My wife Robin has a new nickname for me — Noah.
That’s because I’m obsessed with the coming deluge. I am not building an ark, but I am preparing for El Niño. Since April of this year, the Los Angeles Times has run articles warning of the approaching winter storms that will hit California this winter, and I will be ready, even if the house floats away.
I am cleaning rain gutters, buying pumps, I put on a new roof on the house and put in new windows, I’m adding gravel close to the foundation, and I’m filling sandbags.
“How’s it going, Noah?” Robin asks whenever I finish a task.
“My work is never done,” I answer.
El Niño is going to hit my house harder than most, because our street is designed to flood. The San Fernando Valley is once a vast flat flood plain for the Los Angeles River, and when the city was built the Army Corps of Engineers did a tremendous job surveying and sloping each street so the water would have a place to flow, collect, and then run into the storm drains that lead to the river and ultimately the ocean.
In my neighborhood, the streets are designed so that water collects on my block. There is a gentle slope to each block surrounding ours, so that even in the summer the run-off from someone overwatering their lawn six blocks away ends up in front of our house.
When the storms come in winter, our street turns into a fast-flowing river. I risk stalling my car when I drive home because my car’s exhaust pipe may go underwater. Our garbage cans are often swept away. This year, that river may rise very high.
Plus, my backyard is actually LOWER than my front yard. You walk up two steps to my front porch, and three steps to get in my back door. The driveway to my detached garage even slopes down — so my garage floods two or three times in a typical winter.
My house was built in 1940, well before climate change, and they never put in a true drain from the backyard to the front. All the drains in the driveway asphalt lead three feet down into…dirt.
I could put in drain to the street now, but all the prep is getting expensive. I’ve paid enough contractors this year. But El Niño on steroids is still coming, so I’m doing the rest of the work myself. Here’s what I’ve been doing — some are smart choices, some are dumb — for you to copy or avoid:
Fill Sandbags. My local fire station has sandbags and a pile of sand out front. For the past month, I’ve gone every morning with a shovel and filled eight sandbags. It’s odd to be shoveling sand before six in the morning. The fire fighters changing their shift slow down as they pass me in their trucks, checking out the solitary guy digging away the shovel. Now have 50 sandbags ready to block the rising flood water.
Put Sand Around my House. This was a dumb move. The back and side of my house has low areas I thought I should make even, so I filled them up with a lot of free sand…until a contractor pointed out that you want water to flow away from your house, and sand just absorbs water and turns it to mud. I re-shoveled sixteen bags of sand. I got a work-out, at least.
Put Pea Gravel Around the House. Pea sized gravel lets water flow away. I’ve bought fifteen bags of gravel and I need to buy more.
Dig out My Rain Gutter Spouts. Every spring I dump bags of planter mix into the garden, but now more than one rain gutter spout is buried under fertile soil. I must dig them out so that the water doesn’t seep under the foundation, or back up the rain gutter and run down the side of the house.
Create a sand bag barrier. Four rain gutters dump water from the roof into the back driveway. I have to build a sand bag barrier to direct the water to all six drains in the back yard, not just the lowest two. I also put a barrier around my crawl space entrance, and against my garage doors. I have enough sand bags that if the street floods and rises to my front door, I can build a barrier there too.
Clear the Ground Drains. I bought this amazing tool — a heavy duty slate bar. It’s a 14 pound long metal stick with a point on one end and blade on the other. It’s my medieval weapon. I open a drain and plunge it inside, and it cuts through the dirt and roots, and the blade side pulls out the debris. It’s a great workout too.
Clear the Rain Gutters. I use afancy red plastic scoop. I also bought aluminum cage covers for each drain hole, so they don’t fill up with leaves.
Buy Drain Extenders. I bought plastic flexible drain extenders to get the water draining away from the house and the garage.
Buy a surface water pump. I bought a surface sump pump used for pool covers. You plug it in, attach a hose, and leave it on flat ground where water collects. When the water rises two inches, it pumps the water out of the hose, and shuts off when the water is 1/2 inch deep. It’s cheaper and easier than digging a hole and putting in a real sump pump. You can find it at grainger.com.
Buy Flood Insurance. No amount of sandbags will stop the water if it rises two feet higher than street level. Then it will get into my crawl space and damage my house. I bought a policy to cover $250,000 of damage. FEMA even recommended this!
Yes, I am Noah. My neighbors see me toiling, see my pile of sandbags and think I’m nuts. Maybe I am. But my house is my major investment, it’s old, it’s vulnerable, and like Noah, I hear a voice telling me to prepare.
Climate change will also magnify El Niño’s intensity. The water in the Pacific Ocean is five degrees warmer than usual, hot enough to bleach coral, which means lots of evaporation, lots of swirling clouds and stormy weather. It rained for 30 days straight in Mexico this autumn, just 10 days shy of being rain of biblical proportions. Hopefully we won’t get a monsoon like that. We usually get rain via the Pineapple Express, storms that start over Hawaii and head straight to Southern California. The train dumps two days of rain, then we get two days off until the next delivery. I pray for that scenario.
Only in Southern California does rain become the major news story of the day — in a normal year an inch of rain gets its own TV graphic package. Super Storm 2015 will be used first. Expect more clever names as the winter presses on — El Nino Supremo, Rain Disaster 2016, When Nature Attacks, Flood Watch 2016, Winter Wasteland…
All this must sound funny to people on the East Coast where basements flood all the time, and sump pumps are a part of life. Hurricane Sandy was much worse than El Niño will ever be. And India and Southeast Asia flood all the time. But it’s all new for us, here in sunny Los Angeles, it’s all new. So Noah toils on. I will keep you posted.