Some Play, Others Clean Up After Freak Storm

Times Staff Writer

Residents of several South Los Angeles neighborhoods awoke Thursday to frontyards piled high with ice, and to carpet and furniture drenched by floodwaters, the result of a freak and vicious thunderstorm Wednesday that left a trail of damage, disbelief and excitement.

Adults joined children to build ice castles and pelt one another with snowballs while marveling at the wintry spectacle most had never seen before. Others were left to deal with power outages, soggy floors and wet upholstery.

People from other parts of the city drove to South Los Angeles to view the remarkable sight in a region where rainfall is moderate and damaging hailstones are a rarity. Especially hard hit were Watts, Compton, Lynwood and South Gate, which were drenched with more than 5 inches of rain.

Seeking to qualify for state and federal disaster relief, Los Angeles Mayor James K. Hahn declared a local emergency after a tour of a Watts neighborhood that was still digging out from under deep piles of hail and ice.

By late Thursday, the city had identified 120 residential buildings and six commercial buildings citywide with significant storm damage likely to run into the tens of thousands of dollars.

The storm also caused flooding in at least nine schools, forcing three of them to close. The neighborhood's Dollarhide Clinic also canceled appointments because of water damage.

"It was a very localized emergency, but for the residents here one that is obviously very catastrophic in its results," said Hahn, dressed in a suit and tie but wearing big, floppy boots borrowed from the Fire Department. "The amount of damage is really devastating to people who live in this area."

Sheets of ice blanketed grass along parts of Imperial Highway in Watts. On side streets, frozen crystals were heaped on yards and pavements and enveloped parked cars. But one or two blocks over, streets were clear.

"This is just amazing; it's just an experience," said Lenea Barnes, who brought five toddlers from the day-care center she runs in Long Beach to confirm for herself what she had seen on television the night before.

Barnes sat in awe on a stone wall at Belhaven Street and Clovis Avenue as the children gleefully chased one another, spraying handfuls of ice.

"It's fun because you can throw snowballs at each other," said 10-year-old Sanai Smith, who had just finished tumbling in the ice and sludge with her mother and two siblings. "But I prefer the sunshine."

Workers from the city Department of Public Works used skip loaders, normally used to remove mud and trash, to shovel the ice into one huge knoll in the center of Belhaven Street.

"We don't know how long it's going to take to clean up because we've never seen anything like it," said one city worker, who spoke on condition of anonymity.

Elated adults and children, many of whom said their parents had allowed them to miss school, wasted no time in turning the hill of ice into a joyride. Using plastic lids, gaggles of excited residents and passersby took turns sliding down the makeshift ski slope.

"I'm having a ball!" grandmother Pamela Todd shouted as she slid down the mound with a neighborhood youngster sandwiched between her thighs.

Todd, of San Bernardino, had been driving to Wilmington when a friend convinced her to detour to Watts.

James and Velma McConnell posed for pictures in front of the ice hill with their 5-year-old daughter, Tamika.

The couple drove from Carson and gave their daughter the day off from school to celebrate her fifth birthday witnessing this natural phenomenon.

"I said, I just got to see this," said Velma McConnell, 37.

"It's an unusual event that has brought a lot of people together," said James McConnell, 42. "I wish it would have happened when we had the fires."

"It's a historic event. I have never seen anything like this before," said Compton resident Bernard Agee, 49, a construction worker who brought a video camera to Belhaven.

"It's just something you want to get on film, to document this stuff. We may never see this again, for another 100 years," Agee said.

But it was not all fun. By 5 p.m. Thursday, about 6,000 homes remained without electricity, which had been knocked out in many neighborhoods about 7 p.m. Wednesday.

"Because of all the furor that was unleashed on this community last night, this community is going to need some help rebuilding their lives," Councilwoman Janice Hahn, whose district includes Watts, said as she surveyed the damage.

Longtime community activist "Sweet" Alice Harris, who runs three homeless shelters in Watts, spent Thursday afternoon watching a fire crew pump water from her house.

Harris said the flood destroyed hundreds of dolls she had bought to give to children from 13 local schools at her annual holiday party next month.

"I can take my own loss, but the children's loss, that's too much for me to bear," she said. "Most of these children, that's all they're going to get."

In another home, the dark green carpet squished under Duncan Carter's boots as he walked through the living room, pointing out the damage.

"There goes $4,000," said Carter, 46, a construction worker and 10-year resident of Watts, tapping a 64-inch wide-screen television that was submerged during the height of the deluge.

When the hail started, Carter and his children had gazed out the window in amazement.

But that turned to distress as the water started to seep under the door, and the family was soon standing ankle-deep.

"We put towels behind the door, which was fruitless," said Carter, who estimated the damage to his property at $30,000. "After that we just gave up."

Edgar and Monica Tista, who live down the block on Belhaven, were also demoralized when the blankets, towels and clothes they shoved under their doors failed to block the tide.

"Water was coming in from everywhere, through the chimney, the roof," said Edgar Tista, 26, whose wife cried throughout the storm, fearing that the water might hit electrical outlets and create a short-circuit. "It was pretty terrifying."

Councilwoman Hahn said someone showed her a refrigerator half-filled with mud. At another house, part of a roof had caved in.

Many residents said they lacked flood insurance because the neighborhood was not considered a flood zone when their houses were built.

Others blamed the neighborhood's inadequate storm drains for the level of damage.

Mayor Hahn said it did not appear that the city's drainage system was at fault.

"I know we have a regular program to clean out the catch basins that lead to the storm drains because leaves and trash that end up on the streets block those," he said.

"But I'm told the amount of rain that came down in that time period would just overwhelm the existing storm drain system."

The mayor said that the city would be working around the clock to help residents to clean up, and that 30 emergency crews from the Department of Water and Power were trying to restore power.

But for children who had never seen hail before, the aftermath was simply an opportunity to have fun.

"It's cool," said Edgar Pena, 11, standing ankle-deep in ice. "It's killing my feet, though. I don't have winter shoes."

Times staff writers Patrick McGreevy and Jean Merl contributed to this report

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