L.A. considers suspending trash pickup when heavy rainfall is forecast

Storm clouds drift over downtown Los Angeles in October; flooding caused by a mattress blocking a storm drain in Boyle Heights that month caused officials to reassess preparations for El Niño.
(Luis Sinco / Los Angeles Times)

When a sudden, powerful storm pummeled Boyle Heights in October, one poorly placed mattress wreaked havoc on the neighborhood.

Los Angeles officials say the mattress was blocking a catch basin, which subsequently caused flooding that damaged a basement and several vehicles.

The incident has sparked additional interest in the city’s El Niño preparation and has department heads mulling a new tactic to mitigate its effects. For the first time, they are considering suspending trash pickup.


Water and Power is The Times’ guide to the drought. Sign up to get the free newsletter >>

“A single object, whether it’s a trash bag or a mattress, can impact an intersection,” Kate Hutton, a spokeswoman with the city’s Emergency Management Department, said Friday.

The changes in service would affect the parts of Los Angeles that are expected to be hammered with the heaviest rainfall and most severe flooding. But officials said decisions about halting pickup would not take place until 72 hours before a major storm or later — possibly even during the storm itself.

Forecasters believe the most hazardous downpours may not arrive until January or February.

“We’re trying something different,” Adel H. Hagekhalil, assistant director of the Bureau of Sanitation, told the City Council earlier this week.

When residents put their trash bins on the curb, the containers sometimes block storm drains, leaving water to form puddles in low-lying areas or flow down the street. A relatively small amount of fast-moving water can also knock a trash bin over and carry the bin — or its contents — to another location, where it can clog the system and hasten flooding.

Suspending trash pickup would help ensure that there would be less debris on the streets that could cause problems, officials said.


Exactly how long a suspension would last would “really depend on the storm system coming through,” Hutton said. “It might not be [in] every neighborhood.”

A single object, whether it’s a trash bag or a mattress, can impact an intersection.

— Kate Hutton, a spokeswoman with L.A.’s Emergency Management Department

She referred specific questions about pickup schedules to the Bureau of Sanitation. Officials there did not return a call Friday.

Though sanitation and emergency management staffers have discussed the idea in town halls and community meetings, the issue came to a head after the Oct. 19 flooding in Boyle Heights.

Councilman Jose Huizar, whose district includes Boyle Heights, issued a motion calling for city departments to report on aspects of their El Niño preparation and provide an explanation for the flooding incident. Officials representing Emergency Management, Sanitation and Street Services delivered their reports to the council Tuesday.

At the council meeting, Hagekhalil raised the idea of “potentially suspending trash service in certain areas of the city if we anticipate there is a heavy downpour happening.”


“It doesn’t matter how clean the catch basin is if something is going to float down and block that storm drain,” he said.

But Rick Coca, a spokesman for Huizar’s office, said he expects that people will put their trash bins out regardless.

“Unless you have a foolproof outreach plan in effect and are able to implement it on a moment’s notice, you probably aren’t going to get the desired effect,” Coca said.

Halting trash pickup, he added, “could cause more problems than it aims to solve.”

Hutton, the emergency management spokeswoman, acknowledged that “how we communicate to the public” remains a “big concern.”

But she said the department is encouraging residents to sign up for the NotifyLA system, which sends voice, text and email messages to residents and businesses during emergencies and disasters.

The department would use that system as well as the media to spread the word about any changes to trash service, she said.


And although Hutton said she was not aware of another time Los Angeles has suspended trash service because of a storm, she noted that when pickup is paused on holidays “it just gets absorbed into the schedule.”

“So it’s not like, ‘Oh, my gosh, we’ll never get trash service again’ if you suspend it,” she said. “Other cities suspend trash service for snow and weather all the time.”

Twitter: @ByMattStevens


El Niño could be a boon or a blow to California vineyards


El Niño may trigger floods, famine and sickness in much of the world

Massive El Niño gains strength, likely to drench key California drought zone