New El Niño storm slams into Southern California; mudflow in Santa Clarita forces evacuations

Another El Niño-fueled storm soaked Southern California on Wednesday and brought with it a heightened risk of flooding and mudslides -- even snow.  

Pea-sized hail and 45-mph winds made its way south from San Luis Obispo, forcing the region to recognize that the season of storms has commenced. As much as 5 inches of rain was expected to drop across the Southland. Still, Wednesday's rain was fickle, pausing at times to step aside for the sun.

A flash flood warning was issued for the Ventura County coast around Solimar Beach and landslides forced partial closure of the 101 Freeway at the State Beaches offramp. Hit by a fire that broke out on Christmas, the area's denuded hillsides sent mud into the northbound lanes of the freeway. Already overflowing with water, a concrete drain that runs alongside the road offered little help.

"This is only the beginning," said a Caltrans employee as he eyed a nearby hill, its scorched slope a menace mixed with rain.

Less than two miles away, frothy, turbulent waves crashed against the cliffside homes of Mondos Beach as rain in the area fell at a rate of about one inch an hour.

Residents in nearby La Conchita braced for the landslides that could torment the small Ventura County beach community where 10 people were killed a decade ago after 400,000 tons of mud slid down a bluff.

One homeowner wore a raincoat as he stood in his garage, watching the water fall through a misty gray fog. The sound of car tires whooshing over puddles played repeatedly in the background. His house, he said, had survived two landslides. 

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The National Weather Service estimated Wednesday morning that Los Angeles could get 2.82 inches of rain, Long Beach more than 3 inches and Pasadena up to 3.75 inches through Thursday morning.

Experts predicted the storm would drop more than 13 inches of snow on Lake Arrowhead, forcing the Rim of the World Unified School District to close schools early Wednesday, the district announced on its website.

Snow chains were required in Wrightwood, where some children sledded in a flurry of flakes. 

In Los Angeles, drivers navigated swamped roads — with some attempting to plow through water that rose as high as their hubcaps. A morning police pursuit of a white van in Sunland-Tujunga showed both cars sliding on slick streets. The Los Angeles River, usually a trickle of a stream, roared with life.

At one point the 5 Freeway closed in Sun Valley. Highway 1 at Pismo State Beach was closed indefinitely due to several downed power lines.

Debris and mudflow late in the afternoon in Santa Clarita, where the Calgrove fire had burned through more than 400 acres, prompted Los Angeles County fire officials to evacuate residents of 10 mobile homes. The American Red Cross set up a shelter at a community center in Newhall.

In Riverside County, a person reported seeing a body floating in the Santa Ana River, but after dozens of firefighters combed the waterway, no victim was found and the search was called off.

In Kern County, many AT&T cellular customers experienced an outage, including service to 9-1-1.

Los Angeles County activated an emergency operations center to assist agencies preparing for and responding to the weather. A 24-hour toll-free hotline was established for residents and business owners who dial 2-1-1.

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Concern has also turned to the homeless near reservoirs. Over the last six months, outreach workers have visited encampments in the county's five watersheds to spread news of impending dangers.

But according to a report released by the Los Angeles County Civil Grand Jury, plans to accommodate the homeless are "unconscionable and grossly inadequate."

About 70% of the county's estimated 44,000 homeless sleep outdoors on any given night, the report said, and strategies are needed to "alleviate the suffering that is certain to increase among those who lack reliable shelter."

The grand jury urged agencies and city leaders to identify public and private buildings that could become temporary shelters and to relax any health, fire and safety code ordinances that might prevent those spaces from serving as refuges. It also recommended that tents, tarps and ponchos be provided to those who cannot find room at shelters.

A spokeswoman for Los Angeles Homeless Services Authority, Naomi Goldman, said the city and county have “significantly expanded shelter resources … to serve as many homeless persons as possible” and that the existing facilities are not yet at full capacity.

Wednesday’s storm — the third this week — was slower-moving but just as powerful as the one that passed through the area on Tuesday, forecasters said. It also brought with it the slight chance of a tornado.

In an unusual development, the Weather Service's Storm Prediction Center listed Southern California — and its more than 19 million residents — as having a "marginal" risk of severe thunderstorms or even a tornado.

"The main thing is they're just seeing instability in the atmosphere today," said NWS meteorologist Emily Thornton. "I think it's pretty broad where it could happen."

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Thornton said the current storm could extend over a longer period of time, dumping more rain than Tuesday’s storm, which came and went relatively quickly.

Tuesday brought more rain to Los Angeles than any day in 2015 except for one — Sept. 15, when the remnants of Hurricane Linda washed ashore, said Bill Patzert, climatologist with the NASA Jet Propulsion Laboratory in La Cañada Flintridge.

The drought, Patzert said, adds an unforseeable element to this year's El Niño when compared with the last two major events, in 1982-83 and 1997-98, which each dumped double the average rain in Los Angeles and San Francisco.

A break in the rain could appear Friday, but another system was expected to hit Southern California on Saturday night, with even more rain possible on Monday.

The areas of biggest concerns will again be hillsides burned in brush fires. But officials have said that four years of parched conditions has put even land untouched by fire at risk. The drought has shriveled vegetation, they say, leaving little to hold back loose soil.

In the Pasadena area, mud and broken fencing flowed into a resident's backyard in the 500 block of St. Katherine Drive. The owner was told to prepare to leave on a moment's notice.

Fearing that strong winds could lead to falling trees, public works inspectors spent the day driving through vulnerable areas. 

As the skies oscillated between sunshine and clouds throughout the day, many lined up for Powerball lottery tickets, laying their bets with another unpredictable outcome.

Still, shop owners noted that a jackpot that soared Wednesday to $500 million failed to draw the usual massive throngs. 

At Bluebird Liquor in Hawthorne — where regulars make sure to touch the store's bluebird statue for luck — ticket sales were steady, but the line was not out the door.

No one wanted to stand outside.

Times staff writers Corina Knoll, Jason Song, Gale Holland and Matt Hamilton contributed to this report.


For a man's makeshift home, destruction swiftly follows El Niño's arrival

Incoming storm brings risk of tornado and dime-sized hail

El Niño prompts an outreach effort to get L.A.'s homeless into shelters

Copyright © 2016, Los Angeles Times


9:40 p.m.: This post was updated with information that authorities in Riverside County searched for a body in the Santa Ana River.

6:25 p.m.: This post was updated with details of evacuations in Santa Clarita and a response from the spokeswoman for Los Angeles Homeless Services Authority.

4:09 p.m.: This post was updated throughout.

3:19 p.m.: This post was updated throughout.

2:47 p.m.: This post was updated with details about a Pasadena residence.

2:23 p.m.: This post was updated with details about the community of La Conchita.

1:57 p.m.: This post was updated throughout.

1:28 p.m.:  This post was updated with details about the Powerball lottery.

1:03 p.m. This post has been updated with details about a grand jury report on the lack of accommodations for the homeless.

12:33 p.m.: This post has been updated throughout.

10:30 a.m.: This post has been updated with information about a partial closure of the 101 Freeway in Ventura County.

10:16 a.m.: This post has been updated with details from Ventura County.

This post was originally published at 7:34 a.m.