L.A. County’s handling of mudslide warnings is questioned

George Allen said the calls came regularly last month, telling him and other La Cañada Flintridge residents to evacuate as rain soaked the wildfire-scorched hillside above their homes.

But early Saturday morning, when intense rains unleashed massive mudslides in his neighborhood, he got no reverse 911 call. By 7 a.m., more than 40 houses had been damaged, cars had been tossed around and thick mud had rendered some streets impassable. Allen’s Dodge truck was swept away and crushed.

After 9 a.m., the 911 warning came.

“The horse was already out of the barn, and running,” said Allen, 77. “The last time, it seemed they were overly cautious, and nothing happened. This time, it seemed the calls were a save-face move, like they were saying, ‘We didn’t call you, but we should have, so we’re calling you now.’ ”

On Monday, there was some debate among residents about whether the emergency notification system worked.

Officials said they decided not to evacuate residents early in the morning because they thought it would do more harm than good. They feared deputies and residents could be swept up in the mud flow as they left the area -- and thought being indoors would actually be safer.

“We would have killed people,” said Los Angeles County Deputy Fire Chief Mike Metro. The mud flows “were picking up cars and setting them down-street 300 yards. You never want to evacuate when those kinds of things are happening.”

Neal Tyler, a division chief with the L.A. County Sheriff’s Department, said the earliest pre-recorded calls went out about 9:30 a.m., telling those in the Paradise Valley neighborhood to evacuate because another storm was coming in. Other residents were told to shelter in place, he said.

Tyler said that residents who called 911 to report debris flows early Saturday would have been told not to evacuate because it would have been too dangerous.

Forecasters on Friday night had called for heavy rain, but L.A. County emergency officials decided that projection didn’t warrant evacuations at that time, and they felt the debris basins were in good shape.

“As of Friday late evening, the last weather reports that we had received was that it was just going to be light rain. Based on those weather reports, the incident command didn’t even have their command post set up because they were not anticipating a heavy rain event,” said Kevin Chun, director of administrative services for La Cañada Flintridge. “This was all just completely unanticipated.”

When the rains came, fire and public works officials said, they were more powerful than projected Friday night by the National Weather Service.

“The system was in good shape, and there was a low rainfall forecast, and no indication there would be a high intensity of rainfall concentrated in that area,” said Mark Pestrella, deputy director of L.A. County’s Department of Public Works.

But at 3:15 a.m. Saturday, the weather service placed calls to law enforcement, city and county authorities warning that slides were imminent or already occurring.

“We were able to get it out with anywhere from a half-hour to 45 minutes of lead time,” said Jamie Meier, a meteorologist with the weather service.

Meier said that although the rainfall early Saturday exceeded what was forecast, the projections had been for relatively vigorous rain.

“We advertised on Friday that we were expecting 2 to 4 inches to fall in the foothills, and said the rainfall rates would exceed a half-inch to two-thirds of an inch per hour, which they did,” Meier said. “We issued a flash-flood watch Thursday evening, approximately 36 hours in advance of heavy rainfall.”

Pestrella said that residents in the most vulnerable 50 or so homes already had standing orders to evacuate if it rained, and that they had indeed left.

But many residents decided to stay behind to begin the cleanup. Allen said he probably would have ignored a warning to evacuate. Heather McLaughlin, 23, a substitute elementary tea- cher, said that when she got a call late in the morning, she thought it was about the slide that had already happened.

“It was like, ‘Really? Thanks,’ ” she said. “At that point it had stopped raining and all there was left to do was clean.”

Pestrella said that one reason officials were so aggressive in getting people to evacuate last month was the storms’ duration -- a string of them drenched Southern California for a week.

Bill Patzert, a climatologist for the Jet Propulsion Laboratory in La Cañada Flintridge, said residents should play it safe any time it rains, as is expected Tuesday and later this week. It will be years before the fire-ravaged hills are stable, he said, and the threshold for major slides and mud flows gets lower with each storm.

“It could take five to six years for these slopes to be revegetated and stabilized,” Patzert said. “So any rain now and during the next five years could put this area in danger.”

Times staff writer Victoria Kim contributed to this report.