California mudslides: Losses mount after 'a river of mud and rocks'

When the wildest weather arrived Sunday afternoon before the mudslide hit, Michelle Olson was staring out the window of a flooded basement with a bucket in one hand and a mop in the other muttering, "Oh my God, how bad can this get?"

A few minutes later, Olson, 51, said she was horrified by the "popping and cracking sounds" as the walls and windows were giving way, and then "a river of mud and rocks went blasting through my home."


Olson, a Mt. Baldy resident for 23 years, ran outside and climbed on top of the cab of her pickup truck, surrounded by roiling water the color of chocolate milk and pelted by hail the "size of bubble-gum balls."

Then she looked up and yelled out loud, "God, turn off the spigot or I'll turn into an atheist! And by the way, save my cats."

Her three cats would end up surviving the ordeal, but the town was left ravaged by the storm.

The full extent of damage caused by the worse flash flood to plow through this San Gabriel mountain hamlet of 1,200 permanent residents in 45 years was not realized until Monday morning.

"It's a big mess up on this hill, and most of it is in the middle of our little nest," Mt. Baldy Fire Department Chief William Stead said.

Ten to 15 homes were seriously damaged and six of them were red-tagged, meaning they are not safe to enter, he said.

"Financial losses will be in the millions of dollars," he added.

On Sunday, a storm that hovered over Mt. Baldy, Forest Falls and other communities managed to pour several inches of rain onto the area over the span of just a few hours, triggering mudslides and overflowing creeks. Thousands of residents were left stranded or ordered to shelter in place as crews worked to clear roads choked with mud and debris.

Significant damage was also reported in Forest Falls and Highland. And one motorist was killed when his vehicle went off a mountain road and into a creek. The man was identified Monday as 48-year-old Joo Hwan Lee of El Segundo.

At Mt. Baldy, volunteer shovel brigades fanned out Monday across the center of town to assist property owners in the task of getting vehicles out of knee-high muck, broken branches and boulders. The floors of dozens of mountain chalets and cabins were covered in mud.

Olson's 1,100-square-foot home seemed to bear the brunt of the storm that lashed the community with lightning, thunder, rain and fierce winds for more than two hours late Sunday afternoon.

A few doors down, 40 volunteers from the local Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints were working hard to remove tons of debris from several automobiles and a porch. The job was especially difficult because their shovels and axes were striking rocks in the slurry.

"I did not think it'd be this bad," said Jarred Escamilla, 20, as he wiped mud and perspiration out of his eyes. "But there are a lot of people who are glad we are here."

There was grumbling among fire and rescue authorities over controversy that has delayed construction of a new cellphone tower in Mt. Baldy. The project has run into opposition from residents who fear it would invite more development and ruin the rustic ambiance.


"We could have used that tower yesterday," said one county official, who didn't want to give his name because of the heated feelings.

Four hikers were rescued after they became stranded on trails Sunday afternoon.

Steve Sachs, a resident for 28 years and spokesman for a local group called "Keep Mt. Baldy Wild," said risks come with the territory.

"We live with certain dangers," he said, pulling rocks and debris off his car. "But we are willing to live with those risks because it's one of the only nearly pristine places left in Southern California."

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