Playa del Rey residents broke down communication barriers to build a wall against winter storms

By Gary Walker

After Ruth Lansford, left, told Lucy Han about the damage that previous El Niño storms had done  in Playa del Rey, Han campaigned hard to build  a protective sand berm Photo by Jorge M. Vargas Jr.

After Ruth Lansford, left, told Lucy Han about the damage that previous El Niño storms had done
in Playa del Rey, Han campaigned hard to build
a protective sand berm
Photo by Jorge M. Vargas Jr.

When heavy El Niño rains pounded Southern California in the winter of 1997-98 — and before that, the Super El Niño storms of 1982-83 — some streets in the lower section of Playa del Rey known as The Jungle ended up looking more like shallow canals.

“I couldn’t believe the amount of water that was in our neighborhood. It was really amazing,” Lucy Han, who’s lived on Trolley-way for about 10 years, said about seeing neighbors’ photographs of some of the damage.

With another El Niño expected to hit this winter, she was shocked to hear last month that Los Angeles County officials didn’t have plans to extend a protective sand berm along the beach as they had done in prior years.

Han rounded up several friends, and they took to Facebook, organized the neighborhood and started an online petition.

Just a few weeks and nearly 600 signatures later, county officials announced that Playa del Rey will get its protective berm.

“She was relentless. Within 48 hours of starting the petition we had 180 signatures,” Julia Greene, a 21-year resident of Playa del Rey, said of Han and her efforts. “Our biggest fear down here is flooding, because we’re at sea level and that puts us in a very precarious position.”

Han’s campaign included calls to L.A. City Councilman Mike Bonin and L.A. County Supervisor Don Knabe, who both represent Playa del Rey, the Neighborhood Council of Westchester-Playa members and several city and county agencies. She and several allies also pled their case at an L.A. County Beach Commission hearing in September.

Earlier this month, the L.A. County Department of Beaches and Harbors sent Playa del Rey residents a letter stating that the agency had asked the California Coastal Commission for permission to extend the seasonal sand berm near the lifeguard building below Ballona Creek an additional 1,300 feet south in order to protect The Jungle. The commission approved the berm extension last Friday.

At up to 15 feet tall and 20 feet wide, the berm will require about 7,000 cubic yards of sand — enough to fill more than 1.4 million gallon-sized pails.

According to the county’s application, a large volume of untreated storm water flowing out of Ballona Creek coupled with a storm surge at high tide could cause an uprush of untreated water over the beach, flooding the area.

“In the past, similar events have led to the pooling of contaminated water on a plateaued area of the back beach between Culver Boulevard and south of Surf Street,” it reads.

The berm will be constructed in November, according to the Beaches and Harbors letter.

Beaches and Harbors spokeswoman Carol Baker said the agency had always planned to build a berm, and Knabe spokeswoman Cheryl Burnett said her boss was always behind getting it built.

But Greene said county officials did not respond to any of Playa del Rey residents’ concerns until Han began to rally the neighborhood, and according to Han the only elected official who contacted her back was Knabe.

Pressuring the county to build the berm is the latest in a series of community organizing efforts in Playa del Rey in the last several years. Two different groups have been pushing for improved traffic and safety measures, and the Playa del Rey Guardians have been pushing back against plans to build several large buildings in Playa del Rey’s downtown area.

Han said the experience of working with her neighbors to get the job done has made her proud of her community and introduced her to perhaps this century’s best organizing tool.

“Everyone rallied,” she said. “I can’t believe that we actually made a difference and I can’t believe how powerful social media is.”