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Katrina May Speed Levee Work in O.C.

New Orleans' collapses intensify longtime fears for local channels. U.S. aid may be accelerated.

January 24, 2006|David Reyes | Times Staff Writer

The New Orleans hurricane disaster, worsened by levees that failed, has prompted the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers to consider speeding up flood prevention efforts in northwest Orange County.

At issue is a potential $330-million combined federal and county effort to fortify 77 miles of aging, substandard flood channels in northwest Orange County -- some flanked by crumbling earthen embankments -- that snake through backyards, gullies, industrial areas, wetlands and parks.

Many of these channels had been earmarked for repair before the county's 1994 bankruptcy, which dried up its matching funds for the project. But now, New Orleans' levee failures have renewed concerns about the risks for Orange County.

"They talk about Katrina, and now we're hearing that a levee near our house is substandard because it's old," said Fran Fain, a Huntington Beach resident who lives near the East Garden Grove-Wintersburg Channel, built more than 40 years ago of earth. "I tell you, it's a shock."

The county's plan for this area is to work with the corps to provide flood protection to withstand a once-in-100-years flood along two main channel systems, one draining into Huntington Harbour and the other into Alamitos Bay.

The channels collect water from Anaheim, Stanton, Cypress, Buena Park, Orange, Santa Ana, Garden Grove, Westminster, Fountain Valley, Los Alamitos, Seal Beach and Huntington Beach.

On Wednesday the corps and county flood control officials will hold the first of several community meetings to hear from residents, city officials, environmentalists and others, about flood problems in northwest Orange County. The meeting, at 6:30 p.m. at the Garden Grove Community Center, is the start of a three-year, $5.5-million feasibility study to assess the need for help from the corps.

"With the bankruptcy, we got delayed," said Herb Nakasone, county public works director. "But Hurricane Katrina has helped us; it's been easier for us to justify this project. This is a chance to get a large portion of the work done at once."

Much of Orange County has experienced flooding, including a deluge in 1969 that killed eight people and destroyed 50 homes.

The county has two major flood project priorities: the proposed northwest Orange County project and a Santa Ana River flood control project approved by Congress in 1990. So far, $1.3 billion has been spent along the river from Huntington Beach into San Bernardino County.

Northwest Orange County is a separate flood control area, said Gregory Lugar, the corps' study manager. "It doesn't drain directly into the Santa Ana River. It drains into Huntington Harbor and Anaheim Bay."

If the corps approves the project, as expected, the work may not only reduce flooding but could also allow an end mandatory flood insurance for 23,000 nearby property owners, officials said. The insurance costs from about $300 to $800 a year per home.

The channels under scrutiny now were mostly built in the late 1950s, when much of the area was farmland. "The channels were put in primarily to protect the agricultural areas at the bottom of the drainage area," Lugar said.

The fields and orchards that once allowed rainwater to soak into soil are now covered with houses, malls and industrial areas.

"We have increased runoff, and the channels can't sustain a 100-year storm," he said.

Before the bankruptcy, the county had a modest channel improvement plan. Though some have been lined with concrete, many more still have earthen sides or rock embankments.

In the last six years, the county has spent $8 million in improvements. But most of its flood control channels are still below the 100-year storm standard, said Mary Anne Skorpanich, a watershed planner for the public works department. She said at least $330 million in work was still ahead for the northwest flood control area.

Lugar said there was national competition for flood control money, and decisions are often made on the cost-effectiveness of the projects.

A.J. "Tony" Flores, president of the West Garden Grove Residents Assn., said his neighborhood had flooded at least twice in recent years. The first time, he said, was in 1995 when about 40 homes were damaged.

Residents such as Janet Khrien in western Garden Grove have complained for years about the problem.

She still recalls the night of Oct. 16, 2004, when a severe storm dumped 4 inches of rain in two hours.

It inundated the Belgrave Channel behind her home and flooded more than 20 homes in her neighborhood.

"Water came in from the driveway and into the house," Khrien said. "According to the water marks, we must have had at least 6 inches inside. It ruined our carpets and drywall."

"When I hear the news and there's an impending storm, I'm on storm watch," she said. "I start to worry."

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