LA TIMES 1-28-82

"Lifeguard Wrestles Shark, Gets Sore Nose"

By BORIS YARO, Times Staff Writer

Shark bites are rare along the California coast, almost as rare as what happened to county Lifeguard Norton Wisdom, 23, in a bout with a 200-pound blue shark off Topanga Beach.

It punched him in the nose.

But Wisdom wasn't complaining. No one else was hurt by the seven-foot monster and he and his partner. Bill Powers, finally managed to beach the thing after an hourlong battle.

Wisdom said he and Powers saw the shark Swimming near surfers as they were opening. their lifeguard tower Tuesday morning. 

"His head was above water and his mouth was open," Wisdom said. "He was in kind of feeding frenzy but he didn't have any object in particular that he was attacking. It was apparent that something was wrong."

Surfer Lyn Overby, 29, of Topanga, had already reached that conclusion. Overby said the shark had brushed against his leg--so he "just started paddling in, quickly."

Overby emerged unscathed, and Wisdom and Powers called for a boat. Told no boat was near enough, they entered the water. Powers with a three-foot pole with a gaff hook on the end and Wisdom with a spear gun. They paddled out on surfboards and tried to get the shark to go away, but the shark wouldn't cooperate. First it turned on Wisdom, knocking the butt end of the spear gun into his nose.

It turned on Powers when Powers hit it with the gaff hook, forcing Wisdom to fire the spear gun to distract it. The spear just bounced off the shark's hide.

For the next 40 minutes the two men wrestled with the shark in shallow water.

Once, the shark disappeared. That worried Wisdom.

"It's one thing,'' he said, "when you can see where his head is..."

Finally they gained a solid footing on the beach and--with the aid of spectators--pulled the shark out of the water and tied it to one of the lifeguard tower's support posts.

After they caught their breath, the two lifeguards discovered the probable reason for the shark's strange behavior. Someone, probably a fisherman, had shot it in the head.

Out of its element, it shortly expired.


"Solving the whodunit of Topanga Beach"

by LA County Supervisor Zev Yaroslavsky

Scientists from UCLA and Santa Monica Mountains Resource Conservation District take samples from the Topanga Lagoon. Photo/Rosi Dagit
It has been a mystery now for almost a decade: What’s polluting the water at Topanga State Beach?

Once regarded as one of the cleanest stretches of ocean in Los Angeles County, Topanga fell from grace around 2003, when high bacteria levels sank its water quality score on Heal the Bay’s annual Beach Report Card.

Although cleanup efforts were diligent, testing methods couldn’t pinpoint the source of the problem. Theories abounded. Was it someone’s leaky septic system? Birds and coyotes? Illegal dumping upstream in Topanga Creek?

“We thought it might be the old septic system at the public restrooms,” says Rosi Dagit, senior conservation biologist for the Santa Monica Mountains Resource Conservation District. “So that was redone and replaced with a state-of-the-art system. Then we thought it might be the old septic systems in the rodeo grounds upstream from the lagoon, so those were removed, too.”

But the problem remained. “We kept taking out potential sources of bacteria,” Dagit says, “and the beach kept getting these high numbers.” Consequently, even though other types of pollution are markedly low at Topanga, the beach has been more or less a regular on Heal the Bay’s official “Beach Bummers” 10-worst-beaches list.

Now Topanga Beach has become the focus of an in-depth study that will seek to finally nail down the reason behind the chronically high levels of total coliform, fecal coliform and enterococcus bacteria, which may make swimmers sick.

Piggybacking on a larger statewide look at beach pollution hotspots that began in 2010, the new, two-year look at Topanga, which began in November, will sample water up to twice monthly from as many as 10 locations on Topanga State Beach and along the lower section of the creek that feeds the lagoon there. The samples then will be subjected to rigorous DNA testing.

The study also will examine the connection between tiny invertebrates and nutrient levels in the water, along with why the generally normal bacteria levels in the creek tend to spike when the water hits the lagoon and ocean, says Dagit. There’ll also be an educational component, with opportunities for school children to visit the testing labs at UCLA and learn how to help keep Southern California’s water clean.

The added scrutiny—expected to cost $550,000 during the study’s two years—is being funded through an allocation from the office of Los Angeles County Supervisor Zev Yaroslavsky. The Topanga effort is being jointly overseen by UCLA, which is a local lead on the statewide study, and the Resource Conservation District. Dagit, the county’s point-person on the project, says the tests are complex and relatively new. 

“You have to collect the samples before sunlight hits the water,” she says, “because the sun makes bacteria go crazy. So we’ve been getting up at night and going down to the water before sun-up. Our last sampling was December 19, and let me tell you, it was cold.”

The tests also are expensive—about $200 per half-gallon water sample—but have come down markedly in cost over the past few years.

Scientists are enthusiastic about the study’s prospects.

“It’s like DNA fingerprinting of bacteria,” says Dagit. “We’ll be able to find out not only whether the source is human or non-human, but if it’s non-human, whether it’s from gulls, dogs, coyotes or horses and whether it came from a direct deposit on the beach, or from gray water or a septic system.”

That’s important, she says, because bacteria from a natural source, such as wildlife, requires a different set of solutions than does bacteria from the feces of pets and humans. “Suppose those bacteria levels are because of a lot of gulls roosting at Topanga Lagoon,” Dagit says. “We don’t want people swimming in water with high bacterial levels, but we don’t want to get rid of the gulls.”

Dagit says that, by this time next year, scientists should have many more clues to the mystery at Topanga Beach.

“It should be pretty amazing,” she says. “We haven’t really had the technology to do this kind of study until now.”

UCLA grad student Amy Zimmer-Faust and Senior Conservation Biologist Rosi Dagit collect bacteria samples by night in Topanga Creek. Photo/Tim Riedel


Chapter 34: "The Flood of '77"
from a memoir by
G. Shontah B. (Gary Bertram)

One day while I was at work and Chata had carried our daughter over to the neighboring Pioneer Bakery in the baby back pack, our place in Venice was broken into. The thief stole our bicycles, cameras, radios, electric shaver and just about everything else that mattered. Just to make matters worse, within days of that event, my employer decided to let me go in spite of all the free overtime hours I had been putting in over the past several months to meet every one of his company deadlines. 

Hiring as my replacement to manage the department the very woman whom I'd been recently been given permission to hire as an employee, it was beginning to seem as though I were simply born on the wrong side of the moon. Hoping to move someplace safer, an old friend told me of a place just up Topanga Canyon in the Malibu hills where we might be able to house while the owner traveled and surfed for a few months down in South America. Without hesitation, we jumped on the opportunity. 

Initially invited to simply move our 8-foot travel trailer beneath a bamboo grove in the Rodeo Grounds just inland from Malibu's Topanga Beach until his departure date, life instantly changed for the better. After having lived as a threesome in those cramped quarters for nearly a month, we were least safe and in an amazingly beautiful environment. After being allowed to shower every few days at my little sisters, we were finally allowed to move in to the spacious house. 

Surrounded by low-lying chaparral covered hills, banana plants, eucalyptus and oak trees as well as the purple and white morning glories which seemed to have woven endless bouquets both throughout the yard and around the perimeter of our every window, we were living in a fantasy land. 

As Tiger Swallowtails, Monarchs, Viceroys and Cabbage butterflies haunted the well kept flower gardens throughout a front and back yard whose upkeep he had put in our hands, the multiple windows throughout the house looked out upon a picturesque world of green hillsides and blue skies. Even the responsibility of house-sitting for his three cats kept our daughter entertained during the days and nights alike. As she learned to crawl, and finally stand, she never tired of watching the cats leap into the air in attempt to bat butterflies with their furry paws. 

A sanctuary of not just plants, but of bird life as well, we were living in a neighborhood consisting almost entirely of surfers, artists and musicians who had been renting the houses for as little as $200 per month from the Malibu Athletic Association and a good number of years. Having possibly been the best kept secret in the entire L.A. Basin, we were living among some very fortunate families. 

Managing to land a new full time night job with trailer Life Magazine in the San Fernando Valley, my dayss were spent almost as if I were retired. Paddling out into the surf by dawn of nearly ever day of the week, we spent the rest of the midday hours either on the beach making sand castles and listening together as Chataqua read children's stories to our daughter. Other days were spent either in the tranquility of our own yard among the bamboo groves, birds of paradise and eucalyptus trees either reading, playing or photographing our child in and around the creek and surrounding wildflowers I couldn't help believing that we could have stayed there forever had the opportunity presented itself. But it didn't. 

After several wonderful months of sunshine, warmth and new daily discoveries of our childs growth in both knowledge and instinct, the rains began to arrive. Along with the rains, that once dry and slowly meandering creek bed slowly began transforming into a stream. From that it slowly grew into a bigger stream. As the rains of the year 1977 around the Los Angeles basin continued day after day, the river began to grow both wider and deeper. 

Those with 4-Wheel drive vehicles managed to drive through the creek for a time to their homes, but as it creek continued to rise, we watched on weekends as more and more of the two or three dozen vehicles owned by local residents were having to be towed out of the creek by AAA. Vehicles were getting stuck so often, in fact, that the company literally stationed a daily tow vehicle on the far side of the creek. 

Not even chancing the drive, we began having to hike bare-foot across the knee deep twenty five foot width of the creek. As the waters rose to the depth of our thighs, residents began using the sway-bridge which hadn't been improved since the flood of 1969. However, with the increased traffic on the old wooden hand-built escape bridge, more and more of the floor boards began to break through, leaving larger and larger spaces between boards. As most everyone seemed convinced that the rains would soon subside, repairs simply were not undertaken. 

As the runoff waters from surrounding hills kept to the sandy creek bottom, the lagoon at the beachfront mouth of the river finally filled to capacity. As the rains continued, landslides along the Pacific Coast Highway caused all coastal traffic to detour the twenty some miles up canyon roads to the Ventura Freeway in order to bypass the whole lower Malibu area. 

As the fast moving waters continued to race beneath the sway bridge, the depth of the once only three inch deep creek increased to nearly fifteen feet in depth, by which time some of the bridge's supporting cables had collapsed. At that point the reliability of the bridge was seriously in question. But when the moon approached its full stage, the problems began to compound even further. 

As higher tides combined with much larger than normal surf whose whitewater had begun to force its way upriver against the current, the creek began backing up to a point where it began seriously overrunning it banks. The safety oflocal Topanga Creek homes wasnow in jeopardy. Quickly realizing that ours was among the lowest lying of all the resident houses in the so-called Rodeo Grounds, flash-flooding began to cut a brand new branch of the creek directly through our own front yard and within six feet of our front door. 

Being one of the nearest homes to the actual main flow of the Topanga Creek which was now a river, when radio and television news stations began broadcasting flash flood warnings for our area, residents began preparing for the upcoming highest tides of the year over the next few days. 

"We're in trouble, Chata. I don't really know how much trouble as yet, but I think it'll be a bunch, I told her. 

"Yea, well floods are nothing new to me, having lived in Marietta as long as I have. Our place up there has been getting flooded ever since I can remember as a kid. Let's just do our usual homework of raising the furniture right now rather than when we have to start swimming to save ourselves." 

She just took the bull by the horns and began by first trying to help save everything belonging to John Clemmons who had so graciously allowed us to live in his place. Picking up empty sand bags from the local fire department personnel who were handing them out just above high water mark of the creek, we began filling them at a sand pile which had been freely dumped for the benefit of everyone in the area. 

Sandbagging both the front and back doors, we knew that the evening tide was scheduled to be a six footer. While at work that evening, I kept my ears pinned to a portable radio while typesetting articles for the upcoming Trailer Life issue. When the news station announced that flooding was occurring throughout the lower canyons, I telephoned home. 

"So, are you guys still safe there, or what's happening?" I asked. 

"I don't want you to worry you or anything, but water is already coming in through both the back and front doors of the house. It's only a few inches deep inside the place though, so far. So I guess we're probably ok for now. We just set up our sleeping bags in the raised floor area of the kitchen. The water will have to rise a couple more feet to reach us in there, and I think it's already done rising for the night." 

To be on the safe side, however, I decided to ask the boss if I could take off a few hours early, as I didn't want to rely on the news to determine how badly the predicted flash floods might effect our place. Once back at Topanga some 45 minutes later, I parked as always among the fleet of local cars, then had to use the sway bridge over the swift flowing river to make it home. But before reaching the bridge I realized that some guy was about to walk out into the river with clothes and all. Although I was the only other person around at the time, one could easily see that he would have been instantly swept down current and through a maze of hazardous obstacles which had already been washed downriver during the flooding. 

Trying to talk the guy out of it, he told me that life sucked and that he was done with it. After yelling back and forth for a time, he finally conceded and turned away from the waters. Then crossing the bridge I realized how slowly I had to step, as nearly one of every three footboards had already fallen due to the heavy recent traffic on the aged wood. 

At the house, I was surprised to find Chata between sitting in my kayak, paddling through the front yard with our daughter sitting on her lap. Even our own recently adopted cat stood balanced precariously on the front of the kayak. Having to walk chest deep through the yard before climbing up the stairs to the house, she paddled over to meet me with a smile on her face. Without doubt she seemed to be enjoying the adventure. 

"I kept the kayak in the kitchen and when the water began growing deep enough in the house, we just got in and paddled through the hall to the living room then out the front door. 

As it was shortly before dark, Chata had already lit candles in preparation for the evening, which were lined up on the kitchen countertop. "I've already switched off the electrical fuse box;' she told me. 

Then a neighboring lady called in to us from the high ground out front. ''I'm afraid to shut off power to our place next door, and if I don't I'm worried that it might short circuit and burn down. You think maybe you can help out?" 

Putting on my full length wetsuit including rubber gloves and booties, I walked chest deep through the water to her home while she waited up on the high road which was only two feet deep at the time. Using my flashlight, I wandered through the place until spotting the fuse box, grabbing hold of a broom, I aimed its handle towards the breaker. Not the least bit certain as to whether or not I would be electricuted in the process, I managed nonetheless to flip off the switch without issue. Once home I stripped out of my wet suit, hung it up high above that days water line and we called it a night. Soon enough we were asleep on the mattress which rested dryly atop some wooden boxes which Chataqua had had piled up in the kitchen area. 

As the tide had completely receded by morning, the house had emptied itself of water, leaving the floors muddy and the place smelling of an unwanted humidity. After hosing out as much as we could of the mud, we mopped as best we could from one end to the other. At 3:00pm the next afternoon I headed off to work as usual. Working once again under the stress of realizing that there would not only be high tides once again that night, but the highest of the year, I kept my ears pinned to my personnal portable radio. Once again, late into the afternoon they began announcing on the news that flooding was occurring in the lower canyon areas, and that Malibu Canyon Road was closed to all but local residents. 

Knowing that I had taken off work early the night before, I feared having to take off early once again, but decided nonetheless that I had better head home before dark After having gained permission from my boss, I soon found that I also needed to gain the permission of a Highway Patrol officer who was working the Malibu Canyon Road. Warning me of falling rocks and a highway that was probably full of others, he let me through. The entire drive along the winding road, however, proved to be an obstacle course requiring me to motor around hundreds of fallen rocks of all sizes.

Parking among the resident Topanga cars as I had the night before, I made my way very slowly across the now truely dangerous state of the sway bridge. Frighteningly aware that the water was considerably higher than it had been the night before, I trudged through the now chest high waters on the former road which led past the trail towards our house.

Quickly apparent that I would have to swim to the front door rather than walk as I had the night before, I yelled towards the open window and front door. Answering back that they were in the kitchen, I swam through the front yard, then in through the door. From there I walked chest deep through the house. Both of them were sitting calmly atop the kitchen table where Chata was reading a story to our daughter by candlelight, the water being only knee deep in the kitchen area.

With all the electricity having already been turned off for their own safety, our child could be seen surrounded by her toy animals, seemingly totally entertained by both the incoming waters and the story itself. 

"Gees, you guys. I thought you'd be screaming by now."

"Well, it is getting kinda spooky, but the story is keeping our baby calm. Anyway, I knew that we could climb the hill behind this place if we had to, I'm not really all that worried."

"Yea, well I am, so come on. We're getting out of here. I heard that one of the nearby homes was already washed down to the beach."


"Yea, it's gone according to the radio."

Grabbing hold of our daughter, I lifted her to my shoulders and waited as Chataqua gathered some baby food, books and a few of our daughters favorite toys which she quickly stuffed into a backpack. We then headed over to the bridge. 

As far as I could tell, the water was still rising, and the tide had not as yet reached its maximum high. That and the fact that the waves were still really large for this area, and were completely stopping up the outflow of the river. Apparently a good many others had already evacuated, as there wasn't a soul in sight, let alone the beam of a flashlight. Well aware that only one of the several homes in the entire Rodeo Grounds was actually setting on high enough ground to be considered safe from rising floodwaters, it seemed likely that some of the locals were probably hanging out with them.

When we reached the bridge, I told Shaleena to hang onto my neck with all her might, as I needed my hands to hold onto the cables, and for Chata to snuggle in tightly right behind to make sure she was hanging on safely enough. Having practiced this many times before, just because I enjoyed jogging with her on my back, we kept a turtle's pace over the few remains of a bridge. With very few boards to step on, we mostly had to place our feet on the cables themselves between boards. With the mud and debrie filled waters raging beneath us, it must have required a good five minutes to cross over to the dry land on the other side. 

Once safely back in the car, we drove to my younger sisters house where we were invited to stay as long as we needed to. After cleaning up mud and moisture from the Topanga home for the last time that next afternoon, we applied for Federal Assistance, and thankfully received an allowance for three months of free rent wherever we could find a place. 

Leaving Santa Monica, we moved for those three months into a tiny bath house that we found right on the sand of Oxnard beach in Ventura County. Located within the back yard of what had once been Clark Gable's actual home, the former swimming pool which had since been filled with sand was now our own back yard. 



TVR [TV Radio Mirror?] 1969?

“‘Virginian’ Star Sara Lane Saved from Death in the Floods!”

by Jan Dean

Today, the wild flowers are springing up in multi-colored beauty on the hillside of the Santa Monica Mountains. But in the Topanga Canyon area, residents like actress Sara Lane, the female lead in The Virginian, are still digging out after the worst flood ever to hit their peaceful community. Entire hillsides were swept away in the disastrous January floods. And five persons living along Topanga Canyon were buried alive when tons of mud swallowed up their homes.

Because of its serene beauty, Topanga Canyon has become a favorite haven of the flower children, or hippies. Many celebrities, especially horse lovers, also have built expensive homes in this scenic area only a half hour’s drive from Hollywood. The Virginian’s Sara Lane lives with her father, veteran actor Rusty Lane, and mother Sara Anderson along the usually dry creek bed. But they have had to rebuild most of their home. Acres of mud had ripped the walls like toothpicks.

And Sara is a very, very lucky girl to be alive today. For, at the height of the holocaust, she refused to be evacuated.

Why? “Because of my four beautiful quarterback horses,” she said. “I couldn’t leave my horses to die.” For nine straight days it rained. More than 13 inches of rain fell in Southern California’s worst storm in 30 years. And for Topanga Canyon’s residents, the result was disaster.

“We knew we were to evacuate on morning around 4 A.M.,” Sara related. Her voice still trembled from the sickening memory of it all. “There was no longer any electricity or gas in the house, or water to drink. The water in the creek was sweeping up to our doorstep, and rising, and the only exit was across the creek to the highway. There was no longer any bridge: it had been swept away. I managed to get to neighboring homes to ask for help. My father had been in a motorcycle accident. He’d broken his leg and was unable to walk. God! I was scared – for him and my mom.”

Sara did get help. A rescue unit set up a cable line across the rampaging waters. Her father was towed across the stream on a stretcher. Sara’s mother followed in a chair lift. But Sara remained. Nothing anyone said would make her leave. One of her horses had become hopelessly mired in the mud, with the waters rising nearly to its neck.

“I was in tears,” Sara recalled. “The only decent thing would have been to shoot the animal and put it out of its misery. One of the rescue men had a shotgun with him and was ready to pull the trigger – when a bulldozer came along. We were able to attach a rope to my horse and the dozer pulled him free.”

Already Sara had led her other three ponies to safety. And at one point she herself was nearly swept to her death!

This happened when she slipped on a rock while in the stream helping rescue someone else. A neighbor, 21-year-old Mike Payne, had fallen into the torrential current and was being carried away to what seemed a certain death. Sara and several others jumped into the water and finally were able to pull him to safety. Then Sara slipped into the treacherous stream. “I thought I was a goner.” And she would have been except for the quick thinking of neighbors who managed to get her back to the bank.

Later, convinced that her beloved horses were all safe, Sara finally was persuaded to cross over on the cable lift. But she could not in good conscience leave the area. There might be something more she could do for someone. So she camped out with friends. Next day the waters had receded somewhat and she was able to return to what was left of the family home.

“I became sick at the sight of it,” she related. “Mud had destroyed everything.”

She wept with happy tears, though, when her little dog Sloopy came running down from a hill – barking and with his tail wagging. Downstream a few hundred yards away, a neighbor, Donald Dorris, was found buried beneath the wreckage of his home, which had been demolished by a mudslide. And the bodies of four other people in the area, neighbors of the Sara’s, were still missing.

For Sara, the tragedy had come in the wake of a most happy experience. She had just returned from eight days in Africa, the trip having been a prize she won on TV’s The Dating Game. Producers of The Virginian had even had her written out of the last segment of the season that she might take advantage of the prize. She returned from this memorable experience to a heartbreak that affect not only herself and her family, but all their friends and neighbors.

In a nearby canyon, actor James (My Friend Tony) Whitmore worked for 25 hours to save the home of a neighbor, Mrs. Brenda Fox. He shoveled away as mud, like lava from a volcano, threatened to surge into the house. With other, he piled sandbags around the front of the house – and it was saved.

Other celebrities’ lives were affect. Ann-Margret and husband Roger Smith feared for their lives and home, as a mudslide piled up five feet deep in their driveway, barely missing their home…. Dean Martin’s daughter Claudia was among those rescued…. Actress Dana Wynter and her son had to evacuate their home…. A six-foot boulder crashed down from a hill landing within inches of the house David Janssen was renting.

Would you believe, though? All the survivors in the Topanga Canyon area, including Sara Lane and her parents, have picked up the torn pieces of their lives and begun rebuilding their homes. All have moved back to greet the spring’s wild flowers – the most beautiful in the state.

“We only pray, though,” Sara said, “that we will never have to go through such a horror again.”

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