but most problems have not been where the fires were.

Instead, the La Conchita mudslide is likely to renew debate about development and runoff management on Southern California's delicate bluffs and hillsides.

The same neighborhood was devastated by a similar mudslide that crushed nine homes almost exactly 10 years ago. No one was killed, but 100 homes were evacuated, and some residents were kept from their homes for two months.

Property values plummeted. But they rebounded in later years, after Ventura County bolstered the bluffs with the construction of a 280-foot-long retaining wall, and homebuyers found themselves drawn again to the picturesque ocean views. Recent home sales have surpassed $600,000.

Hank Alviani, 77, who lived in La Conchita for 18 years, moved a few miles away after the 1995 landslide. On Monday, he watched on TV as the wall of mud came within a few doors of his old house and said that it did not have to happen again.

Alviani was one of 146 homeowners who sued the nearby La Conchita Ranch for $24 million, arguing that over-irrigation of the 40,000 avocado and citrus trees above the village caused 930,000 tons of mud and silt to tumble down the hill. A judge ruled against them.

"We had ideas on how to fix it. It could have been fixed. It can be fixed," said Alviani, who suggested terracing the hills. "But there wasn't the money."

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