Frequent Heavy Rain Has Made California a Mudslide Hotspot


This story originally appeared on Inside Climate News and is part of the Climate Desk collaboration.

Picture the minute hand at about 8 past the hour. That’s the slope of Viet’s backyard in southern Los Angeles County. It’s a bit too aggressive for a slip-and-slide. In fact, Viet doesn’t even let his 7-year-old daughter play on the family’s small back patio.

“I don’t need her falling down that hill,” he said.

When Viet and his wife bought their house-on-a-hill five years ago, it was a win, their piece of “the Hollywood Riviera,” as real estate agents like to call the area. (A self-employed marketer in his forties, Viet asked that his last name not be used to protect his family’s privacy.)

Viet’s street runs horizontally across a huge incline that begins the Palos Verdes Peninsula, a marvel of steep cliffs and Mediterranean-style homes at the south hook of Santa Monica Bay. If you squint, it could be the terraced hills of Tuscany or, indeed, a stretch of the Côte d’Azur. The address was a solid investment and housing insurance not a problem, even though parts of the peninsula have been known to shape-shift, cracking roads and knocking houses off foundations. But not every day. The family enjoyed some easy SoCal years on their perch with its great views and gentle, dry climate.

“Whenever it rained, we’d be happy: ‘We’re not in a severe drought anymore, yay!’” Viet said. “But after this, every time it rains, I get scared.”

“This” was the atmospheric river storms that hit LA with a one-two punch (the first, a jab, the second, a wallop) in the first week of February. The usual winter rainy season in California has been amped up this year by a parade of such storms. This week again, Santa Barbara, Ventura, and LA counties are in the midst of high-volume, road-cracking, flash-flooding, climate-amplified downpours juiced by warmer Pacific Ocean temperatures. The storms are causing an unusual amount of high-profile damage, setting everyone on edge, especially Viet.

After the initial rain burst on February 1, he noticed that the top of his backyard slope, swathed in a hand-high succulent called “ice plant,” looked odd. A patch of mushy soil seemed to be shrugging off its ground cover. He asked a gardener to try and fix it. That was a Friday. Then the monster rain cells moved in on Sunday, February 3.

“All night, all I could hear was pounding on the roof, the wind blowing sideways,” he said. “It was unsettling, so when I woke up at 7:30, the first thing I did was try to go look at the rain drains and make sure everything was doing fine.”

Viet circled his home in sneakers because he’d never had cause to buy rain boots.

“I walked around to the backyard, looked down, and I was like, ‘Ohhhhh myyyyyy goooood.’”

A 40-foot-wide river of mud, rock, and roots was in full flow down his hill, already jamming up a city road 70 feet below where Viet stood, somehow safe, on the precipice.



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