Malibu Residents Got the Better of Storm by Gearing Up for Worst

Times Staff Writer

As the raging surf began to hurl huge boulders against the pilings under his house and hammer his sun deck Sunday, the hazards of living on the brink began to chip away at Gary Steffen's reserves.

His feelings of fear and anxiety are common among Malibu residents, who face regular confrontations with nature--be it floods in winter, fire in summer or landslides year round.

But the weekend storm, which powered 20-foot waves and a seven-foot tide, didn't wreak the type of damage that occasionally has paralyzed this coastal community of 20,000. This time, emergency service workers and residents were ready, armed with experience from previous disasters and the tools necessary to temper the onslaught.

"On the night before the storm, we knew it was coming so we just stayed up all night anticipating it and doing what we could to protect ourselves," said Steffen, a Malibu resident for 23 years. "When you live in Malibu you get used to it, but it's always scary. The people who haven't been on the beach very long are the ones who usually suffer the most damage.

"But no matter how bad the storm is, it really gets you on edge for a couple of days. My wife and I are totally exhausted. And it never gets easier, no matter how long you've lived here."

By Wednesday, people were joking about the storm. Three days earlier, it didn't seem so funny. The ocean seemed to swell up just as 40 m.p.h. winds came howling from the west. Beachfront homeowners had visions of 1983, when a relentless storm lashed the coast for four days, ripping apart million-dollar homes and carrying away whole sections of beaches and roads.

But most properties were spared heavy damage this time. Portions of sun decks were damaged and some homes were flooded. Los Angeles emergency crews reported that 39 homes along the coast of Malibu received exterior damage and the interiors of 26 buildings were partially flooded.

State officials still hadn't arrived by Wednesday to assess the damage, so monetary estimates were not available. But the storm is believed to have caused just a fraction of the $12 million in damage that Malibu suffered in 1983, and county officials gave high marks to residents for being prepared.

Like his neighbors, Steffen placed concrete-filled bags in front of his deck, and he removed loose items such as planters that could have been turned into battering rams by the pounding surf. Even so, the raging waters carried away his porch steps and destroyed a door--a minor trade-off, he said, for living the good life on the beach.

Robert Patten, a Malibu beach resident for 24 years, said he chained down his deck furniture and removed driftwood from the porch, lessons he learned five years ago when similar debris bashed relentlessly against his Malibu Road home.

Patten said a wave nearly knocked him and his dog off a porch, and flooded next-door neighbor Charles Bronson's house.

Because the storm came from the west, it delivered only a glancing blow to beach homes in Malibu, which faces south. Beaches facing west, such as Redondo Beach, suffered the greatest damage.

Hillside residents in Malibu reported no problems despite the fierce rain and winds, in part because public works crews recently had cleaned storm drains in the area in preparation for winter. Los Angeles County Fire Capt. Doug Silgen, a member of a team that responded to 29 emergency calls during the storm, said residents have learned to prepare for disasters.

In addition, he said the numerous disasters that have hit the area in the past have helped fire, water, road maintenance and Sheriff's Department crews develop a comprehensive emergency plan.

"I think that every storm that comes along weeds out some of the weaknesses," Silgen said. "Also, there has been an upgrading of homes in the area since the last storm and that has helped them considerably. We can't really do anything until the storm actually hits, but we do get our crews on standby status and we get advisories out to the public.

"We dodged a lot of potential damage this time. Today (Tuesday) a lot of people were out pouring concrete for new seawalls and building barriers. A good storm will really give you the kind of stimulus you need to prepare for the next one."

Lt. Michael Moore of the Malibu sheriff's station said local agencies now have numerous backup communication systems because of the problems they encountered during the 1983 storm. He said the Malibu area is probably better prepared than other coastal areas in the state in responding to emergencies.

Despite the precautions, residents realize that no amount of preparation can offer them shelter from a huge storm.

Several celebrities in the Malibu Colony and neighboring areas suffered at least moderate damage to their homes. The swimming pool at singer Joni Mitchell's beachfront house filled with sand, and oilman Marvin Davis' front deck and patio crumpled under the watery assault.

Diners at the Sand Castle restaurant were forced to flee when a wave crashed through the doors. Residents in Escondido Beach, Broad Beach and along Malibu Road suffered exterior damage to their homes.

"It was the biggest sea I have ever seen in my life," said Carl Randall, a Las Flores Beach resident since 1955. "We put in a new bulkhead (seawall) following the '83 storm. If we didn't have it, I'm sure the damage would have been considerable.

"What saved us this time was it was only a 24-hour storm. The size and the power of those waves were just incredible and nobody who lives on the beach is equipped to handle something like that. Malibu is a great place to live, but the ocean just reminds you every couple of years who the boss is. This storm was pretty damn frightening."

Screenwriter Ivan Goff, a longtime Malibu Colony resident who lost his teahouse during the storm of 1983, said he "thought it was going to be very rough" when he watched the weekend's storm come in. He said most of the colony residents boarded their windows Saturday night and cleared their decks before the storm hit.

"We have taken a lot of precautions that people didn't think were necessary before 1983," he said. "Still, it's a miracle we didn't suffer greater damage because the potential was great, having both big waves and a high tide. But the new seawall we put in five years ago really reduced the power of the waves."

As residents began cleaning up and making repairs, surfers took advantage of monstrous waves. Huge crowds turned out along the Pacific Coast Highway to watch the surfers, who sometimes rode waves right up to the pilings under expensive beachfront homes.

"After all these storms, you learn to take what the ocean gives you," Patten said. "In 1978, we we had a major storm, everybody said it was a 100-year storm. And then we had one in 1979.

"That's the thing about living here. When spring comes, and we have a few warm days, everyone just forgets about it. Until the next time."

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