Meeting helps identify victims of mudslides

Dede Westgaard-Pike wept on Dec. 31 as she relived a night of terror and anguish suffered by her neighbors on Dec. 22.

Westgaard-Pike was among the folks — many less fortunate than her family, whose home was not damaged — who attended a meeting called by City Manager John Pietig to identify, locate and determine the needs of the families devastated by the mudslides and flooding.

They talked. The council and representatives of the Laguna Relief and Resource Coalition listened.

"Hearing your stories tugs at our heartstrings," said Ed Sauls, past president of the coalition board.

Some of the speakers were angry, some fearful, some grateful, and some had proposals they thought could ameliorate the periodic inundations or at least make them easier to handle.

Westgaard-Pike, for one, felt the city had failed the canyon residents.

"They got the sea lions out, they got the dogs out, but they didn't get the people out," Westgaard-Pike said.

However, the Pikes were able to prevent a tragedy for one family.

"We heard screams and my husband ran out and he was immediately in four feet of water," Westgaard-Pike said.

The screams came from a neighbor with her two children in a truck stalled by flood. Westgaard-Pike's husband and sons rushed to the neighbor's rescue. They jerry-rigged a hose as a lifeline from the truck to their house.

She used profanity when describing the situation, then apologized for her language. But the laughter in response eased some of the palpable hostility in the packed City Council Chamber.

In contrast, Carol Yuri, who owns three houses at Big Bend, thanked the city for emergency services that she said saved two families by boat, one of the families up a tree.

Although Laguna Canyon was hardest hit, other areas also needed assistance.

David Gerrard said the storm drains on Park Avenue were clogged by debris carried downhill by a 20-foot wide, 3-foot-deep flow of water.

Griffith Way flooded. Residents of Hidden Valley had to be evacuated, Robin Young said.

The relief and resource center had identified by Tuesday 48 families affected by the Dec. 22 flooding and debris vegetation, pieces of structures caught in the mud and water cascading downhill.

Eighteen families are known to have been displaced and more than 30 homes damaged.

No one was killed, although it was a close call in some cases.

Kathy Wright said she woke up in the early hours of Dec. 22 to find her three children, ages 4, 7 and 8, floating on a mattress close to the ceiling of their rented home. She has been left bereft.

"I have nothing," she said. "I will take anything."

Kirsten Cook, the woman who was plucked with her children from the bogged-down truck by the Pike family, said she is haunted by the thought of what could have happened.

"My children held on [to rescuers], but what if they hadn't?" she said.

She was so angry.

"I was told by [Councilwoman] Jane Egly that if you live in the canyon and it is raining, you should know what to do," Cook said. "I can live with the loss. What I can't live with is what have we as a community done to see this doesn't happen again?"

Longtime canyon property owner Charles Quilter said there are some remedies, but the bottom line is people must respect Mother Nature. Folks need to remember that canyons are created by water eroding the hills, he said.

"If you live in a canyon, bad things happen on an irregular basis," Quilter said Monday. "We did not get a warning of a flash flood on Dec. 22 because the Doppler did not register a significant rainfall.

"It wasn't a huge cloudburst shortly after 3 p.m., but the hills were so saturated that 1 ½ inches an hour was enough to start a debris flow."

Artist Louis Longi said the majority of the water that wiped out his home and studio came from the undeveloped land across Laguna Canyon Road.

"The city is responsible for development, but Caltrans needs to take responsibility for the water on the road," Longi said.

Canyon dweller Katie Maes, an engineering geologist, said Caltrans had elevated the road so it is now higher than it used to be; consequently the homes are more susceptible to flooding.

"Putting the homes on stilts is the only way, as the Katrina victims know," Maes said.

Longi has plans to develop an artist live-work rental project in the canyon and has engaged experts, including soil and structural engineers, to ensure construction that will withstand the storms that inevitably will occur. He has offered to share what he has learned with those who might be considering new construction or making repairs.

Many of the speakers at the meeting had proposals to protect canyon dwellers in the future.

Maes would like to see the flood control channel improved.

Better monitoring of vegetation in the natural areas of Laguna Canyon Creek, additions to the boxed channels and more retention basins to handle the flows from the three watersheds — Laguna Canyon, El Toro and Laguna Laurel — that flow into the canyon were among the suggestions.

Demands were heard at the meeting to finally "fix" the bottleneck at Beach Street, where the upstream flow of 3,000 cubic feet per second narrows to 1,200 cubic feet per second.

The city opted out of a county-funded flood control project to put a box channel down Broadway that was proposed after the 1998 flood and fatal canyon mudslide. The city discarded it because of pressure from environmentalists and the business community.

"When the sun comes out, people forget," former Public Works Director Terry Brandt said at the time.

However, the city did make flood gates mandatory for downtown businesses. Those in place on Dec. 22 helped keep the mud and water out, city officials said.

"There will be floods again and we can't prevent them, but we need to be prepared," said Elise Higely of Anneliese's School, which suffered damages estimated at $900,000. "My heart goes out to everyone, but the biggest lesson is we need to be trained to deal with a crisis."

Despite the experiences and losses, a few things went right, according to Quilter, whose first home in the canyon was destroyed in the 1998 mudslides.

His new home, which was moved out of a watercourse where the original had been built, and the diversion wall built to protect it from debris flows did exactly what the family hoped.

"The downtown was cleaned up quickly and [Laguna Canyon Road] was open in 42 hours," Quilter noted.

In previous canyon slides, it took weeks to get the road restored, he said.

But Quilter, like others at the meeting, felt, at best, it was unsettling, at worst downright aggravating when residents who wanted to leave the canyon for any reason were told if they left they would not be allowed to return.

"I understand that the cops want everybody out, but people needed to shop for food and get cleaning crews in," Quilter said. "It is a Catch-22."

Pietig said the city's first concern must be the safety and welfare of the people. Allowing them into an area known to be hazardous is problematic. If an emergency occurs, resources perhaps needed elsewhere would have to be reassigned and city liability in the event of an injury is an issue.

A more sympathetic policy will be studied.

"Laguna Beach has a history of crises and disasters, each one unique," Mayor Toni Iseman said at the meeting. "What happened last week was different from the landslides or the fires, and driving by we don't know what happened inside.

"Today, we are putting together those in need with volunteers who are the heart and soul of the community that want to help."

Pietig said state law prevented the council from taking any action at the meeting because it had not been publicly noticed, but they could listen.

They got an earful.

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