Diary of a rainy day

Public Works employees who patrolled the streets during the Feb. 6 flood stand by the boulder that blocked Mullaly Debris Basin. From left, Santiago Vazquez, Matt Young, Alphonse Romain, Paul Lopez and Salvador Valencia. On the rock behind them is Construction Supervisor Stan Lamb.

During the rains on Feb.6 trapped public works employees kept a constant radio voice relaying the mud and flood danger that was heading down the hill.

By Mary O’Keefe

Residents in Crescenta Valley and La Cañada are used to seeing the Los Angeles County Department of Public Works trucks roll up and down the avenues. Some are carrying large amounts of debris as they clean the basins and others are pick up trucks with supervisors who are overseeing the process. What residents may not realize is that during the rains there is a small group of these workers that are patrolling the area, and at times are walking through the darkness to the edge of the basins, hoping for the best but ready for the worst.

“It sounded like a train going by,” said Paul Lopez, one of the men that was on patrol at the Mullally Debris Basin on Feb. 6.

Lopez and his partner Salvador Valencia were at the end of Manistee Drive in La Cañada overlooking the Mullally basin. It was about four in the morning and the rain was coming down.

“To get to the debris basin we had to go through a resident’s gates,” Lopez said.

He and Valencia walked through the gates to oversee the basin.

“At the time water was flowing but it was clear. The basin was full and the water was washing over it but it was just water,” he said.

Then everything changed. That locomotive sound Lopez heard was actually large pieces of the mountain coming down.

“We could hear rocks crashing down the hill. We couldn’t see anything. And sound is very deceiving in that area,” he said.

When they got back down to the iron gate they had passed through only minutes before the gates were gone. It had been blasted away by debris. The debris at this point was about four or five feet high against their truck. What they couldn’t see was the big boulder that had blocked the flow of the basin.

“There was a lot of debris,” Valencia said. “The water and debris filled [the street] quick.”

The rocks and mud were about four or five feet high. This all happened in about six minutes, Valencia said.

All public works employees are connected through radio communications. Lopez had just radioed his supervisor Santiago Vazquez that everything was running clear.

“I had to radio and tell him what was going on,” Lopez said.

“They did everything they were supposed to do, everything they were trained to do,” Vazquez said.

He added he heard the crashing of debris in the background and the guys’ voices were a little rushed but they remained calm and kept the information coming.

Some residents came out of their homes and we told them to stay inside. They were safer inside, Lopez said.

The workers got into their vehicle to try to drive down the hill.

“The water was cresting over the road. I was in reverse but I was going forward; that makes you kind of nervous,” Lopez said.

While he and Valencia were dealing with the top of Manistee Drive and Ocean View Boulevard, Matt Young and Alphonse Romain were about four blocks below them.

“For us it was less like a train and more like a huge rumble, like thunder,” Young recalled.

“Matt was in an inlet,” said Romain. “He heard the debris coming and yelled at me to move the truck.”

The debris and water were rushing down the street as Romain backed the truck off the road.

“I backed up Enslow Drive and just as I did a vehicle went sliding down the road, then a couple of K-rails and then a white van,” Romain said. “Later one of the residents came by and asked if we had seen a white van. I told him it went rushing past me and down the street earlier that morning.”

One of the jobs public works does during the rains is to make certain the drainage pipes are clear.

“We run water through it and make certain debris doesn’t get stuck and begin to back up,” said Stan Lamb, construction superintendent.

Lamb is the veteran of flood and mud debris. He has been through similar situations in the past but never takes anything for granted when it comes to Mother Nature. So, when the drainage pipes began to plug up it wasn’t a surprise.

“As I was [walking across the street] a manhole cover just blew up into the air and then it was a geyser of water,” Romain said.

In addition to the manhole cover the water caps for the residents’ main water line began blowing off one by one, Young said.

“And their sprinkler systems were exposed and they began shooting water,” he added.

That was the first hit. Then the second rain downpour came around 7:30 a.m. and more water, mud and debris.

All the while, during the blown manhole covers and the large trees and boulders rolling down, the men continued communicating with Lamb and Vasquez.

“They gave us information and we gave it to the fire and sheriff departments,” Lamb said.

That information was relayed to rescue workers that were waiting at the bottom of Ocean View Boulevard. Young, Romain, Lopez and Valencia all helped residents stay calm and in their homes until the rain let up and there was enough light to see the damage around them.

Immediately as the rain slowed the crews went to work clearing the road so emergency responders could get up Ocean View.

“One resident wanted to go to the hospital to see his son but he couldn’t go anyway. He couldn’t get the car out of the garage. There were a lot of elderly people up there that needed help,” Lopez said.

“I was really proud at how fast the roads were cleared for [emergency vehicles] to go up. It was really great when we came down the hill and saw all the fire trucks and sheriff cars going up,” Young said.

As rescue workers began their jobs, public works began to plot the cleaning procedure for all the basins in the area.

“So far we have cleared about one million yards of debris from Sunland to La Cañada. We have 28 basins to clear,” Lamb said.

He added that, barring any more downpours, all the basins should be cleaned within a few weeks.

The men have built a strong bond with each other. None said they thought of the magnitude of the situation while it was all happening.

“You just do what you have to do,” Lopez said.

Young may not have thought about the danger at the time but he did remember the rain.

“You are wet. Soaked clear through and cold,” he said.

Now that they’ve had time to think about their adventure the seriousness of the early morning flood has set in.

“Where we were at the top we didn’t really see the devastation until we walked down the hill. We were slacked-jawed. We thought, ‘Oh my gosh, these poor people. How are they going to deal with this?’” Lopez said. “But then once we started the clean up it’s now hard to image that it was all covered in water and mud.”

The men wanted to make certain that fellow workers Jose Murillo and Mike Armendariz also got mentioned for their help during the Feb. 6 flood.

“We all work together. We have a really strong crew,” Young added.