SAN DIEGO, Calif. - Two homes were destroyed, 15 others were left uninhabitable and a major thoroughfare was closed Wednesday after a swath of La Jolla's slide-prone Mount Soledad collapsed, authorities said.
The slide, which occurred shortly before 9 a.m. along and east of Soledad Mountain Road, knocked down power lines and caused a minor gas leak. Police officers and firefighters went door-to-door, evacuating 52 residents.
|HOMES DAMAGED - One home was destroyed, several others damaged and others evacuated when a hillside collapsed Wednesday morning in the La Jolla area of San Diego. CNS Photo courtesy of SignOn San Diego. |
No injuries were reported, but officials worried throughout the day about continuing slippage.
At an afternoon news conference, Robert Hawk, the city's senior engineering geologist and a deputy city engineer, said he believes the "major slide event" has already happened, though the earth may continue to move slightly.
Authorities said they had "red tagged" nine homes, meaning no one is allowed to enter, and "yellow tagged" eight others, where residents can return to gather things, such as medicine and other necessities, but cannot stay.
Houses damaged or destroyed can be rebuilt, Hawk said, "but first we'll have to look at what we need to do to make them safe and stable."
City officials said they had been monitoring the area for weeks because of geological instability, including cracked paving on Soledad Mountain Road that residents first reported in July.
In recent weeks, temporary above-ground water lines were installed and emergency crews were put on alert.
The area affected is along the east side of Soledad Mountain Road between Desert View Drive and Palomino Circle, a neighborhood where home values exceed $1 million each.
City officials said they evacuated a total of 52 people: 18 from 10 houses on Desert View Drive, nine from five houses on Soledad Mountain Road and 25 from 15 houses on Palomino Circle.
They urged any displaced residents to go to Kate Sessions Park, at Lamont Street and Soledad Mountain Road in Pacific Beach, where the Red Cross set up an evacuation center. The agency also arranged with county animal control officials to find homes for any displaced pets.
City officials had delivered letters Tuesday night to four homes in the 5600 and 5700 block of Soledad Mountain Road, warning residents not to sleep in their homes "effective immediately" because of soil instability.
"As you are aware, the city of San Diego has been investigating what appears to be natural instability of soils under city property near your home," Hawk said in the letter.
The landslide cracked and buckled a 200-foot stretch of Soledad Mountain Road, which was closed indefinitely from Palomino Circle on the north to Desert View Drive on the south. (The two streets form one street that loops off of and runs downhill from Soledad Mountain Road.)
Some 411 customers were without electrical power for much of the day, though power to all but 25 was restored by midafternoon, according to SDG&E. Three power poles were left leaning by the shifting ground. One natural-gas line was leaking, but was being shut off, the utility said.
Gas was shut off in the affected area, and water and sewer service was shut off for 14 homes, city officials said.
Ross Clark, whose home on Desert View Drive was one of at least four directly downhill from the shifting hillside, said the slide occurred shortly before 9 a.m.
"I heard the fence starting to crack. I heard a tree coming down. We grabbed the dogs and ran," he said, adding that he and his wife returned a short time later.
"The road is blocked by about 25 feet of dirt," he said at the time. "It's still shifting."
Clark said he was "looking at the mountain going into my pool and the neighbor's house."
The ground gave way beneath contractors who were manning drilling rigs and installing high-tech devices to measure the hillside's movement and they had to scramble to safety.
"It moved a humongous amount, in the order of tens of feet," said Rupert Adams, supervising geologist for the firm Helenschmidt Geotechnical.
"Fortunately we were able to pull out."
Adams spoke by cell phone from a Desert View Drive alley below the slide, where he said at least one house had been partly buried under tons of dirt.
His firm had been hired to measure what was expected to be the gradual shifting of the hillside and to figure out how to fix it. The luxury of time has now vanished.
About 100 firefighters and 50 police officers converged on the neighborhood after the collapse, assisting in the evacuation.
"Most homes they went to, no one was home," said Maurice Luque, a spokesman with the San Diego Fire-Rescue Department.
A water tender and fire engines were brought to the area in case a fire broke out while water to the neighborhood was cut off, Luque said.
At one point, a police helicopter circled overhead, ordering residents to evacuate: "If you can hear this, you need to prepare to evacuate."
Joseph Kazanchi said his parents' home on Soledad Mountain Road was one of the four homes where residents were warned to evacuate Tuesday night. He said he and his sister packed up some of the family's possessions and parked cars in different locations.
Susan Kazanchi was at the home Wednesday morning when the ground began to move.
"The house fell. The neighbors' fell. The street fell," Susan Kazanchi said. She said police officers moved her away from the home.
Joseph Kazanchi said his parents bought the house in the 1980s and had recently renovated it. They were on a trip to Turkey but were already making plans to come home after hearing about what happened.
He said he and his sister were checking every two hours to see when they would be allowed back into the home.
The hillside has been slowly slipping for years due to the natural instability of the soil, with slide incidents there dating to the 1960s.
But the slippage accelerated in recent months, Hawk said, causing cracks in streets, alleyways and water lines. He noted the area was developed about 50 years ago.
Hawk said such factors as water seepage from pipes or past storm damage do not appear to have played a role in the collapse.
"This looks like a geology slide," Hawk said.
As a precaution, Hawk said, water crews in recent weeks removed water lines from beneath Soledad Mountain Road, replacing them with temporary lines atop the pavement.
But city officials said they're far from through with their investigation.
"We don't know what is causing this slide," said Jay Goldstone, San Diego's chief operating officer.
Goldstone also said it was "extremely premature" to talk about whether the city will purchase houses in the neighborhood because of the slide.
Mayor Jerry Sanders was traveling back from Washington. He began receiving information about the situation early Wednesday after morning talks with Sen. Dianne Feinstein and environmental regulators in the nation's capital.
Sanders, reached by phone as he waited for his evening flight back to San Diego, said he had been in nearly constant contact since. He was set to immediately go to La Jolla after he landed at Lindbergh Field Wednesday evening.
The city has discussed options for federal aid with Rep. Brian Bilbray, R-Carlsbad and Sen. Barbara Boxer, Sanders said. He also has a conference call scheduled for Thursday with state Department of Transportation officials.
Sanders said he was told late Tuesday that some homes would have to be red-tagged Wednesday - meaning experts had determined they could no longer be inhabited.
He refused to speculate on the cause of the slide and said it was improper for anybody else to do so.
A mayoral spokesman said earlier that City Attorney Michael Aguirre gave out false information in midmorning comments to reporters. The spokesman said Aguirre had not had any contact with sewer, water or engineering officials before he discussed the situation with reporters.
Moments before a scheduled 10:30 a.m. news conference, Aguirre stepped before microphones and said there was no immediate threat from the slide. He also said he had his office's investigators looking into the collapse and that water crews had been working in the area in recent weeks.
Sanders said it would be "irresponsible for any city official to make an estimate on what caused it."
"That's what an investigation will show as we start moving through it," the mayor said, adding that his first concern was preventing further harm.
"This is a public safety issue and we want to make sure we're doing everything we can to protect public safety and public structures," he said.
Residents said they wondered if city water line leaks caused - or at least worsened - the slide, but San Diego's water director, Jim Barrett, said that was highly doubtful.
"We did have a leak up that area about two weeks ago, three weeks ago. It was a service (line) leak. There wasn't a lot of water involved," he said. "That water would have been superficial.
"It looks like the slip plane is much deeper in the ground, and it would have taken a larger amount of water to percolate down that far to actually contribute."
Barrett cautioned, however, that his assessment was preliminary, as the city's investigation is continuing.
Aguirre later announced he had scheduled a community forum for 6 p.m. Wednesday at the La Jolla Recreation Center to discuss the collapse and give residents a chance to ask questions of representatives of his office.
Weather does not appear to be involved in the slide, said Jim Purpura, meteorologist in charge at the National Weather Service's Rancho Bernardo office. It's been 2 1/2 years since a major rainstorm hit the area.
A strong storm could worsen conditions at the slide, but Purpura said there's no sign of any significant rain in the near future.
GEOLOGIST: NATURE TO BLAME
Pat Abbott, a retired geological sciences professor at San Diego State University, said nature - not man - should be blamed for the slide. Abbott said Mount Soledad was formed when mud sediment layers on the ocean floor were "squeezed up" by the Rose Canyon fault, leaving weak rock layers at an incline.
"Gravity pulling on the incline is pulling down masses of earth and those masses of earth have houses on top of them," Abbott said. "It's a geologically bad site and should not have been built on to begin with.
"The fundamental fault is nature," he said. "It is not the city. It is not a trench. ... The water pipes that are breaking are breaking because bad earth is moving under gravity, under natural conditions.
"It's fundamentally houses built on a bad site."
In fact, the area experienced a collapse in 1961 when seven homes under construction were destroyed.
In the hours after Wednesday morning's collapse, Soledad Mountain Road was swamped with emergency crews, utility workers and news media.
Rosemary and George Fraunces, who have lived on the street since 1994, were headed to their home when they found police officers blocking the street.
"Nobody has talked to us at all," said Rosemary Fraunces, standing in her driveway about 1 1/2 blocks from the slide. "I didn't know anything about this until I read about it in the paper."
Fraunces said she was concerned for the residents who lived in the slide area. "I think the land we are on is all right," she said. "If we need to leave, we will."
Lillie Nelson said she was living in the area when the slide occurred in 1961.
"I went through all this in 1961. I remember it like it was yesterday," Nelson said.
"I always knew it was going to happen again."
Staff writers Jennifer Vigil, Terry Rodgers, Robert Krier, Debbi Farr Baker and Greg Gross contributed to this report.