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.
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