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Daly City's unwanted guest leaves muddy mess
Michael Taylor, Chronicle Staff Writer
Friday, February 27, 2004
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It was like a hangover in mud Thursday on Westpark Drive in Daly City. Sloppy, slippery, filthy, grungy, moldy -- and the sun was trying its best to shine down through the intermittent rain and illuminate what could only be called a block of soggy disaster.

Wednesday's storm pummeled the Bay Area all over, but this block is where the damage may have been the most widespread. All along the street, house after house was drenched.

Chuck Rinaldi took a visitor across his ground-floor recreation room -- slop, slurp, suck, through the muck still coating the wall-to-wall carpet. Along the off-white wall, ringing the entire room about 2 feet off the floor, was a line of mud.

In a bookcase, novels on the second shelf were soaked, leaving the bottom halves of "The Shipping News" and "Anne of Green Gables" fused together.

"Hey," Rinaldi said, searching for a glimmer of optimism, "it didn't get the VCR, and my daughter grabbed the DVD player." Not all is lost.

But a lot was.

Out on the street, tow trucks moved in to remove cars that had been soaked about halfway up. Cleaners who specialize in salvaging drowned houses moved in to salvage these latest victims. On the curb was the detritus of routine household living -- ruined computers, water-soaked rugs.

In the driveway of one house sat what until Wednesday morning had been quite a pretty, gray 1979 Mercedes-Benz 450SLC belonging to Amor Maravilla. The car was covered with a muddy sheen. Inside, water puddled in the console between the two leather seats.

"I wanted to restore it," Maravilla said. "I still want to restore it."

But for now he has to worry about other problems: His Honda CRV and his Jaguar S-type have both been hauled off by tow trucks, and it's not yet clear whether the two cars will survive. And he faces a bill of as much as $9,000 to clean his house.

Residents along Westpark Drive said they were pretty sure their auto losses were covered and very sure their house damages were not.

There are about 90 houses along Westpark Drive, and most of them got hit by a giant whammy during the storm: The deluge clogged drains so effectively that the ooze had nowhere to go but over the curbs and into the houses.

For houses on the west side of the street, it was worse. In addition to the water rushing down the street and flowing in from the east, torrents of mud slid down a small hill to the west, crushing some fences and inundating backyards before creeping into the houses like The Slime from Hell.

And for these west-side homeowners, therein lies the problem and, it turns out, the fury.

Those houses are just down the hill from busy Lake Merced Boulevard and the Olympic Club golf course. Last fall, in setting up a system to provide treated wastewater for irrigation to the club and two other golf courses nearby, Daly City cut down trees and removed the ground cover from the hillside and dug a trench a few feet from the houses' backyards.

For years, longtime residents said, there were no problems during even torrential storms. But on Wednesday, mud and water rolled down the freshly stripped hillside like it was marble.

"We've had storms as bad as, or worse than this," said Rinaldi, who has lived on Westpark Drive for 17 years. This time, he said, "the main source of (mud and water) damage came from the destabilizing of the hillside."

But Daly City's director of public works, D. Peter Gleichenhaus, strongly disagreed. "We don't think that has anything to do with it," said Gleichenhaus, who was in the neighborhood Thursday in his Day-Glo lime jacket, directing crews mopping up residents' backyards. "There was a high volume of water, at high speed, that crossed Lake Merced Boulevard, reached the curb on the east side (of the street), and much of it went down the side of the hill and into the backyards."

Gleichenhaus said there was so much water that the damage would have happened no matter what.

"That's baloney," said resident Ray Cotter, who has lived on the street for three years.

"The city's trying to mitigate damage by saying the right things. I've got 50 tons of dirt, and this is not an act of God. It's just a major engineering screw-up."

Asked if the city might be at fault, Gleichenhaus said wearily, "The lawyers will decide who's at fault."

E-mail Michael Taylor at mtaylor@sfchronicle.com.
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