For people in La Conchita, rain isn’t just an inconcenvience. It’s a life or death matter.
But this is nothing compared to what the rain reminds people of in La Conchita. It’s just weeks away from the one-year anniversary of the mudslide that claimed 10 lives in the tiny beach town. The drizzle heralds the beginning of the season that brought torrential rains last year, that loosened the sediment on the hill so water seeped into the earth and made underground rivers, that provided those rivers with enough water to destabilize the earth above it, so that when some of the mud began to give, the entire face of the hill gave way in one large, connected piece.
The clouds don’t have to look heavy and gray for Mike Bell to be thinking about rain. Like most La Conchita residents, he’s spent most of the last year thinking about it — planning for it, worrying about and preparing for it. And it’s not just for himself. Bell is chairman of the La Conchita Community Organization, a 501c3 nonprofit formed only days after the mudslides that claimed 10 lives last January; and the group’s main purpose is preparing the beachside hamlet for this year’s winter.
“We don’t anticipate anything happening,” Bell says. “But we were not prepared last time and we’re going to be prepared this time.”
Contrary to what outsiders may think, though, “being prepared” does not mean evacuating all 171 homes in La Conchita. When it started drizzling last Sunday, there were no frenzied families in line for an exodus, no cars piled high with photo albums and baby clothes. Men weren’t gathered on corners, looking up at the hill, and women weren’t gathering their children from slumber parties and bike rides.
Instead, the new lessee of the corner store swept the concrete in front of the pumps. A woman in the driveway of an opulent house against the hills got casually into her car. On this damp morning, the rest of the town was relatively quiet.
But just because the town isn’t panicking doesn’t mean people aren’t paying attention. Bell and his friends regularly walk the hillside above La Conchita, checking for signs of excessive water or shifting earth. A professional surveyor who lives in town checks the hill at least once a month “just for his own peace of mind.”
The LCCO has had representatives from the Red Cross, fire department and highway patrol to town, all to talk about emergency preparedness.
And it’s not all just looking and talking. The LCCO has conducted a census of everyone in town and compiled the information in an emergency booklet, to be used to account for residents in an emergency and, if necessary, to be given out to rescue personnel.
They’ve purchased airhorns and placed them all over town. “If anyone sees anything happening on the hill they don’t like — too much water on it, mud starting to move, anything they don’t like — they’re to honk the horns,” said Bell. “That’s an indication for everybody to move away from the hill” and to meet at a small grassy park on the north side of town.
In case something does happen, the town has also purchased tables, chairs, cots, emergency lighting and first aid kits, all stored in a shed outside Bell’s house. And in case a mudslide blocks Surfside Avenue — the only road in and out of town — as it did last year, the LCCO purchased its own tractor.
“The county can’t assure us, if there’s rain, that they can get up here to keep the street clear,” said Bell. “So we bought our own tractor so that we can keep Surfside Street clear if we get mud on it.”
All of this has been purchased with grant funds from the local arm of the United Way. But La Conchita has gotten very little funding, if any, from government agencies. Though Governor Schwarzenegger promised to fix the hill when he visited last winter, state and federal agencies can’t dole out funds unless the county asks them for it. But the county says they can’t make any moves until impending lawsuits are filed and dealt with.
That means so far, nothing major has been done to prevent a future slide from happening. But that hasn’t kept the town from recovering. The corner store, which served as a temporary morgue last January, is now an Alliance Gas Station and open for business. Though nearly all of the people living in the town’s 75 rental properties last year left after the slides, almost all of those homes have since been re-rented. The houses directly across from the memorial where several houses — including Charly Womack’s — used to stand have been purchased: one by a man named Herb, who Bell says “is very nice,” and one by a realtor who’s trying to resell it.
Just down the street from there is the house where a full-sized school bus slammed into a school teacher’s garage, taking out most of the wall and trapping an SUV inside. The school teacher has since fixed the house and moved back in with her father.
Not everything is back to normal, of course. Crosses mark the large mounds where houses used to stand. Fences and warning signs are constant reminders of last year’s tragedy, as are the birthday signs and memorial tokens that constantly arrive at the slide site. Some of the damaged houses still haven’t been razed or rebuilt. At the top of Zelzah Avenue, a fence divides the former roof of someone’s house — still in one piece but completely detached from whatever house it protected — from the otherwise normal-looking rest of the street.
The corner store, though open, isn’t the local meeting place it used to be — and that, says Bell, is mostly because the Womacks are gone. Their house used to be a musical and social center, he said, and whenever the house got too crowded, the Womack spillover would gather at the gas station.
But former Womack house resident Jimmie Wallet, who lost his wife and three of his four children in the slide, still visits often, going to the memorial and to the beach. And so does Isaiah Womack, one of Charly’s four children.
In fact, just days after the slide, Isaiah was asking Bell if he still owned the property his father’s house had stood on. He wanted to know if he’d ever be able to build a house there.
“Here’s a guy that just lost his father, his father’s best friend’s wife and their three kids, and he wants to build a house on that lot where everybody was killed,” said Bell. “There’s just no place in the world he’d ever want to live.”
Only two homeowners sold their houses and left town after the slide. Two more bought second homes in case of emergencies — both mobile homes, one in Carpinteria and one in Camarillo. But of those, one couple did it just to appease their worried children.
“Those folks had no intention of selling the house here. They just absolutely love it here,” he said. “What I’ve found is you can’t drive people out of La Conchita with a shotgun … nor with a landslide. It’s just a great place to live.”
Most residents remember that the landslides which claimed homes in 1995 and lives in 2005 both occurred only in isolated places on the mountain. They say that there are hazards anywhere you live and that La Conchita is worth the risk. But that doesn’t mean residents are laissez-faire about the wet season that’s sure to come.
When it’s drizzling, as it was last weekend, “Some of the mothers get a little bit concerned, just because that’s what mothers are supposed to do,” said Bell, who pointed out that the worry is often proportional to how close people live to potential slide zones. Bell lives almost as far away from the slide as you can, while still living within La Conchita’s limits. But still, he said, “If it’s raining pretty hard, I don’t sleep like I used to.”