Monday, February 26, 2024

Mudslides, drowned highways, upended homes: Scenes from Southern California’s atmospheric river

Enriqueta Lima stood beside her car in Studio City, holding a puffer jacket over her head as a cold, steady rain fell Monday morning.

Lima, 49, had parked near Fryman Road, a street in a wooded canyon lined with million-dollar homes. She cleans a house there and was trying to figure out if it was safe to keep driving. She had not heard from the homeowners Sunday night, as the slow-moving storm poured down, so she decided to risk the drive to Studio City Monday after dropping her daughter off at school.

“I got scared thinking about driving here,” Lima said in Spanish. “I don’t want to park my car where it’s flooded.”

Mud and water flowed down the street. She got back into her gray sedan and drove away.

Across Southern California, hillside and canyon neighborhoods bore the brunt of the powerful atmospheric river that parked itself over Los Angeles late Sunday just as the Grammys were being handed out at Crypto.com Arena downtown.

The record-breaking deluge — which prompted a state of emergency declaration from Gov. Gavin Newsom — triggered mudslides and evacuations, damaged houses, flooded roadways and knocked out power for thousands of people.

In Northern California, three deaths, all from fallen trees, were attributed to the storm, officials said. One was in Santa Cruz County, one in Sutter County and one in Sacramento County.

Still, amid a massive deployment of emergency response teams, more widespread public safety issues have so far been avoided.

“Things have held. We are in pretty good shape,” Brian Ferguson, a spokesman for the governor’s Office of Emergency Services, said Monday. But, he added, “we are not out of the woods yet.”

The rains will keep coming, off and on, most of the week, according to the National Weather Service. And the cleanup has just begun.

On Monday afternoon in Studio City, yellow trucks from the Los Angeles Bureau of Street Services lined Fryman Road, where a mudslide had coated the roadway in piles of mud, rocks, tree limbs and debris laced with silverware, tools, garden pots and books. The debris field crashed down from Lockridge Road, which sits beneath Dearing Mountain Trail in Fryman Canyon Park.

Longtime resident Scott Toro said the mudslide Sunday night “sounded like a plane crashing.”

“It sounded like, ‘Boom! Boom! Boom!’ and we came outside and saw all this debris,” said Toro, 60. “I saw all these rocks.”

Toro left his home after midnight and stayed at a relative’s house. He said he’s used to water coming down the ravine during storms, but “we’ve never had anything like this.”

In nearby Beverly Glen, on Caribou Lane, an upside-down piano — caked in mud, keys askew — lay in the road. In that neighborhood, mud flows pushed a house off its foundation around 2 a.m. Monday, said Travis Longcore, who lives a few houses down.

“It was a big rumbling sound and then a boom,” he said.

The house, neighbors said, was unoccupied.

The winding residential streets south of the Encino Reservoir, covered with tree branches and muck, were mostly deserted Monday. On nearby Boris Drive, the storm washed away the hillside behind Nathan Khalili’s rented house, leaving a steep, muddy scar in its place.

“I’m usually not worried about storms, but I didn’t think a … landslide would happen,” said Khalili, 23. “I woke up, looked outside and half the mud had slid down the hill.”

Khalili lost power between midnight and 9 a.m. Monday. His phone, on which he sets his morning alarm, died overnight. “I’m supposed to be at work right now,” said Khalili, an insurance broker. “But I accidentally slept in.”

On the Palos Verdes Peninsula, where a landslide caused several homes to slide into a canyon last summer, residents were wary as they watched the downpour.

David Zee, whose house in Rolling Hills Estates was red-tagged after neighboring homes on Peartree Lane collapsed, said he went to his home Monday to check for damage. Though his house is upright, Zee and his family have been displaced since July. The landslide, according to a city report, was triggered by excessive precipitation during a series of heavy storms last winter. Now, every time it rains, Zee worries.

“There’s not much we can do,” he said. “We just have to hope that our hillside, our foundation that our home sits on, doesn’t buckle under the weight of all the rain.”

According to the National Weather Service, a staggering 11.34 inches of rain had fallen in Topanga Canyon by Monday afternoon.

Keith Wilbur, 65, walked along Topanga Canyon Boulevard in rubber rain boots and a plastic poncho. Wilbur was walking home from the Topanga Creek General Store. He said he needed something to drink after his water pipe burst. His hands and forearms were coated in mud. He had hiked about two miles to get to the store and fell in the mud on a closed stretch of Topanga Canyon Boulevard.

“There are cones there stopping cars from going through, but I figured I could walk,” he said.

Wilbur lives on the boulevard and said two creeks intersect on his property. Both were overflowing. He said he and his family got an evacuation notice a few days ago but didn’t want to leave their animals behind.

“I have six peacocks, two dogs and a 400-pound pig,” he said. “How am I supposed to put them all in a car and drive off?”

Also wandering the boulevard on foot was a bearded man in a wetsuit, who carried a neon green kayak and wore a GoPro camera strapped to his chest. He did not give his name but said, a bit sheepishly, that he was going to Topanga Creek, which is usually too dry for kayaking.

Nearby, three young men and a young woman stood ankle-deep in mud as a plow pushed debris to the side of the road. Each held a can of White Claw alcoholic seltzer. Among them, Maxwell Stiggants said his driveway was covered in mud and he couldn’t leave his property by the vehicle. A neighbor was driving the plow, trying to clear the area.

“Do we look worried?” Stiggants asked, holding up his drink and chuckling. “It’s either this or a fire.”

Staff writers Ashley Ahn, Hannah Fry, Summer Lin and Hannah Wiley contributed to this report.

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