El Niño: Officials say Topanga, Mulholland and Laurel canyons among most vulnerable areas in LA

A Los Angeles city sanitation truck visits a block of Bernal Avenue in Boyle Heights that flooded during a sudden downpour Oct. 19.
A Los Angeles city sanitation truck visits a block of Bernal Avenue in Boyle Heights that flooded during a sudden downpour Oct. 19.
Leslie Berestein Rojas/KPCC
A Los Angeles city sanitation truck visits a block of Bernal Avenue in Boyle Heights that flooded during a sudden downpour Oct. 19.
Alejandro Aceves points to weeds and dirt choking the fan of his car. The vehicle was partly submerged when his street in Boyle Heights flooded Monday.
Leslie Berestein Rojas/KPCC

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City maintenance staff addressed the Los Angeles City Council Tuesday, giving a mixed message on how the city will fare during the anticipated El Niño rains this winter.

"Although we're prepared, if the El Niño is what's expected, we're going to have issues. We're going to have flooding," said Adel H. Hagekhalil from the city's Sanitation Bureau.

Hagekhalil was joined by Ron Lorenzen from the Bureau of Street Services and James Featherstone, manager of the Emergency Management Department. The three departments are tasked with responding to, and cleaning up weather-related damage.

The men said while their departments have been preparing for El Niño for some time, the city won't be able to avoid flooding, downed trees, mudslides, rushing water and even sewage overflow. They said recent storms have provided a glimpse of where L.A. vulnerabilities lie.

One recent storm, which hit Boyle Heights this fall, brought waist-high water to one neighborhood. The area's streets were not clean, so trash clogged a storm drain, leaving no place for rainwater to escape. Residents in that neighborhood told KPCC that they have complained many times about the need for more street cleaning.

Hagekhalil and Lorenzen said street cleaning will be key this El Niño season, and their departments have stepped up street and basin-cleaning efforts in recent months. 

Hagekhalil said the city may temporarily suspend trash service during periods of heavy rain, to keep trashcans off the street so that they aren't spilled over in bad weather. 

He ultimately called to the public for help.

"If you see anything that’s blocking the storm drain, please help us... [and] let's make sure that we secure anything that can float down, and that can block a storm drain off the property," he said.

Hagekhalil said L.A.'s outdated storm drain and wastewater system also poses problems. It was only designed to handle a 10-year storm, meaning a storm so strong that it only occurs once every decade. 

"A 10-year storm is close to four inches [of water] in 24 hours. And one inch in one hour," he said.

The city's drainage system was also built at a time when L.A. had far more exposed dirt and grass — natural water absorbents. As the city has developed over the past 50 years, far more of that dirt and grass has been covered with less permeable materials, like asphalt. That means far more water runs off into storm drains, which can get overwhelmed.

Lorenzen said that his department is anticipating mudslides in places like Benedict, Topanga Canyon, Coldwater, Mulholland and Laurel canyons. His department is placing additional equipment proactively in those canyons.

He said downed trees would likely overwhelm his department, and already has. He said on Nov. 15, a small storm only dropped an inch and a half of rain, but 1,000 emergency calls came into his department, reporting downed trees.

He said more trees are falling down because they aren't getting proper maintenance. He blamed that lack of maintenance on city budget cuts.

Lorenzen and Hagekhalil said their departments would come back to the council periodically to ask for more resources as needed throughout the winter.

Councilmembers say they'll use the websites like notifyLA.org to inform residents about storm systems, preparedness and clean-up efforts. So far, Featherstone said, about 34,000 have signed up for alerts through the website.