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Foretelling Acts of Nature

City starts installation of flood-warning devices

Animal Shelter employee Kathleen Sherwood on the pedestrian bridge rebuilt since the December 2010 flood. The rain gauge atop the shelter is part of a monitoring system to provide an early warning system that should be completed by August. Photo by Mitch Ridder

With five major floods over the last 40 years storming through the alluvial Laguna Canyon into downtown Laguna Beach, the city is finally installing cameras, gauges and saturation sensors, giving residents crucial warning time when foreboding clouds approach.

But is it enough?

“It might be too late for them to leave,” said Charlie Quilter, a member of the Laguna Canyon Flood Mitigation Task Force, emphasizing a point made in the committee’s final findings, updated for the city council earlier this month.  “We need to get people familiar with the geology of their area and where to go to find safe ground when it floods.”

Quilter, whose wife, Ann, was swept from their home by a hillside avalanche and out into the canyon during the 1998 flood, said the 15 to 30 minutes of emergency warning time provided by the new monitoring system is a needed lifesaver.

The entire flood monitoring system, scheduled to be installed by August, will provide a maximum of 24 hours of lead time for a forecasted storm, according to Public Works Director Steve May.

“There is no way to stop the flooding if you get a cloudburst event,” said Quilter, a retired Marine Corps colonel and commercial airline pilot.  “When the hills are soaked and you get a rain rate that’s over two inches per hour for any duration at all, you’re going to start to have debris flow and flooding and there’s nothing you can really do about it.”

To assist in the event of another disaster, an intensive eight-week survival course will be offered to residents, starting at the end of the month.  Graduates of the training will then become members of a Community Emergency Response Team.

“The training will prepare 20 to 30 leaders in neighborhoods throughout Laguna Beach on how to prepare for emergencies and how to respond once they have them,” said Ann Quilter, a member of the Emergency Disaster Preparedness Committee.  “The neighborhoods will start taking personal responsibility and implementing these actions on a citizens’ level.  It all works together.” (See lagunabeachcity.net for further information.)

The new flood monitoring system will place five cameras, three rain-level gauges and six groundwater saturation sensors at 13 different high-water spots in Laguna Canyon.  Costs were estimated at $35,000 but May said that will likely increase by $5,000 to $10,000, pending council approval.  The monitoring system is one of the first of 26 recommendations by the task force to be implemented.  The committee of 11 volunteers was established after the unprecedented flood on Dec. 22, 2010, which caused $12 million in damages to canyon residences and downtown businesses.

“We can communicate with our residents, particularly out in the canyon,” said councilwoman Verna Rollinger, council liaison to the task force, “so they can make a decision about whether they’re going to stay, whether they’re going to visit Aunt Susie for a day or two until the whole thing blows over or if it’s time to take certain actions at home to make sure they’re prepared for the storm.”

Cameras will be placed at Anneliese School at El Toro Road, the city dog park where Laguna Creek goes underground into a concrete channel to the Big Bend curve on Laguna Canyon Road, the bridge at the city’s animal shelter, the flood canal on Beach Street in downtown Laguna and the conduit behind City Hall.

“We’re working on the details of how to install them at the various locations,” said May, “and whether we’re going to get electrical power to them or whether we’re going to have solar power, whether they’re going to be connected wirelessly or via an internet connection.”

The city will connect by internet with the county’s system of rain gauges that indicate the potential for flooding.  Ground-saturation sensors will flash when maximum absorption is reached and run-off flooding is imminent.

The 2010 flood was difficult to predict, said May, because it resulted from a storm that swooped in from the ocean with fast-moving intensity.  “If the system were knocking the heck out of Anaheim and heading right our way, we would get some advance notice,” he said, “but out on the ocean, there’s nothing out there to tell us what’s happening.”

Councilwoman Elizabeth Person asked about a back-up plan if the internet went down during a deluge and the information became inaccessible.  May said real-time data would be lost.  He agreed with Pearson that a secondary way to access the internet would be practical, and suggested connecting via satellite.

“This has never been put together anywhere else,” City Manager John Pietig intervened.  “Let’s get it up first and see how we can get it to work.”  Calling it a model program for the rest of the country, Pearson suggested finding federal money to fund it.  “We always look for federal funding,” Pietig assured her.

Even though the warning system will give more lead time for residents to react and emergency services to respond, it will not, admittedly, prevent flooding in the canyon and downtown that, “as we all know, has happened on a not-too-infrequent basis,” said May.

Quilter said the committee agreed that there were short- and medium-term solutions they could implement but long-term was too costly to undertake.  “A long-term solution would involve putting more reinforced concrete channels in the canyon,” he said.  “Those are huge capital projects and they might well be more costly and have more environmental concerns than the benefits they give.”

Downtown flooding would be next to nil if a large channel to the sea was installed under Broadway Street (the downtown extension of Laguna Canyon Road), according to the report, but members agreed that that wouldn’t happen anytime soon. “It requires so much money to build that,” Quilter said. “The roadway itself is now the channel. The money is just not there right now but, as a longer-range goal, I think it’s very desirable.”

Quilter added that the task force partly blames the state’s department of transportation, Caltrans, which built Laguna Canyon Road, for flooding in the canyon.  “Caltrans built this highway in a natural channel,” he said, “and I think there’s solid criticism that Caltrans did not do their part in providing proper drainage when it built the original highway.”

But May said the city is taking steps to lessen flooding by repairing a catchment basin at Laguna Canyon and El Toro roads that will minimize run-off from paved and nonpermeable housing developments upstream, such as Laguna Audubon.  He said the city will also consider installing flood barricades along downtown streets during storms.

The council was also asked to make the flood warning information available to the public through the city’s website. “The goal is to try to share as much as we can as long as it’s meaningful and doesn’t present a misperception,” Pietig responded.

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