Climate change turns an idyllic California community into a 'perilous paradise'
The clouds have parted after torrential downpours soaked southern California. It's the third-wettest two-day period Los Angeles has ever seen since records began. And those totals aren't even close to the more than 14 inches that fell on a western Los Angeles County neighborhood called Topanga.
The community of about 8,000 people had to deal with flooding, mudslides and evacuation orders. It was thanks to a dangerous combination of a slow-moving atmospheric river, a bomb cyclone and El Niño.
As climate change makes extreme weather more common and intense, it is also forcing Americans to move. A Forbes report released last month found that a third of surveyed Americans who are moving cited climate change as a motivating factor to move. For the residents who stay, like Chris Kelly in Topanga, adapting is becoming more important.
Kelly moved to Topanga 15 years ago. He has evacuated four times, but he says he's never seen a storm as severe as the one this week.
"At one point, I believe the canyon in both directions where I am was trapped," he says. Instead of trying to leave this time, Kelly created culverts around his business. "That stopped the water from coming across the street onto my property."
Topanga is a mountainous neighborhood surrounded by trees and bisected by a winding canyon road. It sits culturally and geographically between a grid of middle-class LA suburbs and the ritzy city of Malibu. Its mostly white residents are a mix of artists, surfers and 20th century hippies who have called the canyon home for decades.
It's also a risky place to live.
"It's the perilous paradise," says Abigail Aguirre, who received a complimentary disaster manual when she moved to Topanga in 2017. "When it's not being threatened by a megafire or mudslides, it's just impossibly beautiful."
Topanga Canyon is positioned such that during wildfire season, when Southern California gets hot, dry winds, the right conditions could spell disaster in less than an hour. There hasn't been a major fire in 30 years, which means flammable plants are mature enough to fuel another one.
Aguirre says after five years, several power outages and one major fire evacuation, she sold her house in Topanga and moved to northern New Mexico.
"Enough of that and you're like, how much is the pluses of living in Topanga outweighing the anxiety?"
Life in Topanga means neighborhood-wide evacuation drills, information sessions on how to prepare homes for wildfire, and community fire extinguisher practices.
It's business as usual for Karen Dannenbaum, who has lived here since 1988. Her home insurance has increased fourfold, more than $6,000 in the past few years.
"Looking out my window I look at all these trees," she says. "I can sit outside and the birds are so loud sometimes."
Dannenbaum installed air conditioning to tolerate the hotter summers. She says the storms and fires are getting worse, and she finds herself pacing nervously when the weather gets bad.
But she'll never leave.
"It's so beautiful and peaceful here."
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