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Foothill residents get ready for next storm

January 25, 2010 12:00:00 AM PST
With more rain on the way, residents in the foothills are getting ready for problems the storm may bring. In addition to sandbags and K-rails, they're also getting help from a new high-tech radar system.

Carol Min's house is backed up right against a barren hillside. She says she's packed and ready to go if Tuesday's rain forces another evacuation in her La Canada neighborhood. Min and her family are taking no chances. After experiencing a mudslide following a rain storm last December, mounds of dirt came barreling through their back yard right up to side of their house.

"They've put up a wall there, they've put all sorts of hundreds of sandbags around the house, and it's really loud. I don't think anybody realizes how loud a mudslide can be. It's crazy," Min described.

Behind the Min home is a debris basin that was near capacity after last week's relentless storms. Crews have been working for the past two days removing tons of mud, tree limbs and other debris from all 28 basins in the foothill areas charred by the station fire.

"We've had all sorts of trucks and tractors come in from 6 in the morning on even before I go to school, it sounds like a construction site," said Min.

More than 2,000 homes were evacuated last week during a series of storms. Most of those residents have been able to return home, but they are aware that they may have to leave again.

"Everybody was on edge, watching the rainfall, keeping an eye on the hills," said Dale Reavis, a La Canada Flintridge resident.

The flood-control system was put to the test last week, and officials said it held up well. There were no major flooding or debris flows.

In La Canada Flintridge and other foothill communities, there were some small flows of mud and water that coursed through some properties, but there were no serious slides.

Crews from the L.A. County Department of Public Works have been working 12-hour shifts since Friday, cleaning out the 28 debris basins protecting homes in the Station Fire burn area. County officials said it will be weeks before the debris basins are completely cleared out, but they believe they're ready for the next storm, expected to hit on Tuesday.

It's a massive job moving tons of dirt and debris to clean up the debris basins as quickly as possible. Bulldozers and dump trucks were running non-stop Monday, and residents appreciate the effort.

"The trucks are here, there is something happening the whole time. I mean clearing up the debris and it is happening so fast and they are really conscientious," said Ruby Block, a La Canada resident.

A week of strong storms left the Mullally Basin on Ocean View Boulevard at near capacity. All together, the rains dumped about half a million cubic yards of mud and debris. L.A. County is trying to clear out more than two dozen basins around the Station Fire zone.

"Over a thousand people deployed throughout the county right now cleaning up after these storms and preparing for the next storms. As you can see here in this debris basin, this particular one here can hold about a 120,000 cubic yards of material and it is only about 40 percent capacity," explained Dale Farber of the Department of Public Works.

Officials are keeping a close eye and watching for unstable ground. Also watching is a high tech mobile tool parked at Burbank Airport. It's called Smart Radar, and it was driven in from the National Weather Lab in Oklahoma. It can detect precipitation, and the data collected is combined with that from other government agencies to create an accurate forecast

"We can then do post-event research on this to see with our radar how heavy the precipitation is, what kind of precipitation there is and what may have triggered a mudslide or debris flow," explained Kevin Manross of the National Severe Storms Laboratory.

Officials say that a more efficient mudslide warning system is in high demand. Researchers are hoping that the Smart Radar system will be able to predict larger debris flows an hour before they happen, rather than just a few minutes.

About 250 homes in the La Canada Flintridge area had to be evacuated last week. More than six inches of rain drenched the foothill areas and officials weren't sure these hills would hold.

"Last week was very frightening because we are right next to that big mountain and I didn't know if that thing was going to slide down," said Block.

Another La Canada resident Dale Reaves says he got about two inches of mud on his property

"Sandbags here saved me from getting extra water in the yard. Most of the water had little pieces of wood and debris in it. More of the mud was coming down on the other side of the stream," descriebd Reaves.

"I think everyone will be more worried when we get the next five-day storm. This next one, I think will be okay," Reaves added.

Near Eby Canyon, everything that was done to prevent mudflow and debris from getting into homes proved very effective in last week's storms. Residents say they're confident that they'll be able to handle the upcoming rain.

Sandbags and engineering helped keep mud and debris away from Eby Canyon homes during the last storm.

"My brother did the engineering for that, and my dad is a contractor and so we put that up," said Mick Schaafsma, an Eby Canyon resident, pointing to a wooden barrier created to block rainwater carrying debris from getting into his home. "We just got a big pile of mud."

Monday, there was about an inch of rainwater still lingering on roads leading up to Eby Canyon, and drivers could easily pass through. However, last week, the three to four inches kept residents trapped in their homes.

"All the time, being in the house, not leaving the house. We knew the storm was coming, we bought some extra food to stay in," described Anna Hourian, another Eby Canyon resident, who added that if the upcoming rain is light, she and her family should be just fine.

"But if it's heavy, a river will cover the road. You think you can pass through, but it's so high that you get stuck," Hourian described.

In the Angeles National Golf Club near Eby Canyon, there are no problems. In 2005, heavy rains caused significant damage to a few holes. Work done to protect the course back then is still working now.

"We prepared for that by building up the holes and preparing for a major flood again, and it lasted through this storm pretty well," said James Shafer of the Angeles National Golf Club.

Though it was mostly sunny Monday, authorities say that the hills are so saturated that a threat of a slide is still there.

According to the L.A. County Department of Public Works, some sections of the Big Tujunga Canyon Road may be open to only residents by Tuesday.

In coastal areas, residents are also busy cleaning. Home and businesses in some parts of San Pedro were flooded with more than 4 feet of water when heavy rain fell.

"So bad, really bad, because we really don't have any (electricity).Everything is gone," said Sonal Prajapati of San Pedro.

In some flood-prone neighborhoods, residents have lined their doorsteps with stacks of sandbags, hoping to prevent any further damage.