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Record Rainfall Pounds L.A.

Times Staff Writers

A powerful winter storm dumped more than 4 inches of rain in Los Angeles on Tuesday, setting a new record for the day and bringing the area’s rainfall total to well above average.

More thunderstorms and cooler air from the Alaskan coast rolled in Tuesday evening and were expected to continue through today, further saturating hillsides and increasing the threat of mudslides.

The storm flooded roads and surface streets, tossed small boats onshore in Santa Barbara and blocked the Pacific Coast Highway along the Central Coast and a portion of U.S. 101 about 30 miles west of Santa Barbara with rocks and mudslides.

A sanitation truck driver was killed in Los Angeles’ Jefferson Park neighborhood when he touched a power line downed by the winds and rain. Rescuers late Tuesday searched through heavy snowfall and plunging temperatures near Mt. Baldy for twin brothers reported missing earlier in the day.

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Brief but heavy thunderstorms pounded the Los Angeles area late Tuesday night. The National Weather Service said a thunderstorm that passed over Catalina Island and the harbor area was capable of producing a tornado, but there were no reports that a tornado touched down.

In the Bay Area, flights out of San Francisco International Airport were delayed because of the bad weather, and officials were investigating the death Monday of a 31-year-old man believed to have drowned while bodysurfing in the stormy waves off Montara State Beach in San Mateo County.

The storms are the latest in a series of weather systems that have drenched Southern California this fall and winter. After seeing no significant rain since March, the area recorded the wettest October in a century.

With the calendar year almost ended, downtown Los Angeles has exceeded its normal annual rainfall total of 15.14 inches by 1.46 inches, a significant development because the area has endured years of less-than-normal rainfall, said Stuart Seto, a weather specialist for the National Weather Service.

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Seto said weather experts usually measure the rainfall season from July 1 to the following June 30 so that the wettest months are included in the same season. With this week’s rain, he said, downtown Los Angeles has logged 10.03 inches of rain since July 1, on track for a normal or above-normal rainy season.

“The reservoirs are starting to get some stream flow so that should help bring levels up. The rains are also helping with groundwater,” said Jayme Laber, a senior hydrologist for the National Weather Service. “This storm will definitely help. We had storms in October and now this, so this is a really good start to the year. Hopefully it continues. Though, not too bad, we don’t want flooding.”

Dry Pattern Persists

Bill Patzert, an oceanographer who studies weather for the Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, said the storms will help alleviate some of Southern California’s dryness, but warned that the region was still years away from reaching normal levels.

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“We’re still in a dry pattern, except for these rogue storms,” Patzert said. “We’re above average for the calendar year. But we need rain like this for the next three years.”

Between 10 a.m. Monday and 10 a.m. Tuesday, 4.31 inches of rain fell in downtown L.A., exceeding the previous high of 2.09 inches in a 24-hour period set in 1931. And at LAX, 2.85 inches of rain fell over the same period, breaking the previous record of 1.47 inches from 1977, Seto said.

The torrent contributed to flooding in streets surrounding the airport, causing all LAX-bound traffic to be diverted to Century Boulevard.

In the mountains, powdery snow fell at 6,000 feet and above. Between six and 12 inches of snow was dumped on Mount Baldy, six to 10 inches in Mountain High and eight inches in Frazier Park. Adding to the danger were wind gusts of up to 52 mph at Mt. Wilson, Seto said.

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The two missing hikers near Mt. Baldy, Richard Encinas of Rancho Cucamonga and Robert Encinas of West Covina, both 44, left for their trek Sunday. The wife of one of them called authorities Tuesday afternoon because she had not heard from them since Monday.

“We’re going to be searching through the night” if necessary, said Sgt. Dennis Shaffer, coordinator of the West Valley Search and Rescue team. “We know from a wife who had cellphone contact last night at 5:30 that they were going to bed down in their tent at Icehouse Saddle. They were just planning on spending the night...They were supposed to be out this morning.”

Authorities were also concerned about the potential of mudslides, especially in foothill communities ravaged by brush fires over the last few years.

In the mountain communities north of San Bernardino, where a year ago 16 people died when they were swept away by flash floods, residents were on edge. On Greenwood Avenue in Devore, residents wearily watched intermittent rains Tuesday afternoon.

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Dallas Branscome and her family were ready -- sandbags lined the entrance to the garage, their luggage was packed and their truck was parked facing the street to provide a fast escape. Earlier this year, the family built a brick wall around the north and west borders of their property to shield it from the mud and rocks that fall from the mountain during heavy rainfall.

“It saved our house last time,” she said, referring to the October rainstorms.

Seto, the National Weather Service specialist, said Tuesday’s rain pounded the Los Angeles Basin more than it did the mudslide-prone areas of San Bernardino County. But the thunderstorms Tuesday night and today could be more problematic because they should dump heavier concentrations of rain in the mountain areas. There is a 30% chance of showers from today into the weekend, which could put a damper on the Tournament of Roses on Saturday.

Roughly 108,000 Edison customers from Santa Barbara to Huntington Beach lost power at some point in the day after large wind gusts blew trees and branches into electrical lines, said Gil Alexander, a spokesman for the utility.

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Snow toppled lines in Lake Arrowhead and Frazier Park, where workers were hiking from pole to pole through snow to bring electricity back to thousands of homes.

Driver Electrocuted

A driver for a privately owned trash collection company was killed as he tried to move a wind-toppled power line away from his vehicle on 4th Avenue near Jefferson Boulevard.

The Consolidated Disposal Service driver, whose name has not been released, was trying to maneuver his truck down an alley to pick up a trash bin, but several high-voltage wires were blocking his way, said Capt. Carlos Calvillo, spokesman for the Los Angeles Fire Department.

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“He used his hand to move the wires out of the way,” Calvillo said. “He was hit with about 4,800 volts of electricity and was electrocuted.”

The man’s partner in the truck was not hurt, Calvillo said. To get to the driver, Firefighter Gerald Paiz risked his life to cut away the wires, Calvillo said.

Firefighters administered CPR to the driver, but he did not respond. He was pronounced dead at Midway Hospital in Los Angeles.

In Santa Barbara County, more than a foot of rain in mountain areas caused a mud and rock slide that closed the northbound lanes of U.S. Highway 101 west of Goleta.

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The Gaviota Pass had been scorched by a wildfire earlier this year. Northbound traffic was initially backed up for about 20 miles as the California Highway Patrol rerouted motorists onto California 154. The road is expected to remain closed until today, a CHP dispatcher said.

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Times staff writers Janet Wilson, Sharon Bernstein, Wendy Thermos, Fred Alvarez, Elizabeth Douglass and Claire Luna and special correspondent Karen Alexander contributed to this report.


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