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Calif. Evacuees May Go Home Today

AP by Ben Fox: Laguna Beach. Some evacuated residents may be allowed to go back home Thursday following a landslide that destroyed 17 multimillion-dollar houses and damaged nearly 11 others.

About 1,000 people were evacuated from 350 other houses as a precaution. Some of them will probably be able to return soon and others may be allowed back under supervision to retrieve personal belongings, Orange County officials said.

The cause of the disaster was under investigation. But Ed Harp of the U.S. Geological Survey 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.

People scrambled for their lives early Wednesday, awakened by the sounds of cracking walls and exploding pipes. Five people suffered minor injuries, officials said, and miraculously, no one was killed.

Haley Stevens was getting ready for school when the 14-year-old´s morning routine was shattered by the sounds of trees and wood-frame houses being torn from their foundation.

The next thing she knew, her family was rushing out the door as a massive landslide bore down on the neighborhood of hillside homes perched along one of the most picturesque sections of Southern California´s coastline.

When they made it outside their Bluebird Canyon home, the ground was collapsing beneath them: “We started to feel the street move and we just started sprinting,” she said.

Wednesday´s landslide destroyed 17 expensive homes as it sent structures crashing down a hill. Residents alarmed by the sound of walls and pipes coming apart ran for their lives _ many still in their pajamas.

“We were very scared, my brother and I. We were freaking out,” said Stevens, who suffered a minor injury from stepping on a cactus in her bare feet.

Throughout the day, Laguna Hills High School doubled as a Red Cross evacuation center where residents filtered in and out of the school gym, hoping to learn when they might be allowed back into their homes to retrieve belongings and pets.

“It´s just been overwhelming,” said Vera Martinez, a 65-year-old retiree.

Earlier this year, scientists warned that destructive landslides would be possible and they point to Laguna Beach as a wake-up call for other coastal communities to be on the lookout for any slight earth movement.

“We´re not out of the woods yet,” geologist Randall Jibson said.

Laguna Beach 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 daybreak landslide caught dozens of residents by surprise Wednesday in this Orange County community about 50 miles southeast of Los Angeles.

“You could hear the homes breaking. You could hear the cracking wood,” said Jill Lockhart, who awakened to the noise of shattering glass and walls.

“It was like a nightmare,” said Lockhart, 35. “We had to run for our lives.”

She fled with her son 2-year-old son, Tyson, over her shoulder and his 4-year-old brother, Trey, stumbling along in his pajamas.

The family climbed into a neighbor´s SUV, but their path was blocked by a utility pole, forcing them to flee on foot. They had to abandon the road when it began to collapse, finally scrambling down a hillside to safety. Lockhart´s two-story home was destroyed.

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 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 will be allowed to retrieve belongings under supervision Thursday.

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, offering vistas of the Pacific from coastal bluffs, has been hit before by flooding, mudslides and wildfire. In 1998, a rainstorm triggered slides that damaged 300 homes, 18 of them severely, and killed two people. A fire in 1993 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.

The area has some of Southern California´s most desirable real estate. The damaged homes generally sell for $2 million or more, residents said. Recently, the community was prominently featured on the MTV show “Laguna Beach: The Real Orange County” that debuted in September.