La tormenta navideña/The Christmas storm

Right in time for Christmas, a major winter storm (finally) rolls into L.A. Here’s a bit of L.A.’s history with water from the sky.

Southern California — indeed, the whole state — has been on the dry side for a while now, which is why we’ve had so many big fires in the last few years. Everything dries out, then we hit a point, usually around late summer or early fall, when the Santa Ana winds kick up.

These are hot, dry winds that blow in from across the desert, so generally from the southeast. They can pick up a lot of speed as they roll down the mountains into the L.A. Basin as well as the various valleys around it — San Gabriel, San Fernando, Santa Clarita, and Simi, for example.

While these winds are blowing, humidity drops to practically nothing and all it takes is one spark to set off a firestorm — an untended campfire, a moron with a cigarette, a badly maintained utility transformer blowing up in the heat, or a lighting strike. And, of course, there’s always the occasional insane arsonist thrown into the mix — people who should just be shot.

But, after a brief visit from rain for about a day early last week, we had a storm roll in late on Christmas Eve eve (i.e. December 23rd) that delivered everything and more that we were only promised with the previous storm, which turned out to be a disappointment. Around where I am, we only got about a half a day of light rain.

This time around, it’s been coming down steadily, sometimes building up to windy and very wet, and it’s still going. This phase is expected to continue to past midnight before breaking, then return on Friday and possibly continue into Saturday.

The only downsides, of course, are flooding, and for all of the sewer and drainage work the city has done since the 1930s, we still have areas that always wind up with standing water. Sure, it’s not enough to reach the tops of first floors, but it can be enough to require a lot of sandbagging around ground-floor entrances and storefronts.

Still — better than it was before the city turned the L.A. River into a long concrete ditch that runs from the north end of the Valley all the way down to the sea at Long Beach. That’s pretty much its original route, but the idea of lining it in concrete was so that it actually had a higher carrying capacity, the dirt banks wouldn’t collapse and possibly block the river, and there were opportunities to make it wider and straighter than the original river to speed flow.

Never mind that they never made any provision for storing most of the water that flowed down the river into the ocean. L.A. was already doing a very good job of steal… buying its water from the Owens Valley up north and from the Colorado River, thanks to William Mulholland. See Chinatown for a very fictionalized version of the concept.

In addition to the concrete river, they also created a huge flood control basin in the middle of the San Fernando Valley that normally pretends to be an urban park, right next to a dam and reservoir. The impetus for this basin and the L.A. River project was a flood in 1938 that killed 144 people. I’ve seen pictures, and it wasn’t pretty — plus the flooding was not limited to just the Valley or L.A.

The basin is actually a natural bowl within the Valley itself, including its lowest point. At the time of construction (1941), it was on the eastern edge of development in the Valley, just past all the aircraft plants that had sprung up in Van Nuys and the suburbs built to house their workers.

It’s deceptive because it doesn’t seem like it’s lower than everything else when you drive in there, and has various parks and recreational areas, including Lake Balboa, and is home to several nature preserves. But when major flooding is expected, all roads in and out are closed at the top and the place has filled several times over the years, saving the rest of the Valley around it.

Still, we do get small floods everywhere, which is a reminder of something that might not be noticeable to casual observers. The floor of the Valley is not at all flat, though it might appear to be. For example, there’s a natural high spot along the old river where it goes north to south near Coldwater Canyon and it’s slightly downhill from there in both directions, toward North Hollywood to the East and Sherman Oaks and Van Nuys to the west.

Flooding tends to happen where that downhill flattens out at the bottom and even though it’s not terribly steep, it has an effect. They’ve mitigated it somewhat in the last decade or so, but the main intersection in downtown NoHo, at Lankershim and Magnolia, used to flood curb to curb on all four corners and, when it was particularly wet, go higher than that.

I remember a number of rainy nights there where the storefronts were sandbagged and you’d still be sloshing through four inches of water up on the sidewalk. Since the curbs themselves were already so high, people could easily get soaked to the knees by trying to cross the street.

One additional problem, which was weirdly fascinating, was that the storm drains couldn’t handle the capacity, so that at certain points instead of water flowing down them it would come shooting out in a strong backwash that was truly a sight to see.

Parts of NoHo still flood, particularly the parking and right lanes both ways on Magnolia, and there are more than a few intersections where experienced drivers know to slow down because they’re flooded and will send flumes of water everywhere when some moron tries to blast through at 40 mph.

Another famous place to avoid when it’s rainy is Sherman Way as it passes under the Van Nuys Airport. In order to facilitate building the runways, engineers decided to drop the street and build the runway above it. This created a fairly long tunnel that cars drive down into before coming back up on the other side.

On dry days, it’s actually kind of fun, and people still honk their horns as they go through to hear the echo. On rainy days, though, long-time residents know to avoid the area, because the entire tunnel often winds up submerged, and that’s not a place you want to drive your car into. Fortunately, they can usually block Sherman Way in time to reroute traffic, but there have been times when the tunnel has been slightly flooded — not enough for the water to hit the bottom of the overpass, but enough so that unsuspecting drivers won’t realizing their driving into water that’s too deep until it’s too late.

Since the whole thing is a divided road, one you’re on it, there’s not really any opportunity to turn around and get back out. Fun times!

The most bizarre water behavior I’ve even seen in L.A., though, happened when I was living in West Hollywood (okay, L.A. County, not L.A. City) during a time when we had one of Southern California’s historical great floods — like the one in 1938.

I have no idea what was going on in the Valley, but WeHo is located directly below a mountain ridge that separates it from the Valley, so the rain can go one of two ways — north and down or south and down. It’s a 50/50 shot, really.

Top this off with there being a natural spring near the top of Laurel Canyon on the WeHo side that will gush out of the street when the groundwater goes up, plus not a lot of natural channels for the water to come all the way down other than the canyon passages that were carved through the mountains long ago.

The end result was that my street, which ran from Sunset Boulevard in the North to Santa Monica Boulevard in the south, about half a mile, was very steep, and the water pooled along Sunset, which created a natural barrier — except where it didn’t, i.e., streets like mine.

I remember walking down to the lobby of our building with neighbors to marvel at what was happening. Our street had basically turned into rapids, with water streaming down it at a good rate of speed, and splashing up onto the curbs as well. Now, for some reason, it decided to get really funky right in front of our building.

I still don’t know why, but the water had come over the curb and onto the parkway where it seemingly randomly gouged out the dirt in just one section of the parkway, fluming through and past it before returning to the downhill flow.

Oh — one note: In America, what we call a “parkway” is actually a narrow strip of grass or a section designed with planters and trees that comes between the roadway and the sidewalk. So it’s generally not more than two or three feet wide, and mostly designed to create insulation between pedestrians, traffic, and parked cars.

I suppose that we could have gone whitewater rafting down the street that evening, but we decided not to. After all, we didn’t have the rafts lying around!

Obviously, I’m writing this before Christmas to put up on Christmas Eve day, but it would certainly be nice to have actual winter weather like wind and rain for the holiday weekend. Sadly, L.A. rarely gets my one favorite kind of weather, which is a thunderstorm. They are few and far between and generally disappointing, with a few lighting bolts, some lame claps of thunder, and that’s it.

And I’ve only ever known it to snow or hail twice in my life in L.A. that I can think of, both of which were very short-lived phenomena as well. Of course, actual snow would paralyze this city for as long as it stayed on the ground. On the other hand, I really don’t have to drive anywhere right now.

So I won’t dream of a White Christmas because that’s impossible here, but I will hope for more rain (and snow in the mountains) because we need it. Happy holidays, everyone, no matter what you do (or don’t) celebrate!

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