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'Slow avalanche' gobbles road, homes in San Diego

  • Story Highlights
  • San Diego mayor declares state of emergency; White House, governor offer aid
  • Officials were investigating the shifting earth in the area for weeks
  • Residents can return to 75 of the 111 evacuated homes Thursday, mayor says
  • "We watched the trees snapping and cracking," says one evacuated resident
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SAN DIEGO, California (CNN) -- More than 100 homes in an upscale San Diego community were evacuated after a landslide about 60 yards wide pulled the earth from beneath a three-lane road and some of the multimillion-dollar homes that adorn it.

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Gina Yarbrough sent this picture of the road that collapsed in Wednesday's landslide.

Mayor Jerry Sanders declared a state of emergency, asking California and the federal government to help the La Jolla community recover from the Wednesday landslide. As of Thursday morning, he had already received offers of aid from legislators, the governor's office and the White House, he said.

Officials warned for at least two weeks that the ground was shifting beneath the hillside community along Soledad Mountain Road.

Holes were drilled into the unsettled hillside to investigate the cause and magnitude of the shift, which earlier ruptured a water line, and according to some media reports, began cracking Soledad Mountain Road in July.

On Wednesday, a 20-foot-deep chasm opened beneath the road and homes. Holli Weld told San Diego's KGTV that she was walking her son to preschool when the street collapsed. Video Watch a resident recall how he had to grab his dogs and run »

"The street was sinking before our eyes," she said.

Authorities told KGTV that most residents were at work and only seven people were in their homes when the landslide occurred.

Evacuated homeowner Russell Moore told CNN he remembers hearing the earth "groan" in what he called a "slow avalanche."

"The asphalt that should be under my feet was 8 feet in the air," Moore said. "We watched the trees snapping and cracking and more boulders come down to our feet and we were witnessing this move." Photo See photos of the hole the landslide left in La Jolla »

At least 111 homes were evacuated, but Sanders said residents would be allowed to return to 75 of those houses by early Thursday morning. Several homes were damaged and at least one was destroyed, according to media reports.

Nine homes are "red tagged," meaning no one is allowed to enter them, and 27 more are "yellow tagged," which means residents can return for necessities, but cannot stay, Sanders said.

According to the San Diego Union-Tribune, the landslide downed power lines and caused a minor gas leak. More than 2,400 customers were briefly left without electricity, but most residents had their power restored by Thursday, KGTV reported. The Red Cross opened a shelter at La Jolla High School.

Deputy city engineer Robert Hawk told the Union-Tribune that the hillside has slowly been slipping for years because the soil is unstable. Landslide incidents in the neighborhood date back to the 1960s, Hawk told the newspaper.

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Pat Abbott, a retired geological sciences professor at San Diego State University, told the Union-Tribune that Mount Soledad is made up of weak layers of rock and that the culprit in the landslide is nature.

"Gravity pulling on the incline is pulling down masses of earth and those masses of earth have houses on top of them," Abbott told the paper. "It's a geologically bad site and should not have been built on to begin with." E-mail to a friend E-mail to a friend

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