‘Something bad’s going to happen’: Big surf and high tide hit Newport Beach's Balboa Peninsula with flooding

by 24USATVJuly 4, 2020, 10:40 p.m. 32
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The sun was out in Newport Beach, the skies clear on the eve of July 4 when Bruce Ogilvie plopped down in the sand. But something, he said, felt off.

A lifeguard had chased him out of his usual spot, which seemed puzzling at the time, but then Ogilvie saw the guard sprint into the water and save two girls caught in a rip tide. This wasn’t the first rescue of the day, Ogilvie realized, and the guard needed the area cleared to run as fast as he could into the churning ocean.

In hindsight, he said, “I should’ve realized: ‘Hey, something bad’s going to happen.’”

By 6 p.m. that evening, huge waves were cresting over Balboa Pier and flooding through Balboa Peninsula, an idyllic oceanfront community in Orange County barely above sea level. This thin spit of land is all that stands between the ocean and the bay — the first line of defense for the rest of the Newport Beach coast.

There wasn’t a large enough sand berm in place to protect this sudden breach, and residents said there was little warning except for the full moon overhead creating extremely high tides, and an angry surf that kept getting bigger and bigger.

“It was kind of a triple witching effect,” said Ogilvie, who noted that because of the high tide, the peninsula’s gate and valves were shut and unable to allow any drainage into the bay.

City officials were stunned by the ocean’s intensity. One lifeguard said he couldn’t help but think of a tsunami — big waves are not unusual for Newport Beach, known for epic surf spots like the Wedge, but what surprised him Friday was how each wave did not break nor dissipate. Each wave seemed to build on top of the next one, moving one large wave farther and farther up the beach until it overtook and eroded the sand berm that had been standing in as protection.

“It came in unexpectedly early and unexpectedly large ... It hit right at high tide,” said Mike Halphide, the Newport Beach Fire Department’s chief lifeguard. His team that day rescued 100 people overall and prevented more than 2,500 other incidents by warning folks who were about to put themselves in danger.

John Pope, the city’s public information officer, said extra crews and machines have been deployed to aggressively build a new, larger and taller sand barrier before the next high tide. “We expected high surf — the forecast was about 5 to 7 feet, and as much as 20 feet at the Wedge, but it was just such an unusual confluence of ocean activity,” he said.

The water pooled into the beach parking lot, submerging cars up to their wheels and covering the pavement with mud, trash and foam. More seawater rushed past the junior lifeguard training station, through the soccer field and onto Ogilvie’s street and his neighbors’ homes and driveways.

Cars and bikers tried to navigate out of the flood as pedestrians waded through calf-high water. Dramatic news helicopter video showed a 40-foot sailboat battered by angry surf and whitewash. Several people and a dog on board had been rescued shortly before the water smashed everything into pieces, to KABC-TV.

One seasoned lifeguard had been transported to the hospital earlier after making back-to-back rescues, Halphide said. After the first rescue, the guard immediately went back out and had to take another person through the pier, where waves six to eight feet tall were pounding against the pillars.

“By the time he got the victim to the shore, he was so exhausted and just about collapsed,” Halphide said.

“Seriously folks, please please please be careful around the water this weekend,” Newport Beach Mayor Will O’Neill wrote on Twitter, along with photos of the shattered sailboat washing ashore. “We weren’t kidding when we said this weekend posed public safety concerns.”

O’Neill said on Facebook that Newport Beach is preparing for the next tide.

“Public works crew worked throughout the night and continue to work today with bulldozers to build the berms back up,” O’Neill said. “I am confident that you have more questions as we head into an expected higher surf and higher tide tonight. I can say right now that our public works department is working very hard right now.”

By Saturday morning, sand dozers greeted beachgoers and those who came to gawk at the scene. A number of cars were still stuck in the mud, and heavy machinery roared and beeped as crews scrambled to build a much bigger sand berm. The flooding had also dumped a large amount of trash and debris that officials said may take up to a week to clean up.

Tita Jaramilla, dressed head to toe in red, white and blue, jogged by with three friends and greeted folks with smiles and a spirited “Happy Fourth!” Every year, she and her friends celebrate the holiday somehow, and this year was no different.

With so much going on and large gatherings and events canceled due to COVID-19 concerns, she said, “we thought we’d have our own little parade this year.”

They had planned to run six miles, a July 4 10K, but the flooding had forced them to reroute and run an additional six, almost seven miles. She was a little out of breath by mile 13, but said spending the morning this way meant a lot to her.

“The way our society is, with everything so upside down, I think people have forgotten how much they love our country,” she said. “I haven’t. I come from a military family. My dad fought in Vietnam and he made sure we have the freedoms that we have now.… We’re not going to not celebrate today.”

As for Ogilvie, he spent much of the Fourth of July searching for sand bags and moving mud and debris out of his yard and driveway. His house was spared from the water, he said, but his neighbor’s home across the street sits on lower ground and had about an inch of water inside.

He recalled waiting for the city to come help pump out the flood, as he and his neighbors stayed up late and tried to clean up the mess. “The first pump they brought was not big enough, they had to get another pump, and then at some point they just rode it out, praying, hoping that the waves would stop coming and that the tide would go back down and they could open the drains back up so that water would drain to the ocean.”

Ogilvie watched the cleanup and construction crews Saturday morning and hoped the bigger sand berm will be completed in time. High tide is expected to peak again at 6.5 feet at 9:06 p.m. Saturday and 6.3 feet at 9:47 p.m. Sunday.

“They need to pile up sand and create a wall, a barrier, so when the waves crash, and they come in, the water can’t breach over and go to the soccer field,” he said. “Once it crosses over and goes to the soccer field, we’re hosed.”

Rosanna Xia is a reporter with the Los Angeles Times.

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