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A long night and day for a Snover Canyon family

February 6, 2010 |  6:38 pm

Eric Grey is used to lying awake when it rains, and he knew Friday night was going to be long. His wife, Shelby, had taken their 6-year-old to Disneyland, and he was alone with their two other children, the dogs and the storm that was racing across the Southland.

The Greys live at the base of Snover Canyon on Castleknoll Road, a small street just east of Ocean View Boulevard. They had to evacuate during the Station fire and have lived under the shadow of the mountains -- and the prospect of debris flows -- ever since.

He had hoped it would be a quiet evening, but shortly after midnight he began to get concerned. A cloud burst took him to his bedroom window, overlooking the pool and backyard. He shined his flashlight into the darkness; so far the plywood wall seemed to be holding.

Snover Canyon is a tricky cut in the San Gabriel Mountains. Above the Greys' home is a vacant lot, and above that a neighbor’s home and the fire-scarred chaparral.

There is no debris basin here and no concrete channel to divert the runoff; there's only a natural depression in the land that runs through a half-dozen backyards, including the Greys'.

He went back to bed and awoke again at 2, the rain a loud cadence against the roof. Still, he and the children -- Ruby, 4, and Finnegan, 8 -- seemed to be safe.

For the last three months, the Greys and their neighbors have become amateur engineers, arm-chair experts in flood control, water management and over-the-fence diplomacy. During the early December storms, they put up plywood walls together, they filled sandbags and they studied the water as it flowed off the mountain, hoping to find a solution that would keep them all safe.

"My neighbors and I have been trying to figure out what’s best," says Grey. "It’s game theory: If everyone doesn’t act together, then the whole thing doesn’t work. We’re trying to make decisions that will be best for us and for the people who live below us."

It’s all been a crash course for Grey, who relocated his family here 18 months ago from Massachusetts. He works for a mutual fund company in downtown Los Angeles, and Shelby had discovered the classic 1960s ranch-style home with large sliding-glass windows fronting a pool and backyard. They fell in love with the neighborhood, the trees and the quiet.

Half-asleep, half dreaming, two-and-a-half hours later, Eric was startled awake by a loud bang. It was 4 a.m. He jumped from his bed and peered out the window. It was everything he had feared.

The runoff -- muddy water carrying boulders the size of bowling balls -- had busted through the 4-foot-high barricade of sandbags, a plywood wall and a chain-link fence. A sheet of mud nearly a half-foot deep and  16 feet wide cascaded across the backyard.

He ran to the bathroom window. He had expected this. It was the weak point of his defense. There at the corner of the yard, a geyser of water crashed into the remains of the wall and shot into the air. He had to get his family out. He didn’t know what else might be coming down that mountain.

He piled the children and the dogs into the car and raced down the street to Palm Crest Elementary. The water and the storm seemed to be following him. He continued to the fire station and banged on the window. Inside the crews were getting ready to head out. When Grey asked about an evacuation center, he was told that there wasn’t one yet.

As he headed out on Foothill Boulevard, the road -- lighted only by his car's headlights -- was cut across by the torrents of water pouring down the steep foothill. He was finally able to reach friends who offered to take him in.

He returned home a little past 7 a.m. The backyard was devastated, but the house seemed safe. Later that afternoon, the Department of Public Safety stopped by to see if the property needed to be tagged. It didn’t.

At first, Grey didn’t think he would be evacuated, but later Saturday afternoon the sheriff stopped by. Gas and the electrical service to the street were going to be cut off, he was told. Staying would be miserable.

The family packed up and left for the Embassy Suites in Glendale, their resting place during the Station fire.

Now they are waiting to see what the next storm will bring and what the cleanup will entail.

"We live with reminders of all that is out of our control," says Grey. "We love the house and love being in Southern California. This is just a little dirt and rocks. The sun will shine again."

-- Thomas Curwen