Op-Ed: Mudslides Threaten Southern California Homes, Roads

Posted Feb 8, 2009 by Sandy Sand
When you live in California, especially Southern California…it’s always something. If it’s not earthquakes it’s coastal water spouts, the rare tornado, or wildfires followed by massive mudslides caused by the wildfires.
Storm in Pacifica  California
Waves wash ashore in California during a storm in the Pacific Ocean.
Photo by Mila Zinkova
The good news is, after lagging woefully behind our average rainfall totals for the season, which ends in June, we’re almost at normal levels.
So far the series of Pacific storms has dumped five inches of rain on the parched landscape, with a bigger, better and colder storm predicted for today, making hillside and canyon residents more wary, but not more prepared.
Yesterday the local television news was full of taped coverage of people scrambling to get free sandbags from fire stations and listing places where they can be purchased.
You’d think that like good scouts, they’d be prepared. Wildfires in the dry, blistering heat of summer are predictably -- but not always inevitably -- followed by winter‘s rain-induced mudslides.
Perhaps they’re gamblers, gambling on the fact that it really hardly ever rains in sunny Southern California. The time period between rain storms can be so long that we forget what rain looks like, and we definitely forget how to drive in it.
There have been too many traffic accidents to count, making navigating rain-soaked street even more difficult, clogging up already overly congested freeways, and traffic reporters really earn their salaries by working overtime to report on all the accidents.
At any rate, the hill and canyon people who don’t have stockpiles of sandbags in their garages are probably the same people who don’t have earthquake supplies on hand either, in spite of repeated warning to do so.
With the scrub gone from burned out hillsides, there’s nothing to hold the ground together during and after rain storms.
In spite of warnings that began with the rains that came in December, the first couple of storm don’t usually cause mudslides, because if there’s not too much rain, the ground can absorb the water.
No longer. It’s been raining off-and-on for five days and on Thursday the ground began to slide, closing a road in the Sylmar foothills by dumping three- to four-feet of mud and debris on it.
It was such a big slide, it even made the news on the Weather Channel. Fortunately no one was injured.
Yesterday nearly 30 homes in Long Beach were under as much as three-feet of water due to backed up storm drains.
Of course, if anyone had bothered to clean out those drains, that wouldn’t happen.
Also yesterday, residents living along streets below the Sierra Madre foothills northeast of downtown L.A. were busy little beavers building sandbag dams to keep the muddy slurry that was rushing down the streets from going into their homes.
Many streets and roads in that area were shut down for hours after the mud began flowing.
Three water spouts were reported off the coast and the Coast Guard sent out large swell and gale warnings.
Of course, we all know what that means. The large waves attract every surfer in the area like a huge watery magnet, despite warnings not to go near the water.
Not only will there be the inevitable bacterial contamination from sewer runoff that's dumps into the Pacific, but the high surf brings with it dangerous rip currents, and both are detrimental to the health of anyone willing to brave the ocean for the thrill of riding the waves.
So far the only thing that usually happens during our rare downpours, is the normally dry, concrete-lined Los Angeles River hasn’t filled with water. That attracts fool-hardy youngsters, who are compelled to investigate the rushing water, try to ride their bikes through it, sail toy boats on it, or simply slip and fall into the river after they’ve scaled the protective six-foot high chain link fence that runs for miles on both sides of the river.
That in turn, brings out the fire department water rescue teams, who are extremely good at their jobs and almost always fish their victim out of the treacherous water. The TV crews are drawn to the rescue scenes, too, since these daring, heroic rescues make for great viewing.
Such is life in Southern California. It’s always something.