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Mudflows are a relentless threat in the night

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Henry Laguna had never heard a sound so terrifying. Like a train, screeching and crashing as it flew off the tracks.

"Get up!" he screamed. He had just left the bedroom to check on the puppy but frantically raced back to wake up his wife and son.

"Get up!" he screamed again. "We have to get out!"

He burst into his son's room. It was a little after 4 a.m.

"Dad, what is it?" Brian sat up.

"We have to get out!"

They ran into the master bedroom. Henry's wife, Damaris, was already out of bed.

"Let's go! Let's go!" he yelled, throwing open the slider to the patio, not thinking to turn on a light.

Just hours before they had been together, warm and safe, talking and playing with Lindy, the new golden retriever, a gift to Damaris. Then the rain came, then the downpour.

Outside in the darkness, they slipped on the wet concrete. They dashed around the pool to the end of the property, as far from the house as possible. Damaris fell once, then again.

Surging water rose around their bare feet and ankles. Within seconds, a torrent hit them, bringing with it rocks and branches. Holding on to one another, they reached a cypress tree and the fence, anything to put between them and the raging water, anything to hang on to. They were drenched.

Homeowners who live against the San Gabriel Mountains know the danger. Mudslides follow fire, so they live with the warnings and the barricades. They hope that they're safe, but hope has its limitations, a stark reality that hit the Laguna family and their neighbors on Manistee Drive in La Cañada Flintridge just six days ago.

-----

Next door, Pat Anderson was startled out of her sleep. She had been dozing, slightly worried, a little restless. It's always that way when it rains. Then she heard a deep rumbling from outside her second-story bedroom.

She went to the window. She pulled back, stunned. She looked again. A giant wave of water was crashing into the first floor of her house, and the far corner of her garage had collapsed.

She didn't know what to do. For a moment, she just watched. Nearly 35 years ago, she and her husband survived their first debris flow. Back then, Manistee had turned into the roiling Mississippi. This was worse, and now she lived alone. Her husband had died in 2003.

She watched the boulders and logs tumble by. No one had said anything about this storm. At dinner with friends that evening, there had just been some drizzle, on and off, the forecast hardly a cause for concern: "Rain . . . possibly becoming heavy at times . . . decreasing to showers during the overnight hours." No one expected nearly 5 inches.

-----

Henry and his family clung to the fence and the cypress, struggling to keep their footing as the speed of the water and mud picked up. The rain beat upon them.

Debris battered the house. Henry heard glass breaking, wood cracking and snapping. Damaris saw a dresser and the couch from the television room slide into their swimming pool.

The fence began to bow under their weight. Henry thought they should jump into the neighbor's backyard, but what if the flood got worse and what if that house started to break apart as well?

He decided it best to stay. He encouraged his wife and son to climb higher. He helped them as best he could, trying to escape the torrent himself. He felt neither the cold nor discomfort. He thought only about how to save his family.

-----

Pat heard the phone. She went over to the side of the bed and picked up.

"Hello."

But no one was there; the line had gone dead.

Then her cellphone rang, Beethoven's "Ode to Joy." Somehow her daughter, Katherine Markgraf, had gotten through despite bad cell coverage in the mountains. Pat considered it divine intervention.

"Stay right there," Katherine spoke quickly. She and her husband lived just down Ocean View Boulevard. "We're going to get someone to pick you up."

Pat, who would give her age only as older than 55, knew the routine. As president and chief executive of the La Cañada Flintridge Chamber of Commerce, she had lived this city's emergencies. She packed her bags, and as she started downstairs, she faced the second horrible sight of the night: water and mud 16 inches deep sloshing through the house. It smelled of dirt, like soil turned in the garden.

She sat down on the stairs, unsettled and uncertain, and waited.

-----

Damaris shook from the cold and fear. She was 47, a registered nurse at White Memorial Hospital, and she knew the symptoms of hypothermia, as did Henry, 49, a caseworker at Glendale Adventist Medical Center. He knew he had to get his family under cover. They had to get warm. He had to risk getting closer to the house, so he moved everyone beneath an eave, where they sat on the pool pump and held their feet above the mud.

Brian, 20, a student at Pasadena City College, turned to his father.

"Lindy," he said. "We need to go find Lindy."

Henry knew the puppy was lost, but he agreed. He and his son inched along the house and peered through a broken window. Three feet of mud filled the room where she slept.

Brian started to cry.

"What are we going to do next?" he asked. "Who will rescue us?"

Henry couldn't be sure.

-----

Pat heard her name, then a pounding on the front door. The rain had let up. Steve Brown, a friend and neighbor of Phil and Katherine, had driven up Ocean View in his truck, hiked through the water and debris on Manistee and the 4 feet of muck that surrounded the house.

His flashlight cut through the darkness.

"You OK?" he asked. She said yes. "Let's get you out of here."

He and Pat worked their way back to his truck, thick, sticky mud sucking at their shoes. To his left, he saw the wreckage of the Laguna home.

The flood pouring out of the canyon had slammed into Pat's garage, then the east side of the Laguna home, which like the prow of a ship parted the torrent until a wall collapsed and mud filled the house.

Steve shouted out to see if anyone was there, if anyone needed help. There was no reply. He wondered for a moment what he should do and decided it best to get Pat to safety.

Through the gloom, he zigzagged down Ocean View around toppled K-rails and over curbs.

-----

The Lagunas stood in their garage. They had climbed under the door and turned on the light. It was freezing cold. They thought of getting into the car, turning on the heater, but the key was in the house.

They didn't stay long. They headed outside, down Ocean View, hoping someone would take them in. They knocked on one door, no answer. Mud blocked their way to another.

Discouraged, they climbed back up the street and went into their garage. It had started to pour again, and the water was rising quickly.

"Hey, Henry, are you OK? Do you need any help?"

It was Jeff. He lived across Ocean View and had taken a chance crossing the coursing water.

Henry wasn't sure of Jeff's last name; he and his wife, Kelly, were new to the neighborhood. But that didn't matter now. Jeff guided the Lagunas to his house. He and Kelly gave them a change of clothes, some hot coffee.

As the sky began to lighten, the damage to Manistee became apparent.

-----

The rain had begun to fall just past midnight. Pummeling the hillsides, charred and glazed from last summer's Station fire, the downpour cut courses in the dirt, tearing down the steep canyon sides of the San Gabriels, funneling into Mullally Canyon. A stream quickly became a river, and the catch basins, constructed by the Forest Service in the 1960s, held little back. The water, funneling through the narrow granite walls, rose.

Within an hour, boulders and sediment choked the Mullally Debris Basin, a 23-foot-deep depression, half the size of a football field, dug into the hillside just above Manistee Drive. Debris poured over the lip of the crib wall, clogging, then overflowing the drainage trough and conduit just below.

Ripping down the street, the water blasted into a 20-foot, 8,000-pound K-rail, hurling it over the curb, flattening a hedge of junipers and smashing 75 feet later into the Anderson garage. The far wall of the garage -- and Pat's treasured 2005 Cadillac De Ville -- careened down the slope, slamming against Brian's bedroom.

The water kept racing down the street.

-----

As the sky lightened a little past 7, the recent surge had subsided. Henry, his son and their neighbor, Jeff Schroeder, went back to their house. They wanted to see what was left of it. Henry asked Damaris to stay back.

By then the urban search-and-rescue crew from the Los Angeles County Fire Department had arrived. Ocean View was impassable; they made the long climb up the street on foot.

As they combed through the wreckage, they told Henry and the others that they had to leave, but Henry didn't want to hear it. This was his home, and their orders made no sense. The rain had stopped, and where was the danger? Where was their help when he needed it?

Jeff pulled his neighbor aside, talked to him calmly, and together they walked back across the street.

Inspectors began to survey the homes. Red tags prohibiting reentry. Yellow tags limiting occupancy.

In the early afternoon, Katherine took her video camera up to Manistee and filmed her mother's home. She didn't want Pat to see the damage firsthand, and when she got back, Phil hooked the camera up to the television.

"Mother," she said by way of warning, "you're not going to believe this."

Pat took a deep breath. Paradise Valley represented a dream for many families who moved here after the development opened in the late 1950s, early '60s. As it was for Pat and her husband, so it was for the Lagunas, who moved here in 1994, attracted to the neighborhood, the quiet and life so close to the mountains.

There was no dream now. Cars strewn across lawns. A K-rail split in half. Street curbs demolished. Doors bashed in. Pat's home and her neighbors' homes -- the Fraziers, the Burrows, the McLaughlins and the Lagunas -- all ruined, all damaged.

  • Mudslide panoramas: Inside the Laguna family home | The backyard where they fled to | Aftermath on Manistee Drive
  • thomas.curwen@latimes.com

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