This story first appeared in the Jan. 22 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. To receive the magazine, click here to subscribe.
Blame the abrupt shift from drought to sunshine to pelting rains, but up until right after the new year, “Godzilla El Nino” was not exactly top of mind for Hollywood. Tom Ortenberg, the CEO of Open Road Films (Spotlight), who lives in Santa Monica, says he has not taken any “extraordinary measures” to prepare his home and confesses he still is in drought mode, reminding himself “to be vigilant about managing water usage.” Sports mogul and producer Steve Tisch jokes to THR: “I bought very high boots. I’m very good with my lawn water conservation, so I’m looking forward to some good soaking.” Hours after multiple rainstorms cycled into Los Angeles starting Jan. 4, the likes of Joel McHale, Paul Feig and Mindy Kaling were jesting on social media, with Kaling tweeting: “So is the drought over now? Can I finally turn on my many fountains on my estate?” Lionsgate CEO Jon Feltheimer shares that he hasn’t purchased flood insurance for his Bel Air home, adding: “Maybe I should!”
That might be advisable. Experts have been warning that one of the strongest El Ninos in decades is upon California, with the potential to deliver heavy rainstorms — and with them, battered coastlines, flooding, toppled trees, mudslides and toxic runoff that will end up in the ocean. “By many measures, it is among the big three events of the last 40 years,” says Santa Cruz-based National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) scientist Nate Mantua. “The two events it is being compared to, in the circles I travel, are the 1997 to ’98 and 1982 to ’83 El Ninos, which at the time were considered to be the climate events of the century. This El Nino continues to rank among the top three El Nino events in the historical record.” (NOAA actually had declared in March 2015 that a weak El Nino had begun, but its status has since been upgraded, hence its popular “Godzilla” moniker.) As Larry King tweeted with increasing wonder on Jan. 4: “The way I figure it, the storm that hit Noah’s ark [sic] was El Nino.”
A Malibu Canyon rock slide in a moderate El Nino year.
El Nino is in fact not a storm, but rather a climate condition caused by ocean-surface warming across the equatorial region of the Pacific, with far-flung effects that range from drought in Australia to a blooming Atacama Desert in Chile. Locally, El Nino manifests as heavier rainfall in L.A., typically from January to March. What’s different in 2016 is that ocean temperatures in Southern California have remained unusually high for two years straight. “Warm ocean temperatures have resulted in some strange things happening,” says Mantua. He points out that El Nino conditions have led to the arrival of such non-native tropical creatures as yellow-bellied sea snakes on SoCal beaches and the harmful, record-strength algal bloom from Santa Barbara to southeast Alaska: “That’s why California’s Dungeness crab fisheries are still closed. There are lots of critters carrying [toxic] domoic acid in their bodies right now.”
And though surfers may be enjoying the warmer waters and bigger swells, vulnerable Hollywood enclaves such as Malibu are likely to take a beating, if past high seasons are any indication. During the 1982-83 El Nino, actress Dyan Cannon woke up in her Malibu Colony home to what “sounded like a 747 landing in my yard,” she tells THR. “I opened the shutters and my pool was gone. I ran downstairs, and the ocean was coming into my living room. Then I saw firemen falling into the pool; they didn’t know it was there because it’s covered with water.” While her house was drying out in Malibu, Cannon rented a place in Coldwater Canyon, where “torrential rains came and the roof caved in.” She now lives in an L.A.-area condo, in part due to her El Nino misfortunes.
In 2005 Oscar needed a plastic raincoat for protection.
The well-documented erosion issues facing Malibu’s Broad Beach (where Pierce Brosnan, Dustin Hoffman and Steve Levitan own homes, and Steven Spielberg offloaded his abode last summer) are “a harbinger of what sea-level rise might look like in the future,” says Phyllis Grifman, associate director of the Sea Grant Program for ocean studies at the University of Southern California. “Now and going forward we are going to see damage.”
This El Nino season could reveal much about whether such drastic measures as Broad Beach homeowners trucking in sand from Ventura County to protect homes and ocean-facing septic tanks — to the tune of $30 million-plus over 10 years — will hold. Says Grifman: “It’s a big experiment and it’s been quite fraught.”
Other areas of L.A. are being watched closely, too. With rapid mega-mansionization from Venice to Beverly Hills’ Trousdale Estates and beyond, Realtors and clients are curious to see if these new concrete palaces will survive El Nino. “Some buyers are holding off from purchasing in the hills because they want to make sure the property will still be there,” says Adara Salim, a Berkshire Hathaway Beverly Hills Realtor, who explains that “with the construction boom, there were some unproven developers.” Warns Alyssa Mann, regional research and planning specialist at USC Sea Grant: “Most people with big estates don’t think of themselves as being as vulnerable as others, but they are. If you have a hillside lot and a significant slope, you and your neighbors need to shore up those hillsides.”
Kate Hudson on the Golden Globes red carpet in 2010.
Understandably, the sudden onslaught of rains is generating some anxiety among Hollywood’s elite. Says Julie Chen, Big Brother host and wife of CBS Corp. CEO Leslie Moonves (the couple reside in Beverly Hills and Malibu, where in 2014 they purchased Paul Allen’s Carbon Beach house): “I just had a conversation with my husband. I said, ‘What do we do?’ Do I buy sandbags? Do I hire a company to just board it all up? It’s a concern.” Yet for most well-heeled properties, estate managers have had El Nino prep covered for months, with thorough checklists that include drains to snake, basements to check and hillsides to bolster. “I have everything on a maintenance schedule,” says Justin Risdon, who runs a Beverly Hills manor and has managed estates owned by major entertainment C-suite moguls. “My houseman and the companies I use remind me if storms are en route and if I need someone to further check the properties.” Risdon also stocks emergency kits, which he updates annually and places strategically around each estate: “The items inside are very basic, from sleeping bags to signal whistles to Cohiba Cuban cigars, but enough to get a family plus guests or staff through a couple of days, which is all you need, like dealing with an earthquake. I even pack some floaties and a rubber ducky or two for entertainment value.”
Both estate managers and homeowners already should have taken care of major roof repairs months ago, as Rita Wilson can attest, recalling to THR what a past El Nino wrought upon her and husband Tom Hanks’ Pacific Palisades house: “We had major, major leaks in our roof.” For peace of mind, pros advise homeowners to check that roofers are licensed contractors and come recommended. Says a slightly worried Jay Duplass of Transparent: “Yeah, I hired a guy to go up on my roof and fix it up, but I have no f—ing … way of knowing, because it’s two stories up and I’m not going up there!” By now, savvy industry homeowners will have had their landscapes reworked with water-wise plants: “Foliage is the best tool to absorb water with major rain events,” says landscape designer Cassy Aoyagi of environmentally conscious firm FormLA. An interim solution for moderate slopes is adding mulch, which “creates a natural mat and holds the surface in place.” For steep hillsides, Aoyagi recommends coco fiber mats and visqueen plastic sheeting for reinforcement. (For concerns about a specific slope, call 311 and the city should send out an engineer.)
Kate Capshaw and Steven Spielberg sold their over-7,000-square-foot Malibu compound for $26 million in July, but were among Broad Beach homeowners who secured emergency permits to build a rock revetment in the run-up to the last El Nino in 2010.
Trees are another risk factor during storms, but hacking at them is not the answer, says Carl Mellinger, a certified arborist and tree-risk assessor whose clients span from Malibu to Pasadena. “I’m getting a ton of calls from people worried about El Nino and trees falling on their houses, asking me to lower or top trees, arbitrary things they think will lower their risk,” he says, but overhasty cutting weakens trees and increases chances of toppling. Instead, an inspection by a certified or consulting arborist or tree assessor will pinpoint problematic trees, particularly those in high-construction areas like Trousdale, the Bird Streets or West Hollywood, where roots may have been cut during new landscaping or trenching.
It also might be a good idea to purchase flood insurance, though a mandatory 30-day wait period after purchase may frustrate procrastinators. Not Black-ish‘s Anthony Anderson, who told THR in December: “I did up my flood insurance. Hopefully I’m paying a premium for nothing. But we’re protected.” Last-minute insurees aren’t alone, however, according to L.A.-based Allstate agent Morris Bekas: “We wrote 1 percent of our client base on flood policies in 2015, but as it’s been raining over several days, we’ve been getting more calls.” Bekas advises his entertainment clients: If you live on the flats, with good drainage and an elevated foundation, you don’t need flood insurance, “but if you’re on a hill, on a slab,” get it. Adds Grifman: “If there is ever a year to buy flood insurance, this is it.”
Los Angeles’ freeways were flooded during one of the strongest El Nino events on historical record in 1998.
With flooding comes mudflow, especially where drought-parched hillsides have been burned by wildfires. James Brolin remembers a particularly muddy El Nino: “When I was in a kid in 1952 or ’53, it rained so hard that all of Benedict Canyon filled up to about five feet with mud. We were jumping from one car to the other to get down the canyon! All you saw were radio aerials.” Malibu Mayor Laura Rosenthal says the city has been lucky to have eluded major fires since 2007, though back in the 1990s and early 2000s “in the Big Rock area, walls of mud came into everyone’s homes.” After the 1993 Malibu fires, in early 1994, producer Kathryn Arnold was living on Big Rock Beach, watching live TV news coverage of the storms only to find out the canyon above her was flooding. “There was water rushing down Big Rock Canyon, across Pacific Coast Highway, and it stormed through the front door of a nearby house on the beach, picked up their sofa and took it out into the ocean on the other side of the house. It was surreal.” Real estate agent Madison Hildebrand of Bravo’s Million Dollar Listing was living up Malibu’s Las Flores Canyon during the 2004-05 El Nino and got trapped by mud slides and collapsed retaining walls. “There was six feet of mud and earth on both sides and no way out for everyone in the neighborhood. There was even a full-size trampoline that flew from nowhere and ended up in our backyard. Then a boulder fell in the middle of the PCH by Moonshadows, and we were all stuck. Since then they have netted the whole cliffside with metal meshing.”
The determined find crafty workarounds. The solution for producer Brad Krevoy: “When I lived on La Costa beach during the last El Nino, I would just put up sand bags for protection and book a room at the Bel Air Hotel, where most of my neighbors ended up. It was like an inland Beach Club.” (Most fire stations give out unfilled sandbags but can run out quickly. Now’s a good time to restock as Mayor Eric Garcetti announced on Jan. 6 that “many, many stations” have been replenished. Realtor Hildebrand suggests just buying them from a hardware store: “I had a client who went and purchased sandbags for their house and lined the whole hillside property.”)
New permeable pavement on downtown L.A.’s Hope Street will help El Nino rains fight the drought.
Mud and rockslides also can wreak havoc for commuters on the PCH, which in seasons past would close for months, causing “people to get very creative,” says Rosenthal. “They would keep one car on one side of the PCH, and one on the other and walk across — or take boats when we had more of a pier at Malibu Cove, but boats can’t dock there anymore, nor at Malibu Pier.” Floods and blockages are expected to trouble commutes in early 2016. “We know the highway will come down this year — it’s not a matter of if, but when,” says Rosenthal.
When a rising creek washed out the road by her Topanga Canyon home during the 1992 El Nino storms, actress Wendie Malick “had to slide down a fire road on my ass,” she recalls. “I had a sheriff take me to a Starbucks so they could pick me up and take me to a taping of Seinfeld. They were so amazed I made it.”
Past El Ninos have been known to clobber L.A. shoots. Director Judd Apatow attempted to make a virtue out of one downpour during the 2004-05 El Nino: “I remember the massive rains when we were shooting The 40-Year-Old Virgin. It rained so hard one night that I shot a scene in the hardest rain you’ve ever seen. I thought it looked funny, but then on the screen, it didn’t work at all.” In 1992, Warner Bros.’ Lethal Weapon 3 shut down a car chase near LAX, with the delay adding $60,000 to a $37 million budget, and in 1998, park rangers had to scuttle production on CBS’ Dr. Quinn, Medicine Woman after Medea Creek overflowed at Paramount Ranch. Michael Bobenko at Entertainment Industry Development Corp. said to THR at the time: “There’s a lot of shuffling of schedules and scrambling by productions to add additional film permit dates.” Even a Tonight Show taping on NBC’s Burbank set was canceled when Johnny Carson couldn’t make it in from his Point Dume mansion due to the weather.
Red-carpet modifications at the 2007 Oscars.
Between battling production setbacks, rockslide-blocked commutes and El Nino angst, Hollywood players might comfort themselves with the thought that the precipitation is directly countering the drought. Not quite — as much of it is wasted. Impermeable asphalt streets, concrete pool decks and driveways create runoff (about 10 billion gallons worth from the average one-inch storm) that flush out into the ocean through storm drains instead of filtering back into the L.A. groundwater for use.
“Los Angeles County is like a giant concrete bowl tilted toward the sea,” says Dana Murray, Heal the Bay’s senior coastal policy manager. “When it rains, water rushes along paved streets, picking up trash, fertilizer, metals, pet waste and automotive fluids before heading to the ocean. It’s the No. 1 source of pollution at our beaches and ocean.” To reduce toxic runoff and increase stormwater capture, the Los Angeles Department of Water and Power recently proposed a 20-year, $15 million to $35 million plan that includes installing permeable pavements. A handful of blocks already have been converted, including on downtown’s Hope Street. Dr. Christopher Solek, acting executive director of LADWP partner Council for Watershed Health, promises “a bigger bang for our buck when it comes to El Ninos in the future.”
And while this season’s El Nino has created snowpack that statewide clocks in at 103 percent of average — last year California was at 39 percent — experts say we need at least 150 percent of the average snowpack by April 1 to make a dent in the drought. Says Solek: “We still have a long way to go to end the region’s water woes.”
Additional reporting by Rebecca Sun.