Preparing for the Next Onslaught

A crane was used to extract Carter Pike’s car from beneath a bridge near the Canyon Club last Thursday. Photo by Mitch Ridder

Even as flood-wary residents monitor weather forecasts and hope to avoid a repeat of last week’s destruction, city officials are tallying damage to 30 homes and 59 businesses, estimating $10.2 million in storm damage from the Dec. 22 deluge, the worst in several years.

“Unfortunately, this was just the first significant storm of the 2010-11 winter season,” said City Manager John Pietig, who spent some of his third week on the job in the field in rubber boots meeting with residents and inspecting damage firsthand.

Flood victims seeking assistance with shelter, food, clothing or cleanup can seek the aid of service groups at a meeting organized by city officials for 1 p.m. today Friday, Dec. 31, in Council Chambers.

Based on the city’s preliminary estimates, Anneliese’s Willowbrook school in Laguna Canyon sustained the biggest financial losses at $900,000. The city’s animal shelter was close behind, with an $800,000 loss to contents and structure. “We planned a more orderly transition,” said Jim Beres, the police department’s civilian supervisor, who hoped to open temporary quarters this week at 2093 Laguna Canyon Road.

Several residents in the hardest hit canyon neighborhood, homeowners alongside Sun Valley Drive

Canyon Road resident Jerry Moushey spoke this week with a tow-truck driver about extracting toppled containers from the creek. Photo by Andrea Adelson

bordering Laguna Creek, question whether a force of nature alone should take the blame for floodwaters that swept away cars and forced harried escapes from flooded houses.

“It came down our street like the Mississippi River,” said Dede Westgaard Pike, who moved to a Sun Valley Drive rental in September. Her husband and sons rigged a garden hose across the swiftly rising torrent to rescue their neighbor Kirsten Cook and her two daughters, who fled chest-high water in their home. Three of their four cars were inundated, including one swept under a bridge.

Pike as well as others partly point blame to upstream neighbor Jerry Moushey, whose silver Porsche and four illegal storage containers were swept into the creek, impeding storm waters that spilled from the creek channel. City officials demanded he extract them by midweek.

“That guy has some liability,” said Patrick Curran, a 37-year resident whose landscaping business, Cook’s rental and a koi pond were all battered by last Wednesday’s downpour. However, the larger contributor to flooding at Big Bend and downtown as well as on Sun Valley Drive is intensified runoff from the toll road, but neither the county nor city authorities show willingness to intervene, Curran said.

If a parallel creek channel was built in the open space along Laguna Canyon Road and the final drain to the ocean enlarged, “the problem’s over,” suggested Curran, dismayed that downtown merchants have blocked such improvements for fear of business disruption. “You can’t do that and endanger the rest of us,” Curran said.

Even as insurance adjustors arrived this week to help flood victims prepare claims, Moushey already faces a four-count criminal code-enforcement complaint over the containers and other issues, filed in July. A court date is scheduled Jan. 6, City Attorney Phil Kohn said. “Given recent week’s events, we’re not going to be as forgiving or tolerant of delays,” Kohn said. “Had they obtained permits, it’s not to say the events wouldn’t have happened anyway,” he said.

Moushey, whose property flooded four-feet deep in places, says the containers are prototype, low-cost housing modules that he hoped to sell in developing nations and disaster hit areas such as New Orleans. He says lack of maintenance along the creek banks, privately owned property, also contributed to the flooding. Rather than causing the flood, Mousey said the containers “held the water back.”

“Even if you had the best design, you still wouldn’t have been able to keep it all in,” concluded David Shissler, the city’s director of water quality, who at 3 a.m. saw water blowing out in eight-foot torrents at Beach Avenue where the creek channel narrows. “It was pretty shocking.”

About 64,000 gallons of sewage spilled at various locations because sewer systems were overfilled with runoff, he said. One sewer pumping station that serves that animal shelter was also damaged, he said.

Small mudslides occurred on Skyline Drive, Park Avenue, Diamond Crestview, Nyes Place and Arch Beach Heights, characterized as “shallow failures,” by Hannes Richter, a geo-technical engineer and city consultant. Local soils can’t absorb high-intensity rainfall and results in thin failures, he said. “The balance is very fragile right now; we need more drying out.”

Though city officials don’t expect serious flooding from storms forecast for this week, residents and business owners were nevertheless urged of the potential for mudslides due to ground saturation and urged them to take preventative measures.

These include sandbagging, securing floodgates in downtown businesses, moving to higher ground in the event of flooding and disconnecting electrical appliances when abandoning a home, but not in standing water. In the event of flooding, residents are urged to use a stick to avoid water more than six inches deep due to the risk of falling. Motorists should avoid severely flooded areas; most cars float in a foot of water and even SUVs are swept away by two-feet of rushing water.

Local officials have asked for a federal disaster declaration, which has not yet been made. A local emergency was ratified last Friday and sanctioned by the governor. To prepare for disaster reimbursement, storm victims can access the following websites:

FEMA Disaster Application Information:

CalEMA Individual Disaster Assistance Page:

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