As with Oso, Wash., the coastal Southern California town of La Conchita knows the sorrows that a major mudslide can unleash. In 2005, a wall of debris slammed down from a bluff soaked by winter storms, killing 10 people and damaging or destroying 36 homes.
The huge mound of debris still sits where it came to rest in La Conchita, a town of about 300 residents who enjoy a laid-back beach lifestyle without the expenses of places such as Santa Barbara about 15 miles to the north along U.S. Highway 101. The buried homes are a stark reminder of lives lost - and the danger that persists. Resident John Leis survived the deadly Jan. 10, 2005, mudslide, and still leaves his rented house to find a hotel room during heavy rains. “It’s always there in the back of your mind,” Leis said of the danger.
A CRUCIAL DIFFERENCE
In La Conchita, the slide came on a Monday, after several days of rain. The sun was shining, and many of those who had been stuck indoors were outside. As a result, when the hill broke loose, many people were able to get away. The slide in Oso happened Saturday morning, when many people typically are at home. Of the 49 structures in the neighborhood, authorities believe at least 25 were full-time residences.
One man became the face of the La Conchita tragedy. Jimmie Wallet had left his wife and three daughters at home to pick up some ice cream when the slide hit. He watched the wall of mud curve toward his block and ran to his home, but it was buried. Wallet, his face and clothes caked in mud, dug for hours overnight in a desperate - and vain - attempt to save his family.
A jury found that the company that owned 700 acres on the bluff above La Conchita failed to build adequate drainage. La Conchita Ranch Co. agreed to sell its assets to pay for damages claimed by 36 plaintiffs who were injured or lost relatives or property. Meanwhile, geologists have said that the bluff overlooking La Conchita will give way again.
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