The disaster sparked a pervasive sense of resentment that has not gone away.
A few weeks ago, a group of residents from La Conchita gathered on the beach across the freeway and built a 15-foot-tall Christmas tree made completely out of driftwood.
True to form for this artistically inclined citizenry, the result was so impressive that the group considered notifying a media outlet. But they quickly decided against it.
The reason: Nearly two years after a 16-day streak of rain set off a mammoth mudslide on the hillside behind La Conchita, demolishing 11 homes and killing 10 people — and triggering an onslaught of local and national media attention — many here are tired of attention.
Unlike last year, when hundreds of residents hosted a somber celebration in memory of the victims on the one-year anniversary of the slide, there will be no public events in La Conchita recognizing the second anniversary on Wednesday.
Partly, it’s because residents of the seaside village just south of Carpinteria want to move forward, not look back.
But also, it’s because the disaster sparked a pervasive sense of resentment that has not gone away. If anything, the resentment — made visible by an extensive, ongoing lawsuit against Ventura County and a ranch atop the bluff — has only hardened, leaving many of La Conchita’s 300 residents not only weary, but wary.
Mike Bell, the man who has emerged as the township’s leader, said he understands why.
In addition to the trauma of the event, “We’ve read too many letters to the editor saying the people in La Conchita should all just move,” he said.
Meanwhile, the town is on tenterhooks, awaiting the answer to the million-dollar question: Has the hillside — which also slid in 1995, destroying homes but claiming no lives — settled down, or is another disaster imminent? In other words, is La Conchita safe?
Some, like two UCSB scholars who found evidence of a prehistoric megaslide and say other slides at least the size of the most recent one are likely, say no. Others, like Mr. Bell, point to evidence produced by geologists a few years ago that says yes.
But a fresh answer isn’t expected until this fall. That’s when a major study that was ordered by Gov. Schwarzenegger is supposed to be completed. In the meantime, for the better part of a year, the study has progressed steadily, if slowly: In a few weeks, a geology firm will be hired.
Unfortunately, though, it won’t be finished until long after this winter, and some meteorologists are predicting a wet season. So, in the event of any upcoming stretches of rain, La Conchita will have to hold its collective breath.
“I hate it,” said 46-year-old Jodi Renz, of the rain. “I’ve told everybody to say ‘shower’ or ‘precipitation,’ instead of using the R-word.”
Ms. Renz’s house sits across from the crumbled remains of another house that was pulverized by the spilling land two years ago. She vividly remembers hearing screams when the slide gave way, and then seeing her neighbor yank his wife out of the car in their driveway. The pair scrambled out of harm’s way moments before the fast-moving wall of sludge slammed into the car and crushed their home, although he injured his ankle.
Like many in La Conchita, Ms. Renz and her boyfriend, Dennis Anderson, say they aren’t going anywhere.
“I’m not heavily afraid of being killed,” Ms. Renz said. “It would be nice if they would stabilize the hill and make it safe, (but) we’re going to live here anyway.”
If the disaster inspired any defectors, it appears most of them are already gone. Most who left were short-term renters. Mr. Bell said the toll the slide took on real estate was striking, but temporary. One landlord sold a house for $165,000. Mr. Bell figures the house would go for double that amount today — still a low price by the standards of the South Coast.
Due to being in a geological danger zone, the median cost of a home in La Conchita is relatively low: about $400,000, Mr. Bell said, compared to $1 million in Santa Barbara to the north and $700,000 in Ventura to the south. The low prices — which are due largely to the 1995 slide — have attracted many people who could never afford a California coastal home under normal circumstances. Many are loath to leave.
If most La Conchitans are staying put, many are also still fuming over a laundry list of perceived infractions, committed by various offenders: the county of Ventura, the avocado and citrus ranch at the top of the bluff, opinionated residents of neighboring cities, and the media.
When it comes to the war against Ventura County and La Conchita Ranch, the families most affected by the tragedy have taken matters into their own hands, filing the lawsuit almost a year ago. A trial date is set for November, but the county and ranch are trying to get the case thrown out of court.
The plaintiffs include people such as Jimmie Wallet, who became a poster child for the disaster when the slide killed his wife and three of his children while he went to the store to buy ice cream. He and about 35 others — who, like him, lost their loved ones, their homes or their good health — have been advised by attorneys with the Los Angeles-based firm Loeb & Loeb not to talk to the media.
Meanwhile, the battle of public opinion is being fought by Mr. Bell.
Wedged between the hillside and Highway 101, La Conchita is not an official city and thus has no elected representatives. But the disaster thrust Mr. Bell into the role of community spokesman; now, he’s become a sort of de facto mayor.
Mr. Bell is a fitting leader for La Conchita. As a retired safety coordinator with the Los Angeles Department of Water and Power, he is well-versed in public policy and knows how to get multiple parties working together. But he’s no square. The 59-year-old bears a resemblance to the comedian George Carlin — even down to the gray ponytail — smokes cigarettes inside his tastefully decorated home and is given to using words such as “bitchin’.”
Officially the “chairperson” of the La Conchita Community Organization, Mr. Bell has absorbed the community’s myriad grievances like a sponge, and he doesn’t hesitate to articulate them.
“Since the event in 2005, there have been at least 30 people in the opinion section or the editorial section (of various newspapers) that have said, ‘Those people should just get out of there,’ ” he said, sitting in his home office.
Some, like an op-ed piece in the Ventura County Star titled “Knowing when to retreat: Disaster zone residents could learn from history,” question the taxpayer expense involved with trying to save the community. (The governor’s study cost $667,000.)
In response, Mr. Bell counters that very few places in California are safe. As an example, he cites the Oxnard flood plain, which, after being re-evaluated by FEMA a few months ago, was vastly expanded.
“Those people should just get out of there,” he said, sarcastically. “If they think we should, then we think they should. What’s good for the goose is good for the gander.”
Exacerbating the “blame-the-victim” mindset, he said, is the media’s widespread portrayal of La Conchita as a place filled primarily with the kind of people who don’t always sit well with the public.
“We’re described (as) ‘bucolic,’ a group of ‘musicians and hippies’ — all these terms that do not describe 95 percent of our blue-collar folk,” he said. “People think we are flakes and derelicts.”
But most galling to Mr. Bell is the UCSB study.
“It was picked up, run with, and now nobody will let it go,” he said.
Released nearly a year after the slide, the hypothesis holds that a prehistoric megaslide 30,000 to 40,000 years ago dwarfed the scope of the more recent slides. Although the scholars are not suggesting that the megaslide will recur, they say more slides in the La Conchita area are almost inevitable, leaving no part of town completely safe.
“I wouldn’t live there,” said UCSB earth science professor Ed Keller, who wrote the paper with the geologist, Larry Gurrola, who discovered the megaslide as a UCSB grad student. “Any geologist will tell you it’s not if it’s going to happen, but when .”
Mr. Bell likes to challenge the hypothesis by citing evidence, collected by geologists in the years following the 1995 slide, showing absolutely no movement on the cliff for about eight years, until the big slide in 2005.
“They’ll tell you, ‘Someday that mountain is going to be in the ocean,’ ” Mr. Bell said. “OK, I believe that, but when? Are my grandchildren’s grandchildren’s grandchildren’s grandchildren going to see that? They say, ‘Well, I don’t know; we’re talking geological time.’ ”
He sat forward in his chair.
“In geological time, this hill has been active — as has been the whole coastline of California,” he said. “Well I’m talking realistic time, not the geological time. . . . That’s the goal of the (ongoing) study.”
He added: “My feeling is that the slide is basically stable.”
Some residents aren’t so sure.
Aaron Ready, 32, said he feels like he’s in a predicament.
On the one hand, he loves the small-town feel of La Conchita. “I love driving home, and having had four or five people wave to me,” he said.
But on the other, he has a wife and small child, and often worries about them while he is at work. “Whenever I’m away from them, I’m concerned that I’m in a safe office building and they’re there, where anything could happen.”
Larry MacDonough, the tenant of a trailer located a couple of lots away from the menacing cliff, isn’t taking any chances. “When it rains, I go to a friend’s house,” he said. “What else can you do?”
Like many, though, Mr. MacDonough seems more angry than fearful. For him, the major rub has been the ranch’s response to a memorial he helped build for the victims.
After the mudslide, he and a friend started building an 8-foot-tall cross for each of the 10 people killed. The men covered the wooden crosses in broken mirrors, then stuck them into the dirt high up on the hill, so that when the sun set over the ocean, the crosses captured the gloaming and reflected it outward for all the passing cars on the freeway to see.
“When the sun set, they glowed,” marveled Mr. MacDonough, a former dishwasher repairman in his 50s. “The crosses turned to gold. It was like a miracle, man.”
But his face crumpled bitterly when describing what happened shortly after the crosses were erected. About three weeks ago, all but two of them were removed by La Conchita Ranch, because they were on the company’s property.
“That’s like desecrating a graveyard,” he said, wiping away a tear.
Reached at his home by phone, the wife of the man who runs the ranch, David Orr, said he is not taking calls from the press, citing concerns about the lawsuit.
Among other things, the lawsuit filed against the ranch and the county alleges wrongful death, negligence, intentional infliction of emotional distress and dangerous condition of public property.
It accuses La Conchita Ranch of failing to meet its legal obligation to take reasonable steps to protect the residents below from harm. It accuses the county of worsening the scope of the disaster by erecting, and failing to remove, what the residents say was supposed to be a temporary wall put up to ease the process of cleaning a road a few years after the 1995 slide. The residents’ lawyers claim that, on the fateful day — Jan. 10, 2005 — the wall acted as a dam, and diverted the slide down the path that led to the 11 homes.
“Doctors say, ‘First, do no harm,’ ” said Anthony Murray, an attorney representing the residents. “That should have been the motto of the county. But instead, they put the wall up, completely ignoring the advice of their expert geologist, who opposed it from the beginning.”
The county’s legal counsel denies that Ventura County is responsible, saying experts have concluded that the wall was not a factor.
“As a matter of law, we cannot be held liable for what was in effect an act of God,” said Assistant County Counsel Alberto Boada.
In another twist, the county has countersued several La Conchita residents who owned multiple homes and rented them out.
The owners, “to the extent that (they) were aware the area was a danger, may have had the duty to inform their tenants,” Mr. Boada said.
All things considered, one thing is clear: Sorting out the complexities of who, if anyone, is to blame, and whether or not the town can be made safe, will be on the minds of La Conchitans for many months to come.
And many residents here say they would prefer to ponder these painful matters in the privacy of their homes, neighborhood and lawyers’ offices and out of the public eye.