San Diego The Lariat is on the verge of sliding. You can feel it. Celso Rodríguez grinds to a halt. He gingerly eases the Ford truck back down the hill. At the bottom he gets out and leans over his left front wheel. Then he walks around to the right front wheel. He's adjusting the knobs on the axle. He gets back in. "Now we're four-by-four," he says. "That should do it." He starts the truck, whining and slicking, up the mud track again.
The road is Calle Adolfo Ruiz Cortinez, in the hills between Tijuana and the coast; we're looking for Dorotea Garay's house. After recent heavy rains, she's afraid her house is going to tumble down the hill into the canyon below. We bump up the unpaved calle and squish to a stop beside a young man digging mud out from the bulging side of the road.
Over the edge, the cliff drops nearly straight down into a canyon dotted with small houses. Rooster crowings and dogs' barking echo up to us. The tarpaper roof of one tiny house juts out below the level of the road. Dorotea's son, Eduardo, 23, puts down his shovel and comes over. "Your house is sliding?" asks Rodríguez. "Something started moving last night, after the rains came," answers Garay. "It frightened my mother."
Rodríguez leads us down tiny round steps made of mud-filled tires, to the little house. He has a clipboard and pen in his left hand. Protección Civil (Civil Protection), read the three-inch-high yellow letters across his blue jacket. He's doing his rounds, responding to worried, sometimes desperate pay-phone calls from those living in the poorest hilltop colonias.
Garay's two-room box-house tucks in against an eight-foot dirt wall, dug into the hillside. Right now, the wall is soaked; the doorframe, leaning sideways, speaks to the home's lack of stability. The door won't close anymore. The mud from the road threatens to cave in on this house, which threatens to collapse onto a lower one. Ice plant and a carpet thrown over the cliff haven't stopped the mud-fall oozing down two levels.
Dorotea Garay appears above. She throws her hands up, then hurries down the tire-steps. She's about 40, wiry, a single mom originally from the state of Nayarit. She works far away in Otay at a maquiladora called "Kendall," according to the I.D. card she shows Rodríguez. She makes bolsas para enfermos -- medical bags -- for 520 pesos a week, about $55.
"Last night in the rain," she says, "it could have been because of these pills I take, but when I put my hand against the wall, it moved. What can we do?"
"This land is in a very high-risk zone," says Rodríguez. "The water is soaking in and weakening the earth. It's not going to hold on. A little more rain and your house might slide down." Rodríguez says he needs to see her papers, to check if she is here legally. We ease past two 44-gallon plastic water barrels, a new plastic-pipe faucet nailed to the plywood wall, and a five-foot gas cylinder connected to a gas stove inside. Four bunks fill up the rest of the room. Dorotea and Eduardo haul out a suitcase from under one of the bunks and start hunting for papers. The little room has two photos of children, a cluster of gilted soccer trophies Eduardo has won, and a soccer pennant. A total of three adults and seven children live here and in the hut below.
Outside, four toothbrushes and an open tube of toothpaste peek out from a cement basin.
"In the 1993 floods I covered the roof with a tarpaulin," Dorotea says to Rodríguez, who is examining her papers, "but this time, I don't have any money."
"If this house falls, it's going to land on the other one," says Rodríguez. "Or maybe part of the hill will come on top of you. Please take precautions and look for another option. Especially if it starts raining again. And we are expecting rain."
Rodríguez starts talking to Garay about moving; about contacting CORETTE (Comisión Reguladora de la Tenencia de la Tierra del Estado), the state commission that regulates cheap, undeveloped land to the poor. "Have any of your neighbors fixed their papers with CORETTE?" he asks. Garay doesn't know. "Well, in the meantime, ma'am, if the rain comes again, please look for a more secure place. Perhaps with family. This is my recommendation."
* * *
For Rodríguez's boss, Antonio Rosquillas, Tijuana's civil protection chief, the rains that hit San Diego and Tijuana last week have marked an anniversary. It's 20 years ago this month since Tijuana experienced its worst floods since the "100-year" flood of 1916. "I remember the floods of 1980 very clearly," Rosquillas says, in the operations room of his pink-marble-tiled headquarters downtown. "I had joined the volunteer Halcón ("Falcon") rescue group six months before. The floods struck January 30. I had just turned 19."
The day Rosquillas's group was called out to help, the Tijuana River burst its banks after heavy rains and a sudden release of water from the Rodríguez Dam. It swept away entire riverside neighborhoods. Official death figures were 20. "But the word on the street was that more than 200 people died," says Rosquillas. "Our group was driving through the little streets down on the river. People would say, 'I don't want to leave my home. It's another trick of the government.' The government was trying to take their land for the canalization of the river. So we just had to say, 'Okay, okay, bye. We've got to go,' because the water was rising. We had a four-by-four truck, trying to escape. The water rose very, very fast.
"I saw nine members of a family on the roof of their house about 100 yards from the river shore. The house was in the middle of the current, and we had no equipment to make the rescue. And after 20 minutes, we saw the house disappear in the river, along with the family members."