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‘My heart was in the bottom of my stomach’

Elected officials this weekend called for federal assistance for residents whose homes were severely damaged by debris flows that pummeled the foothills below the Station fire burn area.

Heavy rain early Saturday morning overwhelmed the Mullally Debris Basin in La Cañada Flintridge’s Paradise Valley area, sending the mud and boulders that caused severe damage to homes before flowing down Ocean View Boulevard and onto Foothill Boulevard.

On Sunday, Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger toured the Paradise Valley neighborhood as shell-shocked homeowners and Los Angeles County crews continued to survey the damage and begin clean-up efforts.

Flanked by La Cañada Mayor Laura Olhasso, county Supervisor Mike Antonovich, Rep. David Dreier (R-San Dimas), state Assemblyman Anthony Portantino (D-La Cañada Flintridge) and dozens of members of the media, Schwarzenegger promised to fast-track a state permit for a fourth dumping site needed to dispose of the truckloads of mud that overwhelmed the foothill neighborhood.


“We all have to work together in order to get this permit as quickly as possible and to be a help to the people whose homes have been damaged,” Schwarzenegger said.

Forty-three homes were damaged in La Cañada and La Crescenta. The worst damage occurred in Paradise Valley, where nine homes were tagged as uninhabitable.

An elderly resident had to be pulled from her home by a Los Angeles County Fire Search and Rescue team, but aside from that incident, no deaths or serious injuries were reported.

Schwarzenegger and other elected officials have called on the federal government to provide assistance to residents whose homes and yards were damaged by debris flowing from federal forest land onto private property.


“Last night, our worst fears were realized,” Olhasso said Saturday. “I cannot tell you the devastation that you can see. My heart was in the bottom of my stomach.”

At a Saturday evening press conference, Antonovich compared the damage to something only seen in movies. He called for a federal response to the U.S. Forest Service’s initial response to the Station fire, which he said caused the disaster.

“We are suffering from the incident that the U.S. Forest Service created when they let the Station fire continue to burn,” he said.

County and city officials across the region have been preparing for such a mud-related disaster since the Station fire scorched acres of hillsides directly above foothill neighborhoods.

Protective cement barriers, known as K-rails, and thousands of sandbags have lined the streets for months in an attempt to divert potential mud flows down the streets and away from homes.

But on Saturday, the rushing mud and debris knocked down K-rails and flowed over the sandbags, crumpling garage doors and slamming into homes.

Several dozen parked cars in the neighborhood were picked up by the flow, crashing into sidewalks, trees and other cars and ended up left along Ocean View Boulevard.

Los Angeles County crews worked throughout the day to clear the mud and empty debris basins in preparation for a second storm predicted to hit the region.


But with 10 of the county’s 28 debris basins at near or full capacity, Los Angeles County officials ordered the mandatory evacuation of nearly 500 homes in La Cañada and La Crescenta Saturday afternoon, the majority of which were lifted when the storm subsided later that evening.

The remaining residents were allowed to return to their homes Sunday morning.

Residents said they had little warning about the torrential storm that brought mud and debris rushing onto their property. No evacuations had been ordered before the storm hit.

“They didn’t warn us or anything,” said Paradise Valley resident Henda Ibrahim

Both of her family’s cars had been made inaccessible by the mudflow, which filled her Ocean View Boulevard home’s garage with about 5 inches of mud. Her family was forced to rent a car to travel to a relative’s home for the evening.

Ibrahim said her family had stayed during the major storm series last month and were surprised by the damage caused this weekend.

With nothing packed, she said she grabbed only a few bags of clothes before leaving the house Saturday morning.

“I hope there are no more storms,” she said. “It was really scary.”


Los Angeles County Fire Chief Michael Freeman on Saturday acknowledged officials were surprised by the storm’s intensity.

Originally predicted to leave the region quickly, the storm stalled in the burn areas through the early morning hours Saturday, dumping nearly 5 inches of rain in the foothills.

“It’s very important that everyone understand the unpredictability of predictions,” Freeman said.

Officials this weekend were also looking to the next forecasted storm expected to hit the region as early as Tuesday. Crews would be working feverishly to empty the debris basins before the storm hits, they said.

On Sunday, Olhasso warned more mud could be on the way.

“I call on the federal government to take responsibility to help our residents pay for cleaning up the mud, not only from the last two days, the mud that flowing two weeks ago, the mud that is going to continue for the next three to five years,” Olhasso said.

“This isn’t a one-time shot. The federal government must take responsibility for the mud that is coming out of their hills.”

Glendale officials said the area’s debris basin held up well during the weekend storm.

Glendale Police Sgt. Tom Lorenz said officers had helped a resident dig out a car covered by mud on Markridge Road, but that no major damage had been reported in the wake of Saturday’s storm.

Still, city officials notified residents to be prepared to leave.

“Should there become a need for evacuations, we will be quick to do so,” he said Saturday afternoon. “What we ask people to do is to be ready to go.”

Many residents said they awoke in the middle of the night to a loud booming noise, what they thought was thunder but later realized was the debris basin giving way.

“This is definitely the worst I’ve seen,” said resident Danielle Burgner, who lives on a lower section of Ocean View Boulevard, citing the river of mud and debris that rushed past her house. “Before all we saw was rain, maybe light muddy water, but nothing like this.”

Briggs Avenue resident Vincent Ricardi said the storm was the worst he had seen in his 20 years living in La Crescenta.

In previous storms, a barrier built of cinder blocks had protected his home from the dirt easement out front.

Saturday, a river of water rushing down Briggs Avenue pushed through the barrier to form a river of mud that completely filled his 4,300-gallon backyard swimming pool.

“It’s pretty dramatic,” he said, pointing to the muddy pool.

“I’ve never seen anything like this.”

— Staff writer Megan O’Neil contributed to this