In the early-morning darkness, Fritz Marohn sloshes through the mud and splashes straight through the deep puddles caused by drainage problems in the alley leading to his sand yard. It's not quite 6, and his foreman is already waiting for him. Soon, Marohn's cellphone rings. His wife, Nicole, is calling with some good news: The latest weather report forecasts more rain.
The Marohns are in the sandbag business -- they own LA County Sandbags in Harbor City -- and sandbags are big business right now.
"Normally, we have about 50,000 bags piled right here. It's kind of empty right now," he says in the yard. "In this last surge of weather, we sold about 100,000 bags alone."
The record-breaking deluges that began last month with a powerful storm from Alaska is saturating Southern California, causing rivers of water in homes, garages and businesses, on surface streets and freeways and heading down hillsides. Sandbags stop the water, Fritz Marohn explains, putting them in high demand.
Tall and muscular, he is wearing work boots, jeans, a gray vest and a white, short-sleeved T-shirt on this recent day despite the 40-degree chill. On a colder day, when everyone can see their breath, he wears a short plastic rain jacket.
In the predawn shadows, two small pyramids of dark sandbags resemble stacks of baby seals in the yard. Nearby, the tall mounds of stockpiled sand, about 3,000 tons according to Marohn, look like the beginnings of a giant's sand castle.
Before sunrise, four workers climb up a hill of sandbags. They grab the 30-pound parcels one by one and, in the glare of the headlights, they pack a John Deere wheel loader, which foreman Manuel Villanueva empties into waiting trucks before returning for more.
Near the center of the yard, another group of workers fills sandbags using a machine that can stuff 1,000 per hour, but they must be tied by hand.
"This is as automatic as sandbagging is going to get," Marohn says. "It's a labor-intensive business. A lot of people still fill sandbags by hand with a shovel."
While Marohn talks, Villanueva continues loading the trucks that are just outside the yard.
One driver, Don Lippen, needs 1,000, which is a medium-sized order. He's headed to Malibu, where the sandbags will be used around a new house. Truckers Ron VerSteeg and Brian Van Hoffwegn will haul 3,000 to a new housing development under construction near Lake Perris, not far from Riverside. Other jobs have taken Marohn's bags as far north as Ventura County and as far south as San Clemente.
"The October rains caught everybody pretty off guard," Marohn says of the worst precipitation for that month in a century in Southern California. "We weren't prepared. We ran a day shift and a night shift, and we still couldn't keep up with the orders."
To stay on top of the current demand, Marohn's crew works outside filling and loading bags even if it is pouring rain. "Everybody brings their raingear," he says. "We know the phone is going to start ringing at 6 o'clock. We want to get ahead of the game."
The recent storms have meant 14-hour days and six-day workweeks for Marohn and his 14 employees, although everyone got Christmas and New Year's Day off.
He's not alone.
At So Cal Sandbags Inc., Steve Villa says, "We're very busy.... It always increases with the rain."
Construction jobsites make up the bulk of orders, "because there are laws that mandate sandbagging or other type of erosion-control products to keep silt from leaving a jobsite and going down the storm drain, into the ocean and killing fish," Villa says. He's one of the managers of the large company, which has 500 employees, is based in Corona and operates another 20-acre yard in Irvine.
Despite the name of the firm, the company doesn't use sand.
" 'Sandbag' is a generic name," Villa explains. "We don't use sand. We use a grainier rock, a pea rock, birds-eye gravel," he says, describing gravel bags that each weigh 40 pounds.
LA Sandbags also sells gravel bags that filter out silt, but on this day they're moving sand.
After the crew finishes loading and filling bags in the yard, they go with the foreman, Villanueva, to jobsites to install bags.
In addition to selling to the construction trade, the company also supplies Caltrans, flooded-out businesses, cities that can't keep up with the rain damage and the occasional homeowner who comes to the yard to pick up a few bags. (Individuals who need 25 or fewer generally get them free from fire stations or home-improvement stores.)
On orders of 1,500 or more, a sandbag costs 69 cents plus delivery, Marohn says, and for up to 100 bags it's $1.20 each.
"It's a penny business," he says, "half a cent makes a huge difference to me."
If he can stay ahead of the demand.
Right now, they've got plenty of sand. They've got plenty of empty bags, about half a million of the tough, black, woven-polypropylene sacks imported from Asia and used in place of burlap bags.