A dozen hilltop homes in one of the wealthiest sections of coastal Los Angeles county were collapsing into a canyon on Monday after a landslide over the weekend forced the evacuation of a neighborhood in the Rolling Hills Estates community.
Local officials said about 16 people were evacuated on Saturday after firefighters responded to a call about a leaking pipe and discovered « significant earthworks » on Peartree Lane on the Palos Verdes peninsula. California’s disastrously wet winter could be causing saturation of underlying soils in the neighborhood, a danger that has threatened in recent months other idyllic perches in the state.
After crews found cracks and other damage to homes on the block, authorities said, residents were given 20 minutes to pack up and leave. Gradually, and then rapidly, the properties began to give way. By Monday afternoon, a tract of million-dollar townhouses that once stood on a bluff had slid nearly to street level, their beige stucco walls slanted and cracked, their living areas reduced to holes open spaces framed by wooden beams.
Behind yellow caution tape, utility crews inspected power, cable and gas lines. Periodically, a sickening crash and rumble of something breaking or falling disrupted the quiet of the neighborhood.
« It’s the most shocking thing I’ve ever seen, and my heart goes out to these people, » Janice Hahn, the Los Angeles County Supervisor who represents the area, said at a news conference Monday. « You can actually hear the popping and cracking and popping every minute when you’re there as each house shifts and moves. The bridges are falling, some of the roofs are now eye level with the ground. »
Ms Hahn said the cause of the landslide was under investigation, but that the « initial thought » was that the disaster could be related to the series of storms that inundated California this winter, isolating tourist destinations, emptying affluent enclaves, flooding agricultural towns and blanketing the Sierra Nevada with near-record snow.
Spectacularly scenic, with emerald hills and sweeping views of the Pacific Ocean, the Palos Verdes Peninsula has a soil composition that, in some areas, has made it historically prone to landslidesparticularly after wet winters when rainwater seeps and destabilizes very underground soil layers.
Alexa Davis, assistant city manager of Rolling Hills Estates, a community of about 8,300 people, said in an email that the development around Peartree Lane, designed and built in the 1970s, is not located anywhere in the peninsula known to be geologically vulnerable. Some nearby areas are so unstable and full of sinkholes that even sewer lines have had to be located above ground.
« There have been no problems associated with this hill reported to the city in its 45 years, » Ms. Davis said.
However, Ms. Hahn noted at the press conference that “there’s a crack that meanders through these 10 houses that you can actually see, and they believe that’s what’s causing the earth to pull away and drag these houses with it into the canyon. She ‘she added that the area should have undergone a thorough examination by soil experts and engineers.
Up the road, Gerry Wiegert, 29, helped his mother and stepfather pack their belongings into a black SUV. Next to their two-story duplex, a garage had collapsed, its door squeezed between the tiled roof and the driveway.
« If you think about it, we’re kind of next, » said Mr. Wiegert, whose family has been renting the three-bedroom house for a decade.
They’d moved to the gated neighborhood of Rolling Hills Estates because it felt like a quiet retreat, with an ocean breeze. It was the kind of place where children played with each other, but the residents also enjoyed their privacy.
What may have saved Mr. Wiegert’s house was that it had extra space in the courtyard before the descent into the valley below, space some of their neighbors did not have. Erosion has long been a commonly discussed issue in the area.
« Cracks were forming here and there, » she said of homes in the neighborhood. « Once there was a trail behind our houses, now it’s just washed away. »
The last few days have been frustrating, with little help from their landlord, she said. The neighbors in their shared duplex moved out over the weekend. Mr. Wiegert’s family felt that leaving might be the only solution.
So, on Monday morning, Mr. Wiegert, who works in accounting, rented a warehouse and collected the boxes for the move. Together with his mother and stepfather, he began collecting documents, jewels and memorabilia. Mr. Wiegert wanted to make sure he was taking pictures of himself with his namesake: his late father who was also the creator of the Vector supercar.
« I was joking about the situation and then as I was packing, depression started to hit, » she said. « Hard to say where we’ll go next. »