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WEATHER-BEATEN: O.C. DELUGE : Storm Brings a Torrent of Traffic-Related Problems

TIMES STAFF WRITER

The only rush in this rush hour was the rising of the floodwaters. It didn’t much matter what route Orange County commuters took home Wednesday evening, the same rain-drenched road conditions ruled everywhere.

“Pick a freeway,” said CHP Officer Rick Pena. “They’re all bad.”

The winter’s first heavy rains turned roadways into rivers throughout the county, forcing the closure of sections of the Santa Ana Freeway and several other commuter arteries and turning the rush-hour commute into a white-knuckle plunge into the elements.

“It got to the point where everybody just had to fend for themselves because we just didn’t have the manpower and the barricades to close all the streets,” said Cypress Police Sgt. Mike Idom, who said most of the city’s streets were closed and many traffic signals had blacked out because of power outages.

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“We have one place where there are between 30 and 50 cars stuck in the water,” Idom said. “People just walked out.”

In virtually every corner of the county, traffic moved at a crawl--if it moved at all--as motorists picked their way around rock slides and puddles that had swelled into torrents. Commuters on one stretch of the Santa Ana Freeway in Anaheim had to drive on the paved center divider to get around the rising water. Later, the freeway was closed there and farther south at the Costa Mesa Freeway interchange.

It was the same story all over as commuters ran smack into closures on parts of the Orange, Riverside and Garden Grove freeways.

Surface streets, some littered with loosened rocks and fallen branches, offered little relief. Laguna Canyon Road and Ortega Highway were closed, as were sections of Pacific Coast Highway in Huntington Beach and Carbon Canyon Road in Brea. Irvine Boulevard was closed near Sand Canyon Avenue when a driver got stranded in floodwater.

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“We have a lot of roads you just can’t get through,” Sheriff’s Lt. Rex Hatch said.

The roads that remained open were often made narrower and more treacherous by the creeping water. The Garden Grove Freeway funneled to a single lane in Orange, as did a nearby section of the Santa Ana Freeway.

By early evening, the CHP had reported more than 110 crashes--about double the daily norm.

A driver of a Toyota pickup had to summon a tow truck after his vehicle slid off a Costa Mesa street and into a construction area.

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“We just slid, and as soon as we hit the mud we went in,” said the owner, too embarrassed to disclose his name. “One tire went first, then the other went, then we just dropped.”

Irvine resident Matthew Jones was stuck at a Westminster gas station, derailed during a trip to Los Angeles International Airport that he described as “horrible.”

“This car in front of me, it went through two feet of water,” said Jones, 25. “I tried to get around her and I hit the sidewalk and my right two tires blew out.”

For Lynne Smith of Anaheim, a short drive started sounding like an overland adventure.

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“I’m trying to get to Cypress from Long Beach to pick up my son at the sitter’s,” Smith, 42, said. “I started from the 405, and I had to get off at Lakewood. I’ve been taking surface streets since.”

Times staff writers Nancy Hsu and Mark I. Pinsky and correspondent Tom Ragan contributed to this report.


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