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California and the West

Finding Strength in Adversity

Disaster: Residents of hamlet hit by flash flood and landslide dig out and take stock of their losses.

July 14, 1999|DIANA MARCUM and TOM GORMAN | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

FOREST FALLS, Calif. — Sheets of rain pummeled this community again Tuesday, driving residents indoors after they spent the day digging out from the ravages of Sunday's flash flood and landslide--and into seclusion where some finally allowed their own tears to fall.

The reality of what nature wrought on this small San Bernardino Mountains community of several hundred was finally hitting home for some who, on Tuesday, could no longer remain stoic.

There was Donna Gilmer, who runs the local general store ("Friendly People, Neat Prices"), who found an earring in the mud, picked it up and began to cry. "I guess I've had it all bottled up," she said apologetically. "There's been too much to do, and I haven't had time to cry, to let go."

And there was Joan St. George, who stood frozen, looking at the cabin that had been in her husband's family for 40 years, a quaint mountain getaway that was a museum of antiques and collectibles, all now lost. "I just didn't think it could happen," she said. "I couldn't even comfort my children. We've been in too much shock." Her red eyes betrayed the tears she had shed.

Men, too, cried. Ken Dailey came up from Carlsbad to finally look at the cabin that he already knew, from watching television, was destroyed. "This is the home where we've had Christmases," he said tearfully. And then he squared his shoulders, and watched neighbors with shovels helping dig out the mud that had swamped the home. "That's one thing we're sure about in this community: People stick together."

And so it went Tuesday, even as another afternoon thunderstorm sent lightning, hail and so much rain that again streets turned into tumultuous, muddy creeks and residents cast wary eyes on the canyon walls that gave way Sunday.

By early evening, mud had again swamped the two-lane highway into town, cutting off access. But when the rains let up, residents moved outdoors in an almost celebratory mood, having survived the latest downpour.

Until the afternoon storm struck, the town was consumed with cleaning up from Sunday's storm that killed a woman, injured five people, destroyed 15 homes and left the community without drinking water.

E.J. Jackson, who drove his all-terrain Humvee on Sunday, rescuing one stranded resident after another, including pulling one woman out of shoulder-high mud, washed his rugged black vehicle Tuesday--before it rained again.

In the morning, scores of residents met at the local fire station, then paraded with shovels and buckets to help dig out cars and front doors so others could finally salvage what they could.

Skip loaders scooped up mud; tow trucks freed vehicles and towed them down the mountain.

Through it all, some residents reflected on their good luck amid the destruction.

Molly Lamb searched through the home that she escaped Sunday, fleeing to safety with her 19-month-old daughter, Kelsey. Returning on Tuesday to a home that was missing its back side, she found the wedding dress she will be wearing in two weeks in San Jose, clean as could be, and the wedding rings that will be exchanged.

"We'll go on with the wedding," she declared brightly. And she thought about how the storms had changed her outlook on life. "Before today, this was like an Indiana Jones movie. I was so scared. I thought, 'This is it.' But today I'm looking around and I feel brave."

Bravery might be a requisite for living here.

Sooner or later, geologists warn, more homes will be lost to more landslides in this rugged canyon of boulders, white oaks and ponderosa pines, located beneath Mt. San Gorgonio, the highest peak in Southern California.

Rocks, gravel and dirt have been cascading down from the canyon walls for centuries, said West Reeder, San Bernardino County geologist. In fact, the town is built on nature's rubbish, deposited in an alluvial fan along Mill Creek.

It is called "debris flow," loosened from the canyon by summer thunderstorms and winter avalanches, and there is little that people can do to stop it, he said.

The only recourse, Reeder said, is for the channels that rivet the canyon walls to somehow be scoured and straightened out so there is nothing to impede the flow of water runoff. That will cost money.

Residents can help themselves, he said, by constructing debris deflection walls.

And newcomers to Forest Falls, he said, should pay particular attention to the fine print of escrow papers, where there are disclosure statements alerting them to the dangers of "debris flows."

That point wasn't lost on Molly Lamb, who on Tuesday remembered reading that warning.

"I don't think," she said, "that I understood what a 'rock slide' meant until those boulders came into my house."

*

FLASH FLOOD KILLS MARINE

A Marine died after being swept away in a flash flood at a training center near Twentynine Palms. B1

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