In the early morning hours of Feb. 6, 2010, hundreds of La Cañada Flintridge residents were startled out of their beds by the sound of the hillsides falling down around them.
City officials and residents knew a mudslide was likely. No sooner had flames from the Station fire — ignited in late August 2009 — been spotted than talk of potential slides began.
"As the flames were dying off and everything was still smoldering, the next thought was the hillsides are now burned and denuded, we need to think about what would happen when the debris came," City Administrator Kevin Chun said this week. "Right away, we went into post-fire mode, thinking about debris flow and what we needed to do to protect our community."
Five years later, there are obvious signs of recovery. Last month, the Los Angeles County Department of Public Works removed 123 K-rails on Ocean View Boulevard and finished construction of a $1.5-million drain pipe to divert rainwater.
Residents say they are beginning to get closure on a disaster that upended their lives for years. But the memory of the chaos lingers for the people who endured it, and for the civic leaders who helped see the community through it.
Pat Anderson, chief executive and president of the La Cañada Flintridge Chamber of Commerce and a resident of the slide area, vividly remembers waking to a cacophonous sound.
"What I saw was horrific," she said. "A wall of water was coming over what used to be the roof of my garage. When I got halfway downstairs, all I could smell was earth and moisture. When I turned the light on, all I saw was mud and debris all over my house."
Her garage — and car— slammed into her neighbors' home, waking their teenage son. Minutes later, his bedroom was inundated with mud that might have buried him, Anderson said.
Then-Mayor Laura Olhasso said she awoke that day at 5:30 a.m. feeling something wasn't right.
"I woke my husband up and said, 'We've got to go check things out. I'm just worried,'" she said, recounting how they dodged boulders and cars that had swept onto the roads. "You couldn't even believe what you were looking at."
The next day, in an emergency meeting of the City Council, leaders voted to allow affected homeowners to restore their houses, waiving the permit process. Later, as residents contacted insurance companies, Olhasso said the city began helping county agencies clear debris basins.
Edward Hitti, the city's public works director, said officials worked with the Los Angeles County Flood Control District to increase the storage capacity at three of La Cañada Flintridge's nine catch basins. The risk of a similar mud flow is much less now, Hitti said in an email.
Most of the affected homes have been renovated and rebuilt, but some homeowners are still living with unfinished landscapes, pools and exteriors their insurance companies didn't cover.
Anderson has spent the better part of the last five years fighting the California FAIR Plan Assn. to recover money she spent to finish needed improvements.
She now offers this advice: "Make sure your policy is what you think it is, and have your agent explain it to you in detail. And if your agent can't or won't explain it, find one who will."
While Olhasso believes La Cañada Flintridge was as prepared as it could have been for the mudslides, she thinks there is now a better working relationship among public safety entities that fight fires. Chun, who helped lead the city's incident command center, said staff learned how to quickly communicate accurate information.
"It was a trying experience for us, but I think we did learn from it," he said.