Most slide area residents allowed to return home

SAN DIEGO -- Erinn and Alton McCormick had no idea when they bought their house in June that it sat directly beneath a weak hillside. On Thursday, they found it buried up to the roofline by a wall of earth and cracked asphalt studded with pieces of curb and eucalyptus and palm tree that used to be across the street.

Residents returning to the shaken neighborhood -- whether just to grab some things and take photos to show insurance adjusters or, if they were lucky, to stay for good -- struggled to figure out whom to blame for the landslide that took a chunk out of their La Jolla hillside Wednesday.

The collapse came just hours after engineers hired to inspect an earth slippage that was first spotted in July warned residents not to sleep in their homes because of the potential for instability.

Water leak went on for days

The landslide cut a 50-yard-long chasm in a four-lane street that serves as a thoroughfare between Pacific Beach and the tourist area of La Jolla. A 20-foot-deep fissure was cut like a slice of cake out of the hillside overlooking Interstate 5 hundreds of feet below. It sent four homes sinking down the slope and shoved tons of dirt up to the roofline of the McCormicks' house on the street below.

In all, nine homes had severe structural damage that put them off limits and 20 others remained yellow-tagged for further inspection before they can be reoccupied.

"They told us the worst-case scenario was six feet of dirt in our front yard," said Erinn McCormick, 37, who said she first heard that engineers were concerned about a slip a month after she moved into her "dream house." "Then I talked to an engineer yesterday morning before I took my kids to school, and he said, 'I wouldn't stay here if I were you.' "

McCormick, who could see her buried house from a police checkpoint but hadn't been able to return and inspect it, said she had spent days calling city officials about a water leak on her street. She hadn't gotten a response until Monday, two days before the collapse, when workers finally turned off a hydrant.

A total off 111 homes were evacuated after the slide. Residents of 82 undamaged houses were allowed to return Thursday.

"They told me I wouldn't ever be able to get back in, but it's absolutely perfect," said Jeanne Plante, 43, who said she was just planning to remodel her $1.7 million mountainside house. "I probably lost half a million in equity overnight, though."

Insurers eschew landslides

After landslides, homeowners typically sue cities or builders for allowing homes to be built on shifting land, said Candysse Mil-ler, a spokeswoman for the Insurance Information Network of California, an industry trade group. Many insurers provide separate coverage against earthquakes and floods but they have shied away from landslides.

"Without having the ability to attract low-risk people, the price would be so exorbitantly high that no one would be able to buy it," she said.

San Diego Mayor Jerry Sanders, who declared a state of emergency Wednesday, said the White House and the governor's office had called to offer aid.

"Just about everybody who could possibly help has offered to help us," Sanders said at a news conference.

Slide believed at rest, for now

Fire Battalion Chief Gerry Brewster, the incident commander, said conditions were relatively stable Thursday.

"The life-safety hazard has been greatly reduced overnight," Brewster said. "Cur- rently, we are going to be tran- sitioning from an emergency response mode into a recovery mode."

Rob Hawk, a city engineering geologist, said most of the movement already had occurred, but further slippage is possible. "The current slide has basically come to a rest," Hawk said.

The neighborhood of many million-dollar homes is in an area that has a history of slides dating to the 1960s.

Sanders said the city would hire a forensic geology firm to explore why the land gave way.

The city began noticing cracks on Soledad Mountain Road in July and water and gas main breaks in August. A water line in the neighborhood was replaced with an aboveground pipeline in September to avert damage from the moving earth.

Sanders defended the city against charges by some residents that it didn't do enough after noticing the street cracks in July.

A firm hired by the city last month was in the area in the hours before the collapse installing measuring devices after a large section of slope on Mount Soledad began to slip.

After the outside firm advised that some residents should not stay overnight in their homes, the city sent letters to residents on Monday, and on Tuesday sent officials to four homes that sank into chasm the next morning.

Residents below the slide's origin, such as the McCormicks, said they didn't have any warning that the hill above might give way.