In the midst of a comparatively gentle La Ni¤a, it is difficult to recall the ravages of last winter''s El Ni¤o. But few Palo Colorado Canyon residents will forget last winter when the 7.5-mile-long Palo Colorado Road--the lone artery that connects the 200 or so homes nestled in the canyon with Highway 1, about 14 miles south of Carmel--was transformed by relentless rains into a raging river, a wanton waterfall dissolving everything in its path.

Tucked away in their little paradise-turned-federal-disaster-area, canyon residents were stranded, cut off from food and supplies for 16 long days. Phone service and electricity were history, propane and water tanks were wiped out, septic systems washed away.

But thanks in no small part to Jim Cox, Barbara Cox and Norm Cotton of the Mid-Coast Fire Brigade, the tide of natural disaster was turned into nothing short of human triumph. With Jim Cox leading the way, a tight-knit community was transformed into a team of hard-working volunteers doing what was needed to get through each day.

"Jim did just about everything. He was up at 5am every day, assessing fuel needs, determining what needed to be done in the canyon," says Barbara Cox. "I can''t think of anything he didn''t do."

Jim Cox held meetings every morning, assigning jobs to residents-cum-volunteers. He directed helicopters in, arranged for evacuations, coordinated relief efforts and performed just about any other task that needed doing. For instance, aboard his ATV, he delivered generators to Pacific Bell workers in Garrapata Canyon chain-sawing through fallen trees along the way. And, he played peacemaker when the cabin-feverish natives got restless.

Back at the, um, Mudd Ranch, which the Coxes manage and that became the Brigade''s emergency headquarters, Barbara Cox was on the radio communicating with the outside world, requesting, sometimes begging, for helicopter service to deliver supplies or evacuate refugees. On two occasions, she played ambulance driver as well. One time, she crept along a slippery road no wider than the wheel base of her truck, sandwiched between the canyon wall and a 500-foot precipice, to deliver a pregnant woman experiencing complications to a helicopter so she could be airlifted to the hospital. She again made that perilous journey for a young man in kidney failure, only hours away from death.

Then there is Norm Cotton, "the road guy," as Jim Cox puts it. No matter what the conditions, Cotton was out in his bulldozer or back-hoe, reconstructing what the rains had destroyed. When a meadow proved too soggy to serve as a helicopter pad, Cotton made one. When a bridge washed out, Cotton built one. Made of borrowed planks and beams scrounged from the canyon, Cotton''s makeshift bridge held up numerous dump trucks and a 50,000-pound crawler-excavator. "The county engineer couldn''t believe it," says Jim Cox.

Now that the storms are a memory, the Coxes and Cotton are able to look back and laugh at the storm-induced chaos and the occasional snafu. But what they like to emphasize is the spirit of grassroots cooperation that El Ni¤o swept into their little community. Like true heroes, the three refuse to take all the credit. With everyone''s help, this community weathered the storm safely--not one injury occurred in the canyon during the storms. The three give special thanks to Jerri Hansen, a canyon resident who was vital to the ongoing communication efforts; to the folks at Rocky Point Restaurant who donated food to residents; to Seeley Mudd and his wife, who opened their ranch to canyon residents, and to pilots who landed whirly-birds in howling winds of up to 120 miles per hour.

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"It was a team effort," explains Jim Cox. "The Fire Brigade was the hub, everyone else were the spokes."

--Laurel Chesky


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