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Tsunami on the 405 – The Atlantic

Tsunami on the 405 – The Atlantic
Tsunami on the 405 – The Atlantic


“A Fierce Storm Parks Over L.A. Area,” read the lead story in the Los Angeles Times yesterday. I liked the use of that word, park, to make it sound like some average thing everyone does all the time in L.A. However, according to our mayor, Karen Bass, this is not your usual parking job. On Sunday, she held a news conference to let us know that the storm was “a serious weather event. This has the potential to be a historic storm—severe winds, thunderstorms, and even brief tornadoes.”

I shrugged, I admit. Bad weather in L.A. is so rare that all forms of it, all deviations from perky sunshine, suggest apocalypse to Californians. But I’m from what Californians call “back East,” where storms arrive on whipping winds that shoulder towering, anvil-shaped cumulus clouds across the sky and darken the summer days, threatening to strike mortals below with angry-god force. They rumble and move in without hesitation and pour down on you with unquestionable power. They explode and light up the night sky.

By “back East” standards, what’s happening here is not too dramatic. There is drama, though, in California storms becoming a little more eastern in their intensity, exacerbated, of course, by a warming climate.

Yesterday I saw a photograph of a car in San Diego that was up to its windows in water, so something’s going on. And on the 405 nearing Seal Beach during my commute, a truck barreled northward at about 70 miles per hour, in the opposite direction from me, through what must have been an enormous puddle. The water cast off by its tires arced over the southbound lanes in what looked like the famous Japanese Great Wave tsunami print by Hokusai.

Then the wave hit me. It curled over my car in a sparkling sheet that would have been aesthetically pleasing if I hadn’t been going 60 in pretty heavy traffic. It smashed down on me and all the other cars in my vicinity. My windshield was immediately, dazzlingly opaque, as if I were in a car wash. My windshield wipers were on “intermittent,” unprepared. For a few seconds, I held on to the wheel and wondered what was about to happen, while also considering whether my teaching job in Orange Country was worth dying for.

I managed to click on “continuous” wipers, and I powered straight ahead, though largely blind; miraculously, so did the other cars that were under the wave. I’d been hit by similar surges before in my driving life, but never one as powerful as this.

Bad things have happened during the storm this week, including a few weather-related fatalities, because even though it isn’t as tempestuous as a summer thunderstorm on the East Coast, it is bringing continuous rain over a long period. It’s a patient, committed, hardworking storm, rather than a Byronic, passionate one. On hilly terrain, like Malibu and so many other parts of the city, this constant downfall means mudslides and debris flows. Malibu’s canyon roads, never calm touring routes in the best weather, have been striped with mudslides, and residents of Studio City, a pancake-flat neighborhood, still got hit with a debris flow from the hills that caused a minor evacuation. In some places, the Los Angeles River is already coming close to topping its banks.

Though you wouldn’t know it from walking or driving, L.A. is built on land that encompasses two mighty rivers, the Los Angeles and the San Gabriel. When it rains a lot, these rivers—normally unnoticeable, peaceable dribbles—can overwhelm the channels, levees, culverts, and flap gates built and installed by teams of engineers over the years to prevent flash flooding, which Joan Didion called “plumbing on the grand scale.” It’s rare, but much of the doomsaying and Cassandra-like pronouncements during weather episodes have their roots in these remembered tragedies.

“I grew up when my neighborhood was crossed by unfenced flood control channels,” D.J. Waldie writes in his laconic memoir, Holy Land, about his 1950s childhood in suburban Southern California. “Hunting for frogs in the rain in one of the channels, boys would sometimes be caught in the suddenly rising waters … One boy drowned in one of the channels; another boy drowned in a flooded culvert.” Eventually these channels were cemented and fenced off.

The relentless rains are particularly hard on L.A.’s homeless people. In an ongoing rainfall like this one, you feel the value of the newer term unhoused: Architecture, with all its protections, is what they lack.

In my neighborhood, the grassy patch on the corner outside the Bank of America, which a changing assortment of three men has used for a year or so for sleeping and hanging out, has been abandoned because it is exposed to the rain. In the underpasses that dot the city and provide a theoretically dry encampment space for the unhoused, rainwater runs just below the curb, and people have covered their tents as best as possible with blue emergency tarps or black ones. Still, water from the storm has puddled on less-well-constructed tents and poorly installed tarps, and they have collapsed, folding down like broken umbrellas over lumps of the possessions within, now visible and water-logged.

Under Sunset Boulevard near Silver Lake, one man in a transparent plastic poncho sat disconsolately on the top of his tent, exposing its collapsed poles, which stuck out around him like black versions of Blake’s heavenly rays. Next to him was a brown sofa I have been tracking for two years now. Sometimes this large piece of furniture is a wall for two tents, sometimes a place for a couple of men to sit on and smoke. Sometimes it seems to be used to demarcate a border between two parts of the underpass encampment. But yesterday it was on its side, and somehow canted at an odd angle, and completely drenched, the cushions sagging from the spot where they are attached to the frame. A woman walked hurriedly by, a lone pedestrian using a heavy piece of cardboard folded in a V over her head as an umbrella, and holding it with both hands.

Whenever the weather here makes the news, everyone from back East emails me to ask if I’m okay. Everyone: I’m fine. There’s a puddle in my shallow, closet-size “California basement,” and I guess I’ll hold my class by Zoom today. Meanwhile, under overpasses all over L.A., homeless people are sitting on their wet tents during this historic storm, while on the boulevards and freeways above, waves whirl out from the tires of cars and trucks, and crash over hapless commuters.



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