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Floods, fires and snow dot Malibu’s history

Pictured is Topanga Canyon Blvd. collapsing into the creek just above PCH in 1980. 22nd Century Media File Photos
A Topanga Canyon House is shown falling into the creek.
Pictured is the damage done by the storms at the Zuma Beach parking lot in February 1980. Warren Arnold/Malibu Surfside News
Suzanne Guldimann, Freelance Reporter
7:50 am PST February 15, 2017

Other parts of California remain in a state of emergency, but so far, heavy rains have caused relatively minor problems in Malibu. That’s unusual, and longtime residents hope the pattern will hold.

Author Mike Davis in his controversial book “Ecology of Fear: Los Angeles and the Imagination of Disaster,” summarized the weather phenomenon California is experiencing right now as, “Once or twice every decade, Hawaii sends Los Angeles a big, wet kiss. Sweeping far south of its usual path, the westerly jet stream hijacks warm water-laden air from the Hawaiian archipelago and hurls it towards the Southern California Coast,” where, in Davis’ words, it “sometimes produces rainfall of a ferocity unrivaled anywhere on earth.”

So far this year, Malibu has missed the full force being felt in other areas. The Santa Monica Mountains have received approximately 16 inches of rain — almost enough to bring the area out of the drought, but not enough to trigger a disaster, at least, not yet. In February of 1998, Malibu received 14 inches of rain just in the month of February. In 1983, sometimes described as “The Great El Niño Year,” the area received more than 34 inches of rain, and during the winter of 2004-2005, 37.25 inches were recorded, making it the second wettest year in Los Angeles County’s history.

For longtime local Marsha Maus, who grew up on Point Dume in the 1950s, the floods of 1958 stand out. 

“I’d never seen so much water,” she recalled. 

Maus also recalls the prelude to the flood: a catastrophic fire that burned the coast from Broad Beach to Pacific Palisades on Christmas 1956. 

“We stood on the corner of Pacific Coast Highway and Zumirez Drive, eating doughnuts supplied by the Red Cross, and watched the fire burn past us,” she recalled. 

The scorched hills received more than 21 inches of rain the following winter, triggering mudslides.

“There was mud everywhere,” Maus said.

Longtime resident and restaurateur Dolores Rivellino, better known as Malibu’s “Godmother,” remembers plenty of bad storms, including the floods of 1968-1969, the year she moved to Malibu.

”I had a friend visiting,” she recalled. “Once she got here, she couldn’t leave. There was so much rain, so much mud, we couldn’t get her to the airport.”

Malibu received more than 27 inches of rain that winter.

Rivellino also has vivid memories of the storms of 1979-1980, which resulted in mudslides that shut PCH for months. Malibu received nearly 27 inches of rain that year, as well.

“The mountain came down and stayed down,” she said. “We had to leave one car on each side of the slide and walk across on the beach, and we did that for months.” 

That winter brought coastal flooding, mudslides, rockslides and dangerous canyon flash flooding. Canyon roads, including Topanga, collapsed, taking trees, cars and houses with them, and Malibu residents were isolated for months, forced to take lengthy detours to avoid the closures.

However, as far Rivellino is concerned, 1993 wins the prize for the worst Malibu weather. Rivellino, the proprietor of the Godmother Cafe, recalls that Cross Creek Road was transformed into a river. The floodwaters stopped at the door of her restaurant in the Malibu Country Mart. Other business owners in the same center were not as fortunate. Backhoes were required to clear feet of mud and silt from shops and parking areas. 

“It rained for 16 straight days,” Rivellino told the Surfside News. “That was the storm to beat all storms. There was mud up to your knees on Pacific Coast Highway.”

The Malibu Creek flood that swamped Civic Center areas businesses also flooded houses in the Malibu Colony, including those of actor Larry Hagman and tennis pro John McEnroe. News stories featured actor Burgess Meredith, surveying the wreckage of his Colony house. The deck and garden were completely washed away, and the windows shattered. A dozen beachfront houses on Malibu Road and in the Colony were undermined by the waves. A section of old Malibu Road reportedly sank more than a foot. As more rain rolled in, fire crews and residents raced against time to shore up the road and build sandbag sea walls.

Further up the coast, Zuma lost 30 feet of sand, and storm surge flooded the parking lot. Westwood Beach was covered in storm debris from record surf and storm surge. In the mountains, the water level in Malibou Lake was so high several lakefront houses were submerged to the eaves. All over the mountains, rockslides closed roads and caused accidents. Snow levels dropped dramatically, dusting the highest parts of the Santa Monica Mountains with snow.

Heavy rains continued during the winter of 1994-1995. The disaster was intensified by the impact of the 1993 Old Topanga Fire, which left the hills above PCH in eastern Malibu vulnerable to mudflows. Storms in January 1995 damaged the bridge over Malibu Creek, forcing emergency repairs and once again shutting down PCH. 

“It was right after we became a city,” Walt Keller, Malibu’s first mayor, told The Surfside News. “We started out with one disaster after another.”

It’s not all bad news. Malibu’s extreme rain years help recharge the water level in streams and springs, and often result in record years for wildflowers. And sometimes a wet year brings other surprises, like the dusting of snow Malibu received in 1958, 1992 and 2008. The key to surviving, longtime residents say, is to be prepared for everything, and to never to take anything for granted. 

Rivellino’s daughter, Malibu resident Valerie Titus Parker, was forced to evacuate from her Las Flores Canyon home in 1993. The floodwaters rose so fast she barely had time to escape.

“She lost everything,” Rivellino said. “It was devastating to her. She loves Malibu, but she never forgets that we have disasters, what can happen here. She always tells people you have to be aware of the dangers.”