A 170-mile stretch of Interstate 5 through the San Joaquin Valley was closed for 12 hours Friday because of blinding dust as wind gusts of up to 50 m.p.h. and substantial rain hit California in the season's heaviest storm.
The storm swept into Orange County shortly after 9 p.m., carried by 20-m.p.h winds. Up to two inches of rain from the slow-moving storm was expected to fall over California by tonight.
Heavy rain knocked out power in scattered areas throughout Los Angeles County and was blamed for the collapse of a roof at the Westlake Village Medical Center. Sections of Pacific Coast Highway in Los Angeles and Ventura Counties were flooded and littered with rocks as the storm reached land, the California Highway Patrol reported.
"Motorists going into the Sierra had best be prepared for snow," National Weather Service forecaster Pete Alesi said. "People heading to the San Joaquin Valley had best be prepared for strong wind and poor visibility."
Interstate 5, California's main north-south freeway, was closed from 9:32 a.m. to 9:36 p.m. because of dust blowing from fallow fields alongside the highway.
The interstate was closed from the junction of California 99, near the bottom of the Grapevine, to California 152 in Los Banos. The closed section included the stretch near Coalinga where 17 people died as 93 vehicles crashed in a dust storm the day after Thanksgiving.
A two-mile backup occurred on Interstate 5 north of Los Banos, where crews began diverting southbound traffic toward California 99.
In Los Banos, traffic was "bumper to bumper, just like in Los Angeles," said Cmdr. Mike Hughes of the local police force. From his Merced County city, Hughes could see dust and rain clouds.
"I'm sure it's coming. It just hasn't gotten here yet," he said.
Although the dust clouds were not as thick as those during Thanksgiving, more motorists than usual were reported leaving the freeway and checking into motels to spend the night.
"They're using their heads this time," said Sean Peters, who works at the front desk at the Harris Ranch Inn near Coalinga.
But several angry motorists breached barricades and headed onto Interstate 5 during the day, said Sgt. Ted Eichman of the Highway Patrol.
"People are not heeding what we're trying to do," Eichman said. "They have got a mind-set--they're going to drive from Los Angeles to San Francisco, no matter what."
In the weeks since the Nov. 29 pileup near Coalinga, the CHP has been criticized for not acting faster to close the freeway. Gov. Pete Wilson has directed that the CHP prepare a report on the disaster by Feb. 3.
On Friday, CHP officers started escorting motorists through Kern County at 7 a.m. By 8 a.m., officers had reported that visibility was near zero and requested that Interstate 5 be shut.
Officials did not attribute the quick action on Friday to charges that they had failed to act fast enough in November.
"If they were thinking about November, or just survival, I don't know," said CHP spokesman Mack Wimbish in Bakersfield.
Authorities reported several crashes on secondary roads, including a three-vehicle tangle on on California 119 near Bakersfield. The CHP found cars stopped and pointed in various directions, their drivers disoriented by the dust blowing across the road, known as Taft Highway.
Eichman cited the six-year drought as being most responsible for the dust storms that have plagued the western side of the Central Valley this year.
"Hopefully it will rain and settle this dust," Eichman said.
By nightfall Friday, rain was falling along the California coast.
In Orange County, the storm brought winds of up to 20 m.p.h., resulting in cooler temperatures, said Stephanie Hunter, a meteorologist with WeatherData Inc., which forecasts weather for The Times. Highs in the county averaged 65 degrees. High temperatures along the coast on Friday hovered in the mid-50s.
High temperatures for Orange County today are expected to be in the high 50s to low 60s, while the lows are expected to be in the low 50s, Hunter said.
The weather system, described as moderate, was expected to dump an inch of rain in the San Francisco Bay Area and as much as two inches in foothill communities near Los Angeles. Another front was expected on Sunday, and a third storm could reach the state by New Year's Day.
Winter storm watches were in effect for the Sierra Nevada from Lake Tahoe to Yosemite, and a foot or more of snow was expected to fall. The CHP advised motorists heading for the mountains to carry chains. The snow level was expected to drop to 4,000 feet in the Sierra and the Cascades.
"Everybody here is excited. They've started to batten things down on the mountain," said Alex Potter, spokesman for the Squaw Valley ski resort near Lake Tahoe.
In Southern California, the National Weather Service issued a winter storm watch and wind advisory for the mountains, where up to a foot of snow was predicted and e wind was expected to gust up to 60 m.p.h. On the coast, gusts up to 25 m.p.h. were predicted.
Despite the approaching storms, the state's persistent water shortage is not expected to ease significantly. The National Weather Service predicts only average rainfall for the next 30 days.
The average snowpack in the Sierra, the source of most of the state's drinking water, is 45% of normal, Geno Young of the Department of Water Resources said.
"It's not going to be the storm we're looking for," Young said.
Statewide, reservoirs were at 50% of the historic average for the beginning of winter.
"If we had normal precipitation for the rest of the year, we would still be in a dry-to-critical year," Young said.
Times staff writer George Frank contributed to this story.