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Heavy Rains Take Light Toll on City

By Olin Ericksen and Jorge Casuso

January 4 -- As rain clouds continue to roll into Southern California, the wet weather is testing the Santa Monica’s infrastructure, polluting beaches and slowing down traffic, City officials said Monday.

Still, despite nearly four inches of rain measured at Santa Monica Airport since Saturday afternoon -- with more expected during the week -- the heavy rainfall has taken a light toll on the beachfront city. (For weather updates)

Unlike other communities that are experiencing heavy flooding, Santa Monica’s streets have remained relatively dry, thanks to the area’s geological features and the city’s well-maintained storm drains, officials said.

"Everything has been calm,” said Paul Weinberg, the Fire Department’s emergency services coordinator. “There has been minor street flooding but nothing out of the ordinary.

"Santa Monica's geology is not flood-prone,” Weinberg said. “The city isn't in a flood plain, and we have good drainage."

The City’s Department of Environmental and Public works -- which has a staff of 300 -- is busy keeping an eye on storm drains and catch basins, filling pot holes and plugging leaks created by the heavy rainfall, department officials said.

“We’re monitoring the performance of storm drains throughout the city,” said Gil Borboa, the City’s water resource manager. “If a catch basin becomes clogged, we get flooding on the street and up the curb.”

So far, he said, “we have not had any serious flooding problems.”

But the heavy rain has been seeping through the asphalt, which is porous, and either collapsing the surface by creating voids underneath or pushing it up with the water pressure, Weinberg said.

“The street department is really busy trying to repair potholes,” he said.

While city workers fill potholes before they grow with passing cars, the facilities maintenance staff is plugging leaks in the roofs of public buildings, Weinberg said.

Monday’s rain’s loosened soil on the Palisades Park bluffs, causing the closure of one lane of PCH, Weinberg said. “It’s not a landslide,” he said. “It’s just material that got lose and washed down.”

The wind and rain have taken only a minor toll on Santa Monica’s trees, said Walter Warriner, the City’s community forester.

Only two small trees had been blown over as of Monday afternoon, Warriner said. But he cautioned that high winds could topple more trees over the next few rainy days.

As usual, the heavy rain has impacted traffic in the Los Angeles County, where 110 traffic accidents were reported between 5 a.m. and 9 a.m. Monday, compared to the normal average of 60 incidents, according to the California Highway Patrol’s Westside Division.

"Rain has played a part in the rise of traffic accidents,” said Officer Rebecca Estrada, a spokesperson for the department. “Every time there is an increase in rain, we see a rise in accidents, to say the least."

In Santa Monica, the rain has slowed traffic, but has not spurred any major accidents.

“We’ve had minor fender benders,” said Lt. Frank Fabrega, the Police Department spokesman. . “It’s slowing raffic. People are cautious and driving slower.”

The heavy winter rains are dumping large amounts of sewage into the bay, said Shelly Luce, the science and policy director for Heal the Bay.

"We haven't seen a winter rain like this in several years,” Luce said. “It's a good thing when it comes to recharging groundwater, but still most of the rain falls on hard surfaces and goes directly out to sea.”

Each heavy rainfall can dump four tons of trash on local beaches, resulting in an F grade in the agency’s report card, she said.

"Urban runoff is the biggest source of pollution, which is basically a lot of trash and toxins," she said. "The beaches will be an F grade."

Swimmers should stay away from the water during and immediately after the rains, Luce said.

"I would just advise that no one go swimming until at least three days after the rain stops," she said.

In the event flooding occurs, the City’s fire stations are making sandbags available, Weinberg said. Those who live or work in the city can pick up as many as ten bags.

There is also a 12-foot-tall pile of sand at Memorial Park, which can be used to fill up bags, he said.

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