Army flood-control engineers and Los Angeles police disagreed Tuesday over how much warning city workers got to close emergency gates as floodwaters surged across streets in the Sepulveda Basin on Monday, endangering scores of motorists.
The Army Corps of Engineers, which operates Sepulveda Dam, said the city was warned at 12:30 p.m. that floodwaters were inundating streets in the basin, but Los Angeles police said the warning came one hour later, after many motorists were already trapped.
A Corps of Engineers official insisted that his agency followed proper procedures in notifying city police, street and parks officials that flooding was imminent, but also concluded that the procedures should be changed to give local officials earlier notice.
Meanwhile, city officials squabbled among themselves about who has primary responsibility for swinging shut the long metal gates that could have kept drivers off streets where swirling muddy waters rose with frightening speed Monday, stranding about 70 vehicles and leading to dramatic helicopter rescues.
"I know of no procedure directly that is set up for closure of the roads" during floods, said Dave Royer, a principal traffic engineer for the city Transportation Department.
The Army corps, which owns the basin and monitors water levels behind Sepulveda Dam, is responsible for notifying local officials if flooding is threatened in the basin or downstream. The city leases land in the flood plain behind the dam for recreation and other purposes.
Joe Evelyn, chief of hydrology for the corps' Los Angeles district, said Army employees first called the Los Angeles Department of Recreation and Parks at 12:30 p.m. Tuesday and then immediately called police.
But Merna Oakley, adjutant to the commander of the Police Department's Van Nuys Division, said a corps dam-keeper did not alert police until about 1:30 p.m., saying there "appeared to be some flooding in the basin."
Oakley said a police sergeant then drove to the flood area and decided roads around it should be shut down at 1:45 p.m. By then, she said, "The water was pretty high and people were stranded."
"We did not get a call at 12:30. . .If we were told the roads should be closed at 12:30, we would have been over there as quickly as possible to start the process," Oakley said.
"It would have made some difference, but I'm not faulting anybody or anything. That water rose extremely quickly," she said.
City emergency workers in helicopters and rubber boats rescued 48 people stranded in cars and other vehicles as floodwaters rose rapidly on Burbank Boulevard and other streets that run around and through the basin.
There were no fatalities, but city officials estimated damage and cleanup costs at city-owned golf courses, streets and a sewage treatment plant at more than $500,000. About 500 acres were inundated, and about 70 private trucks and cars were covered in muck after being abandoned by their owners. The vehicles will probably have to be scrapped as non-repairable.
Dick Ginevan, a city Department of Parks and Recreation official who supervises three city-owned golf courses in the basin, said his agency was notified by the corps at 12:20 p.m. But by that time, he said, the water level was so high on streets that he could not reach the maintenance area in his station wagon to save equipment stored there.
He said parks employees were able to move most of their turf-grooming equipment to dry ground, but three vehicles were flooded. He also said up to $22,000 worth of electronic circuit boards that run automated irrigation systems, which could have been removed with timely warning, were submerged and may be ruined.
"I talked to one of my golf supervisors, and he said he's always gotten more notification than we got this time" from the corps, Ginevan said.
Speaking to the City Council, Col. Charles S. Thomas, who heads the corps' Los Angeles district, stressed that Army engineers followed their usual procedures and that the dam performed its function of preventing downstream areas from being inundated.
Evelyn said in an interview that his agency received weather reports from the National Weather Service and a private forecaster in Oxnard on Monday. But he said they were seriously flawed, predicting only half an inch of rain while the storm dumped seven inches over the basin.
He said the flood situation developed so quickly that the Army could not give the city as timely a warning as he would have liked. After that, it took even more time for city officials to react and close streets.
"The whole process just took longer than the time we had. Mother Nature just kind of beat us to the punch," Evelyn said.
Although dam floodgates were open when the storm hit, he said, the Army had to partially close them at 2 p.m. to prevent flooding downstream in areas such as Van Nuys, Burbank and downtown Los Angeles--the reason the dam was built in the 1940s. That move, however, caused water to rise in the basin.
Evelyn said the city should develop a central notification point so Army officials do not have to call multiple departments. They called at least five local agencies Monday, he said.
Evelyn also suggested that the city close down roads in the area at the first sign of heavy rain. The inconvenience to drivers would outweigh the risk of loss of life if a flood materializes, he said.
Although police led efforts to close the road gates, city officials could not agree on who was actually responsible for deciding to take such action.
Oakley of the Police Department, for instance, said the parks department was supposed to make that call. Parks department spokesman Al Goldfarb, however, said it was up to the city Transportation Department.
Royer of the Transportation Department said it was the responsibility of the city Public Works Department. And DWP spokesman Bob Hayes said it was up to the police.
Times staff writer John Schwada contributed to this story.