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Storm pummels Southern California, but so far avoids causing major mudslides

Storm pummels Southern California, but so far avoids causing major mudslides
A Santa Barbara police officer on Thursday morning checks on the Montecito Inn, its entrance surrounded by sandbags, as rain falls for the second day in a row in Southern California. (Al Seib / Los Angeles Times)

A second and final bout of heavy rains continued to pummel Southern California on Thursday, but as of late afternoon, the region appeared to have avoided the much-feared flooding and mudslides that devastated Montecito and other fire-scarred areas earlier this year.

Although fast-moving waters swept a car off a road in Canyon Country and hurt a man who was washed into a culvert in Simi Valley, neither incident resulted in life-threatining injury, according to authorities. Rains also caused traffic accidents across the region, including a bus crash that injured 13 on the 10 Freeway.

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Fears of rain-driven mudslides — such as those that killed at least 21 people in Montecito on Jan. 9 — prompted authorities as early as Tuesday to order the evacuation of residents below burn areas in Santa Barbara, Ventura and Los Angeles counties.

Santa Barbara County authorities lifted all mandatory evacuation orders on Thursday evening, citing forecasts saying the most powerful storms had passed.

Not everyone heeded the call, however.

Carla Case Flynn hasn't evacuated her Montecito home since the Thomas fire in December. The current evacuation order is at least the fifth time in four months that she and her family have been told to leave, but each time, they've stayed behind.

"I've made a pact with my brother and husband that if we decide not to leave, we will be vigilant," she said. "We each stay awake at different times and monitor the situation."

Flynn's house, where she has lived since 2003, sustained minor damage during the Jan. 9 mud and debris slides.

She and her family, who remained in their house, were without services for three weeks.

"We didn't have any electricity or gas. We used buckets of water from our pool," she said. "If we made it through Jan. 9, we think we will probably be OK."

If the rain picks up, Flynn said her car is packed and ready to go. She, her husband and her brother promised each other to not call 911 and to stay off the roads.

"We don't want to be in the way of any first responders," she said.

 
  (Los Angeles Times)

The heaviest rains poured onto Southern California throughout Thursday morning and will be followed by a cold front that "takes mercy" on Santa Barbara County, pushing the moisture to the east.

"By later this afternoon, the rainfall should taper off to just scattered showers," said David Sweet, meteorologist with the National Weather Service in Oxnard.

Sweet said there is a slight chance of thunderstorms over charred mountains that could drop up to an inch of rain per hour "before things completely die off tonight."

The forecast didn't faze 80-year-old Shirley Thornton, who spent the morning under a blanket on her couch watching the storm unfold on her TV in Montecito.

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She has lived in her home on Orchard Avenue for 56 years and said her son in Louisiana has been calling her frequently to check on her.

"I've been here long enough to know what to do. … I'm just going to wait and see what happens, watch TV and feed my cat," she said. "I got water bottles, and I'm ready in case something happens."

Those ignoring the evacuation orders could be found grocery shopping Thursday and sharing the road with delivery truck drivers from United Parcel Service and FedEx.

The brief but intense rains that pelted Santa Barbara and Montecito on Thursday morning dramatically increased the flow of Montecito Creek and other waterways that drain the area, prompting officials to renew their call for residents to leave areas vulnerable to mud and debris flows.

In Ojai, officials issued a new mandatory evacuation order for the upper Foothill Road area and directed residents who needed a shelter to Nordhoff High School. The National Weather Service also issued a flash flood warning for the Thomas fire burn area around the city.

 
  (Los Angeles Times)

"Unfortunately, we're anticipating some pretty big issues this morning and this afternoon," said Battalion Chief Chris Mailes of the Santa Barbara Fire Department. "It's the right call to get people out of the way."

County officials say that a massive effort to clear creeks and debris basins above Montecito and Carpinteria ensured that runoff from the recent rains has been channeled quickly to the sea, rather than flooding neighborhoods. That clearing effort involved more than 50,000 truckloads of mud, sediment, boulders, rocks, trees and trash, according to officials.

Forecasters have scaled back total rainfall projections for the storm and now are expecting 2 to 4 inches on the coasts and in the valleys of Santa Barbara County and western Ventura County, and 4 to 8 inches in the foothills and mountains across the region.

The storm still set several records for the date on Wednesday. The Santa Barbara airport received 1.85 inches of rain, breaking the record of 0.76 inches set last year. In Paso Robles, a record 1.95 inches of rain beat the 0.65 inches that fell in 1959. Oxnard, Camarillo and Palmdale also saw record rainfall, Sweet said.

"The storm is living up to the promise," he said.

In Los Angeles County and eastern Ventura County, the storm is expected to dump 1 to 2 inches of rain on the coasts and in the valleys, and 3 to 5 inches in the mountains.

"Thursday was always going to be the peak day for Los Angeles County, and we are finally here," Sweet said.

UPDATES:

5:30 p.m.: This article was updated with the evacuation orders being lifted.

3:55 p.m.: This article was updated with details on incidents in Los Angeles, Simi Valley and Canyon Country.

1:55 p.m.: This article was updated with comments from Santa Barbara County officials.

11:30 a.m.: This article was updated with comments from Montecito residents.

8:30 a.m.: This article was updated with details about a flash flood warning in Ojai.

7:30 a.m.: This article was updated with additional details about an evacuation in Ojai.

This article was originally published at 7:15 a.m.

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