Canyon Surrenders to Storm’s Force


By Jennifer Erickson | LB Indy

Nurseryman Kevin Naughton says the devastation that wrecked his Laguna Gardens Nursery “was unlike other storms” that have come through the canyon. It had all the characteristics of a flash flood, a wall of water that “blew out everything in its path,” he said, including 100-pound statues and a cinder block wall that toppled intact.

Indeed, Naughton’s property, once filled with garden accessories, ceramic pots and healthy greenery at the corner of Laguna Canyon and Raquel roads, this week looked like it had been in the path of a steamroller and a tornado.

Two feet of water and mud laid waste to the business office and living area behind it, and the nursery owner lost virtually all of his plants. He estimates his damages in tens of thousands of dollars. Though help from friends and neighbors was “a real morale booster,” it will still be at least a month before Naughton’s business is up and running again.

The torrents of water, mud and debris that clobbered the nursery began much farther up Laguna Canyon Road. A catastrophic combination of water cresting the creek, canyon mud slides, overflowing flood channels and backed up drainage systems wreaked havoc throughout the canyon: from Anneliese School’s Willowbrook campus near El Toro Road, to businesses and homes near the dog park and at Big Bend and at the channel’s terminus downtown.

“It’s the worst flood damage we’ve ever experienced,” said Elise Higley, a spokeswoman for the five-acre Anneliese School’s Willowbrook campus, which sustained more than $1 million in damages.

“Everything from upstream came washing through,” she said. The four-foot high surge of water destroyed six classrooms, a new computer lab, text books and art supplies, and gardens that were an integral to the school’s interdisciplinary farm-to-table curriculum.

Despite getting commercial crews out to the school early Wednesday, wielding huge pumps and fans to minimize the water damage, all of the tile and wood floors had to be pulled up and dry wall had to be cut out. Volunteers have been working alongside the commercial crews all week.  The goal is to have the school open in some patched up form in time for students returning from vacation on Monday.

Due to limited flood insurance, the school will likely be forced to shoulder most of the school’s reconstruction costs. To that end, the Laguna Beach-based nonprofit, Seeds Arts and Education, Inc. ( has set up the Anneliese Schools Flood Relief Fund to assist in their rebuilding effort. (Donations can be made at their website or any Wells Fargo Bank branch for school flood relief.)

“Due to a recent flood at Laguna Koi Ponds your order may be delayed,” begins a notice on the website for the koi supplier, who lost 200 of the fish in his ponds. Like flood victims all over town, owner Ben Plonski was busy cleaning as fast as he could earlier this week, with the help of employees and volunteers, including donated workers, and couldn’t be sure when he would reopen.

“It’s just a mess,” said Plonski. “I feel so defeated.” It took 10 days to clean up after the Dec. 6, 1997, flood, and damage is worse this time. He is unsure if the property owner’s ’s flood insurance will cover any of his losses.

Though the clients of Dog Ranch Bed & Biscuit, a doggie daycare and boarding business located on Sun Valley Drive, were evacuated during the storm as a precaution, they were back on the property and playing again by Thursday, Dec. 23, said owner Stephanie Marshall. The business itself was flooded by three feet of water that breached an air conditioning vent, destroying computers, phones, supplies and furniture.

At Coastal Kennels, boarding 28 dogs last week, water damage came from inside when the drainage system failed and started to flood the premises, said manager Monica Bennett. Outside, the rising creek demolished the building’s footbridge access and deposited two feet of mud in the parking lot as well as some of the koi from upstream.

The animals were evacuated thanks to a determined Marshall, said Bennett. Authorities wouldn’t let her into the canyon by car at 4 a.m., so she walked past the roadblock and met one of Marshall’s employees, arriving by SUV. They accessed her premises by maneuvering around the adjacent Laguna Beach Animal Shelter, which also lost its footbridge, to a wider, intact bridge by the Pacific Marine Mammal Center. All three facilities were simultaneously, and successfully, evacuating their critters in Wednesday’s early hours.

Laguna Beach Animal Hospital on Forest Avenue took in most of the boarders from Coastal Kennels and other facilities took the rest. “This was a huge income-making month for us, and it ruined it,” said Bennett. After three days of working around the clock, shoveling mud, cleaning and disinfecting the facility, they reopened this past Monday, but the 47 animals scheduled to board with them over the holiday weekend were dispersed elsewhere.

Senior animal services officer Joy Falk, who evacuated animals from the Laguna Beach Animal Shelter alongside Bennett, described the flooding as among the worst she’s experienced in 30 years. She likened the evacuation of the animals to the rescue work she did as a volunteer during Hurricane Katrina.

Three feet of water and mud inundated the facility, destroying desks, computers, washing machines, dog food, and more. Combined with the loss of the footbridge and damage to the lot, Jim Beres, who supervises the city’s animal control and shelter operations, estimated the total damage at $800,000.

Earlier this month, city officials approved a $669,000 renovation for the 50-year-old shelter. The price tag will now exponentially increase. He is unsure where to find additional revenue to pay for it all.

Thanks to the imminent renovation, a temporary alternate animal shelter was to be set up at 2093 Laguna Canyon Road. It should open by mid-month. The city’s field animal control services (picking up strays, etc.) are running as usual.

The Pacific Marine Mammal Center fared no better, and even on Tuesday, after days of clean up, was still devastated. They were hit from all sides, with mud and water pouring down on them from the canyon and flood channel behind them, water and debris washing across their property from the overwhelmed creek in front, and four feet of water flooding the facility due to the failed drainage system.

“We have suffered significant damage and loss, but are grateful for the outpouring of help that has been offered to us by our supporters,” said director of development Melissa Sciacca, estimating losses in six figures. PMMC has established a Flood Relief Fund for anyone who wishes to contribute to their repair efforts. To donate to the fund and/or for updated information on their progress, visit

Both the Laguna Beach Relief and Resource Center and the Alternate Sleeping Location for the homeless, on the lot just south of the PMMC, were unscathed by the storm beyond a few downed telephone poles out front. Occupants were evacuated by a city bus and a Red Cross shelter opened temporarily at the high school gym.

Like PMMC, the Laguna Beach Dog Park is closed after mud and debris breached a rear fence, a precursor of the debris flow that struck Laguna Gardens Nursery next door.

“We tend to forget that 100 years ago this area was an estuary and flood plain,” said Naughton, pointing out that last week’s storm was a reminder of the canyon’s natural tendency towards marshland.

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