Saving 1,000 homes from the mud

Frank Terro's mortgage flashed before his eyes. With an eerie, creepy roar, a wall of mud was slowly rumbling down the hill behind his house -headed right for it. He phoned for help, and by the time it arrived the muck had oozed up against the rear wall, threatening to cave it in.

To save the house, a channel was dug around it, relieving the pressure and allowing the mud to flow away from the backyard.

Fortunately, Mr. Terro knew who to call, and so did hundreds of others when a series of storms drenched southern California between Feb. 13 and 21, cascading tons of water and mud down onto the exclusive canyon neighborhoods of Los Angeles.

When the mud started moving, people started calling, not the fire department nor the police nor the civil defense agency, but Tree People.

Tree People?

During this year's floods, it was the only group capable of orgainizing almost 2,000 volunteers and sending them out to sandbag homes against water and mud and otherwise protect them and their occupants from the conbined ravages of weather and topography.

During more normal times, Tree People is an evvironmental group devoted to replacing the forests that are being wiped out by air pollution with smog-resistant trees. Without Tree People, few, if any, trees would grow back in fire ravaged areas because of the L.A. area's heavy air pollution.

When the floods come, however, the mild-mannered Tree People drop their normal projects and start working round the clock, taking calls for help, loading shovel-toting volunteers onto four-wheel-drive vehicles donated for the task, and dispatching them all by radio to endangered property.

"We worked on 1,000 houses so far," said Tree People Director andrew Lipkis on the eighth day of the storm. The tasks ranged from covering hillsides with enormous sheets of plastic to prevent erosion, to some perilous rescues. One volunteer snatched a child from the path of an oncoming mud slide, only to be caught up herself, though not severely injured, said Mr. Lipkis.

Tree People performed so well that during the flooding, it was designated the official disaster relief agency for Los Angeles. Calls to the fire, police, and civil defense departments were directed to Tree People headquarters.

"They're in charge, because I walked in there. . .and put them in charge of the operaton," said Michael Regan, director of civil defense for Los Angeles. "They do a fantastic job of orgainizing volunteers and getting the help out to the people who need it.

"We are prohibited by law from going onto private property unless it's to save a life. The individual property owner is supposed too take care of that. . .If they had not been around to help, I think there is no question but that we would have lost a lot more homes."

Pointing out that the city doesn't give Tree People any money, Los Angeles city councilman Zev Yaroslavsky says, "It is a phenominal operation. It makes you wonder why a government can't be that responsive. The Tree People are motivated by the best things in the world, and they are looking for nothing in return."

Not counting its flood relief efforts, Tree People operates on a $150,000 a year budget, all of it from donations and an annual marathon. The extra money needed too help people during the February flooding drained the organization's coffers. Mr. Lipkis faced the prospect of not meeting the next payroll.

While we were talking, he was called to the phone and came back to say that the producer of the Sunstar Open LPGA Golf Tournament had just promised to make a contribution to Tree People from the proceeds of the tournament. "It's a real relief," said Mr. Lipkis, " and it's interesting how people respond to a volunteer set-up like this." McDonald's restaurants and the Kentucky Fried Chicken chain kept the volunteers fed, he pointed out. Atlantic Richfield Company donated the large rolls of plastic used to cover the threatened hillsides. One company chipped in 60 pairs of boots, and a writer by the name of Jack Daniels called to ask what the group needed, saying he could "con anything out of anybody."

Mr. Lipkis says he is eager to get back to tree planting. Disaster aid is not his choice of professions "although I do enjoy the idea of showing people what they can do to help themselves."

During the February effort, in fact, the group desperately called around the city looking for refrigerator space to store 10,000 seedling trees until they could be planted. "We have a project going with the Culver city school kids," Mr. Lipkis explained. "We give them each a tree, and they plant it. By the time they're through, Culver City will have 10,000 trees," he said, smiling at the prospect. Right now, Culver City has about as many trees as the parking lot at Yankee Stadium.

The idea for Tree People occurred to him when he was 15 years old. "I read somewhere that in 25 years smog would kill all the trees in los Angeles, and I thought that somebody ought to do something about it." At summer camp several years later, he talked several people into helping out with the project he envisioned. They learned which trees were smog resistant and then found out that state nurseries would sell them 20,000 seedlings for $600. But they had to come up with the money quickly because the seedlings were soon to be plowed under.

Couldn't the state give him the seedlings instead of destroying them? asked Andrew Lipkis. No, he was told, rules are rules. Phone calls to the Los Angeles Times and some local politicians eased the rules, however, and Tree People was on its way.

In the seven years since, Mr. Lipkis and company have planted tens of thousands of seedlings that will eventually provide shade for their grandchildren.

Tree People fell into the emergency aid business more by fluke than design. In 1978, a mud slide threatened a house near the organization's headquarters in Beverly Hills, and, since they didn't know what else to do, the neighbors called Tree People to help shore up the hillside. The group mobilized about 50 volunteers and did the job.

The local city council was impressed enough to ask Mr. Lipkis to help prepare for an expected storm soon after. The group helped protect abut 300 houses.

Later that year and early in 1979, fires burned away up to 90 percent of the ground cover on some of the canyon hillsides. Mr. Lipkis foresaw the danger flooding would pose and worked out a deal with the city and local residents. The city supplied pre-germinated barley seed and fertilizer. Tree People contoured the hills, planted the seed, and installed watering systems. All the residents had to do was water the ground periodically.

"The plan worked, in that the hillsides reseeded by Tree People helped out during this latest round of flooding," says Mr. Regan.

"These are people who know the land," says Councilman Yaroslavsky, whose district includes many of the flooded neighborhoods. "So when something goes wrong with the land, they have a pretty good idea what to do about it."

If Mr. Lipkis and the Tree People intend to stay in the relief business, they have their work cut out for them. As long as heavy rains fall on Los Angeles, which they do frequently, the canyons -Laurel, Benedict, Mandeville, and others -will flood, though perhaps not as severely as this time.

"There are some people who feel that you should not build on hills, or under them, at all," says Mr. Lipkis, adding that "these are not stable, which means they are still in the process of moving. I don't know about that, but I do know that developers -knowingly and unknowingly still in watersheds had build houses on hills. When there are heavy rains, the water goes right through those houses, and it is flowing right where it is supposed to flow.

"We worked on one house in 1978 that was built on a watershed, and the same house has been all but washed away again this year. A developer had gone back and rebuilt the same site. Someone buying that house has no way of knowing that."

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