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Flood Recovery Yields Unexpected Gems

Laguna Gardens Nursery owner Kevin Naughton credited community assistance with speeding his recovery. Photo by Edgar Obrand

Almost exactly two years since a torrential late night rainstorm flooded and stranded Laguna Canyon residents and deposited a surge of mud across downtown Laguna Beach streets, virtually all of the damage wrought by overflowing flood channels, mudslides and backed up drains has vanished.

Besides making repairs that might mitigate damage in a future flood, some residents say the catastrophe yielded unexpected benefits.

The Dec. 22, 2010, flood destroyed six classrooms at Anneliese’s Schools’ Willowbrook campus, including their signature tepee, and completely obliterated their gardens.

Today, with the Willowbrook campus situated on the front line of the flood plain, school administrators now work closely with city officials to monitor the creek and potential for flooding. City-hired experts  have helped them understand the geology of their surroundings, said Liesa Schimmelpfennig, the school’s director of program development and daughter of the school’s founder. The school’s relationship with the city has “vastly improved” since the flooding, she said.

In addition, the riverbed silt that the flood dispersed enriched the grounds. “The food that’s growing now is unbelievable,” said Schimmelpfennig. What’s more, the rebuilt structures are sounder than ever, particularly the tepee, reconstructed in a more high-tech and safer fashion.

“The gift of the flood for me was a flood of creativity,” claimed multi-media artist Olivia Batchelder, whose garden, living room, kitchen and garage studio in her Sun Valley home were buried by mud. A bedroom containing a trove of Batchelder’s painted silk garments and accessories miraculously survived.

Even as she completed repairs to the house and studio, Batchelder’s spirits proved harder to rejuvenate than her home. Her depression didn’t lift until nine months after the devastation, when one day while painting, dipping her brush in pinks and yellows, she found herself smiling and laughing, sadness vaporized and transformed into ecstatic happiness. “I realized the flood had given me a sense of perspective and new subject matter, such as the river and all of its moods,” she said.

Previously naive about her property’s vulnerability to nature’s vagaries, Batchelder now takes precautions against the risks of living in a natural flood basin. “We just have to know that this is going to happen, keep flood insurance, and live like farmers,” she said, keenly attuned to the weather, the creek level and ready with an evacuation plan. Strategically placed sandbags dot her property. On rainy days, her cars, stocked with emergency kits, are backed into the driveway or on the street, ready for a quick departure.

She’s grateful for the city’s work to contain a controversial dumpsite overlooking Sun Valley Drive, whose broken glass and other debris swept across her property. Now that the city has shored it up with concrete, a future event will hopefully only bring water.

Damage and storm clean-up to public property cost $2.7 million, said Gavin Curran, the city’s director of finance. All but one of a half-dozen lawsuits filed against the city for damages have been settled, said City Attorney Phil Kohn. And a majority of flood-related recommendations of a task force have been completed, such as installing flood height signs and clearing debris, said City Manager John Pietig.

Batchelder particularly praised resident Anne Quilter’s organization of relief efforts, and, like so many others, discovered a caring community that embraced her in her hour of need. “I was embarrassed to receive help,” she said, even as she realized she needed it. “I’m in debt to the good people of Laguna who helped me to get through that hard time.”

“We were really able to get back on our feet much quicker than we would have because of the help from the community, not only physically, but emotionally,” agreed Kevin Naughton. “Sometimes it takes a disaster for that to manifest itself,” he said.

Two feet of water and mud buried his Laguna Gardens Nursery, ruining the inventory of plants, his office and the living area behind it.

In rebuilding, Naughton redesigned the layout. Now, customers tell him the nursery looks better than it ever did.

Not everyone has recovered so well. Some families are still coping with flood-related financial hardships and incomplete repairs, tempering attitudes about the recovery, said John Albritton, also a Sun Valley resident and president of the Laguna Canyon Property Owners Association. Others were forced to sell homes or had their homes repossessed, he said.

Albritton fears that speculative developers might purchase flood-distressed properties and forever alter their neighborhood’s distinctive rural character,. “There’s something about our canyon that’s really unique,” said Albritton, who remains grateful that no lives were lost and most residents are back on their feet.

“We rose from the ashes,” said Batchelder.

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