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Southern California Town Wary of Soggy Mountain on the Move

March 7, 1995

LA CONCHITA, Calif. (AP) _ Inch by inch, menacing fissures opened on a waterlogged bluff above this tiny beach town. Then the mountain really went on the move, burying nine homes and forcing 200 people to flee a vast wall of ooze.

The land had been slipping toward the sea for 23,000 years and La Conchita’s 700 residents knew for six months that cracks on the steep slope were widening, aggravated by heavy rain.

Disaster finally struck Saturday, when tons of soggy earth slipped into the town north of Los Angeles and spread across an area 1,000 feet wide. Authorities stood guard above the hillside Monday, ready to alert residents if the earth moves again.

``Their future is about as uncertain as this mountain,″ said Alan Campbell, a Ventura County fire spokesman. ``The gods are not talking directly to anybody. We just don’t know what will happen.″

More rain was expected by Wednesday. As rain let up Monday, trains usually allowed to roar through town at 65 mph were slowed to 20 mph to soften vibrations that could trigger another slide.

According to geologists, only 10 percent of the unstable earth that could come down did so on Saturday, sheriff’s Sgt. Chuck Buttell said. Residents were told another massive slide was imminent.

``A lot of people in La Conchita have faith, but look at that mountain,″ Campbell said. ``This is the hardest part. We’re dealing with the unknown.″

While geologists surveyed craters of water formed in the mass left over from the weekend disaster, residents walked dogs, fetched belongings and went to work or school.

``They told us the whole mountain was going to come down,″ said Shirley DeFazio, who was moving a few personal items out of her house in the path of the slide.

``What more damage could it do?″ asked Norma Watkins, whose mobile home was about 500 feet from the slide.

Ten-year-old Brandon Tillman fretted as he waited for a school bus that never came. ``I’m worried I’ve got all my valuable stuff in the house, my TV, my Super Nintendo, my skateboard, you know, stuff like that,″ he said.

Pat Roderick was unhappy the sheriff’s deputies who descended on the small town south of Santa Barbara weren’t doing anything to haul the dirt away.

``Look at the money, our money, taxpayer money, being wasted,″ he said. ``We’ve got guys standing around here with pistols. What are they going to do if it starts sliding, shoot it?″

Some residents also accused nearby La Conchita Ranch of over-irrigating its avocado groves, saying the water soaked the hillside and weakened it. Ranch operator David Orr declined to comment.

Buttell said the hill’s slide is a fact of nature.

In the 1920s, before there were homes covering this picturesque coastal area, a similar landslide went all the way down the hill to where U.S. 101, a major highway connecting Los Angeles and San Francisco, now runs.

``Last week it was moving an inch or two every week, now it’s moving constantly,″ Buttell said. ``It’s been falling for centuries and it’s really on the move now.″

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