Cambrian: Opinion

Grapevine slide a wake-up call before El Niño

A storm late last week offered a preview of what may be to come with the predicted El Niño winter, dumping nearly 2 inches of rain at one spot in Antelope Valley in 30 minutes.

The rains sent walls of mud and rock down on Interstate 5 in the Grapevine area, closing the highway, along with a section of State Route 58, and catching some motorists in the middle of it: The mud was 20 feet deep in some spots.

Less than two weeks earlier, I’d gone hiking through these same foothills to take photos of off-the-beaten-path sections of old Ridge Route, an impossibly curvy predecessor to Interstate 5 that was built a century ago and has long since been abandoned. When I saw accounts of the mudslides that trapped some people in their cars overnight, I couldn’t help think how much worse the situation would have been for travelers on that old road, with its tight curves, 15 mph speed limit and barely enough room for two cars to pass each other heading in opposite directions.

If you’re curious what that old road looked like, you don’t have to go as far as the Grapevine Grade (which, incidentally, got its name from the grapes that grew in the canyon there, not from the circuitous nature of the road, which came much later).

There’s a great example right here in San Luis Obispo County along the Cuesta Grade: Just west of Highway 101, an old stretch of concrete snakes its way around a hillside in true hairpin fashion about halfway down on the SLO side of the summit. It’s similar to a curve just south of Lebec on the old Grapevine highway, which came to be known as Dead Man’s Curve for all the cars that went off the edge — and that was in normal weather. I could only imagine how bad it must have been during a rainstorm.

As much as we need the rain — and lots of it — we don’t want so much all at once that it causes the kind of mess that happened on the Grapevine, or the type of widespread damage that occurred during Cambria’s flood of 1995.

Just as it’s better to have a state-of-the-art highway than a primitive concrete road, it’s also better to be prepared for flooding than find yourself up to your neck, stuck in proverbial (or literal) mud.

During Rep. Lois Capps’ recent tour of Cambria, former supervisor and current Fire Safe Focus Group chair Shirley Bianchi expressed the concern that a torrential rain would sweep up dead wood from cut or fallen trees and fling them like matchsticks into streets, homes and other structures. It’s a valid concern.

Fortunately, some of the steps Cambrians have already taken to prepare for wildfire work just as well in preparing for severe flooding: network with neighbors, have a “go bag” ready in the event of an evacuation and know the best route out of the area. In the event of heavy flooding, look for a way out that includes the fewest possible dirt roads — there are plenty of those in Cambria, and lots of water could turn them into a quagmire for anything less than a four-wheel-drive vehicle

Speaking of transportation, while you’re at it, check your tires and wiper blades to be sure you’re equipped to travel in the rain.

In case you wind up stuck in the house, make sure you have plenty of nonperishable food, along with flashlights, since heavy rains often mean power outages. Do you have a portable generator? Have you backed up everything on your computer, either on an external drive or the “cloud,” just in case a sudden outage plays havoc with your system?

Clean out rain gutters and make sure everything drains downhill. You don’t want large pools of water collecting, either in the open or, worse, under your home. If it does, you might consider investing in a sump pump to help you remove standing water from your garage or basement, if you don’t have one already.

And remember, the rains — if they do come — won’t last forever, so collect as much rainwater as you can in rain barrels and other catchment systems.

Cambrians do a great job of being prepared for crisis. It’s time to do it again.

Stephen H. Provost’s column runs every other week in The Cambrian. Email him at sprovost @the tribune news .com, or reach him by phone at 927-8896.