Despite Risks, Many Build Homes in Harm's Way

The landslide in Laguna Beach, Calif., which sent at least 18 luxury homes crashing down a hillside and injured at least four people, highlights an increasing trend of Americans moving into vulnerable areas.

There are nearly 30 percent more people living in coastal counties than 25 years ago, according to government figures. While they enjoy the benefits, the rest of the country helps foot the bill in higher taxes and insurance premiums when disasters happen.

Laguna Beach residents say that early this morning, they heard popping sounds, wood snapping, and pipes breaking moments before the earth gave way.

"It sounded like someone was walking on the roof," said Jeff Tyler, who lost his house in the slide. "It was cracking and crunching, and I walked outside and I knew right away. They pulled 50 tons of earth out of here every month, they don't tarp the land, and we have the worst winter in 50 years. What do they think is going to happen?"

Many people have ventured up hillsides and into the mountains to build homes, giving little thought to the possibility that emergency workers would have a harder time reaching them in a disaster.

Beauty vs. Danger

"This is a much more pleasant way to live," said Hayden Rader, a California hotel owner.

Officials have warned people for years to build their homes in safer places, but the government cannot stop anyone from choosing to live in a place with a beautiful view.

"The government has, in our tradition, no obligation to forecast risk and tell people that you can't live in a 100-year flood plain," said George Lefcoe, professor of real estate law at the University of Southern California Law School.

Insurance companies charge more to cover homes built in risky places, but that has not stopped the influx of buyers.

Each year, according to government figures, landslides cause 25 to 50 deaths a year and $2 billion in damage.

But people continue to move into harm's way for the beauty of it.

ABC News' Ned Potter filed this report for "World News Tonight."