California mudslides: when coping with mud becomes part of life

Hundreds of homes in the hillside neighborhoods around Los Angeles were ordered to evacuate as more storms and mudslides threatened the area. In places such as Sierra Madre, residents have mud-coping down to a drill.

By , Staff writer

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    Public employees in La Canada Flintridge, Calif., walk past a home on Tuesday that was damaged by last weekend's mudslides. Homeowners in mud-ravaged foothill towns north of Los Angeles packed their cars and left Tuesday as evacuation orders took hold and a new winter storm arrived.
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The steep, corkscrew streets above this town of 12,000 are awash in debris, mud, and water shooting around cement barriers, sand bags and makeshift plywood gates – anything to keep the mud from shooting into homes.

Residents here and in La Cañada Flintridge, La Crescenta, and Acton, are under evacuation orders since Tuesday, after the National Weather Service predicted 1-2 inches of rain in the next couple of days. Though the storm now appears to be moving east, authorities and residents are still being cautious.

In La Cañada Flintridge, a botched emergency notification Saturday meant residents were told to evacuate only after 40 homes had already been damaged and several cars and trucks crushed. California Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger later toured the area and said he would appoint a blue ribbon commission to investigate claims that officials did not handle warnings properly. He also promised to find disposal sites for the thousands of truckloads of debris that needs to be removed from streets and homes.

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Mudslides are a common problem during California’s rainy season which hits every January and February. But last fall’s wildfire – one of the largest in L.A. county history – has sharpened the dangers of mudslides this year, with large swaths of the hillsides above homes in several areas scorched.

Here in Sierra Madre, major fires did their damage several years ago, so residents already know the drill.

“It takes about 30 minutes after the rain starts for that tongue of mud to come shooting down that driveway,” says Tom Wahl, an aerospace consultant living on Skylane Road. He points to a 60 ft.-wide strip of decomposed granite slurry poured across the street, rendering it impassable. “But we all know what to do now, and not be too concerned about it.”

How to deal with constant mud

“This is some of the hardest work I’ve ever done, it’s really backbreaking,” said Steve Herendich, a handyman hired to build a mud gate at a home in Sierra Madre.

In the 90 minutes between two downpours, Mr. Herendich devised and built a gate made of 2-inch by 6-inch wood planks, bolted onto poles sunk into the ground. He left around 2 p.m. with the sound of thunder accompanying the hailstones pocking off his head.

The official response to the emergency has been good, Herendich says, with fire department and other officials removing the worst of the mud from streets with oversized, frontloaders, and without pushing the mud into driveways. “The most important thing to do is to divert all these flows away from driveways and property that is below street level,” roughly 50 percent of homes on Skylane Road, he says.

Officials from the Department of Public Works have been seen wading through thigh-high mud to check abandoned homes for gas leaks and to survey damage done by huge boulders, furniture, and concrete barriers floating on moving walls of mud.

“We’ll get through this, we always do,” says Skylane Road resident Mr. Wahl, who still recalls his own personal terror at the first knock on his door by a fireman three years ago.

“I told him, ‘I’m looking for my cat’,” he recalls. “He said they would be back to help, and within 10 minutes they knocked again to say, ‘It’s time to go – now.’ ”

Challenges bond community

The constant challenge has helped the community bond, Wahl says. “We are now all closer together. We now know more of our neighbors than we did before all of this. Everyone looks out for each other when the trouble comes.”

The cycle of rains is regular and so the community-wide drill has become familiar.

“It rains again, and here comes the mud, and the street is blocked, and previously safe property finds a new challenge – a dining room gets water from a new route, a fence breaks,” he says.

Next: the police and other emergency crews, and news vans. Then the mud removal crews, and the “beep-beep-beep as heavy equipment backs up to haul away mud.”

But for all the trouble mudslides bring every year, Wahl maintains that this is a great place to live.

“We have grown closer together, and the risks are manageable. The mud is now integrated into our lives,” he says.

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