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Toll Mounts as Storms Lash Southland

Times Staff Writers

Mudslides trapped residents in their homes and forced others to flee Monday as lethal and destructive storms pounded Southern California for the fifth consecutive day in what could prove to be the wettest rainfall season on record in Los Angeles.

By Monday night, at least five people had died.

They included a 63-year-old man buried by four feet of mud in the bedroom of his Woodland Hills home, a civil engineer who fell into a massive sinkhole in Sun Valley and a 16-year-old girl who died when a falling rock crashed into her family’s apartment in rural Orange County. Two men died in apparently storm-related traffic accidents when their cars skidded on wet pavement in the Inland Empire.

Rising floodwaters and sliding mud invaded dozens of homes, toppled others, interrupted commuter rail service and snarled highway traffic.

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A cloudburst and clogged drains left about two feet of water standing on the Hollywood Freeway in Hollywood on Monday night, halting traffic in both directions at Santa Monica Boulevard. Hundreds of vehicles were stranded in the water, and traffic backed up for five miles in both directions, remaining at a standstill in spots even five hours later. The freeway reopened about 11:45 p.m.

Power outages were reported throughout Southern California. Hail pelted several areas and thunder rumbled across the region.

The National Weather Service said the storms, which began Thursday, could continue into Wednesday, with a possibility of severe thunderstorms and hailstorms in the coastal valleys and blizzard conditions in the mountains.

“If it keeps raining like this, and it will, it’ll break the record set more than 120 years ago,” said Bill Patzert, a meteorologist at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory in La Canada Flintridge.

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By 4 p.m., 32.03 inches of rain had fallen in downtown Los Angeles since the season began July 1. That’s more than three times the normal total for the date, and almost eight times the amount that had fallen by this time last year.

The record total for the season, which ends June 30, is about 38.18 inches, set in 1883-84. So less than 7 inches needs to be recorded downtown over the next four months to set a new mark.

The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration says the West Coast is in the thrall of El Nino, a cyclical oceanographic and meteorological phenomenon in which Southern California often gets heavier rain than usual.

But Patzert said this year’s El Nino is mild, and the rain is due more to storms that are being left behind by the unusually volatile flow of high-altitude jet stream winds.

“These storms lose their direction, picking up moisture as they stall off the coast,” Patzert said.

When these storms finally move east, they move slowly, he said. Shaped like wagon wheels, they spin counterclockwise, with each spoke, or band of rain, rotating sequentially through the area, interspersed with dry periods that can even include sunshine.

Los Angeles County

Robert Wickham, 61, died early Monday when a rain-soaked hill collapsed onto his home in Woodland Hills. Officials said the mudslide that entombed him hit the home in the 4100 block of Natoma Avenue about 2:30 a.m.

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Firefighters used a thermal imaging system to locate Wickham.

“We were hoping that there was a void space, but there wasn’t,” firefighter Russell Rawls said. “He was completely covered.”

A woman sleeping in another room of the house was uninjured, officials said.

A neighbor, Betsy Birdsall, described Wickham as a “nice guy” who left containers of fresh water on a nearby trail for hikers who walked their pets.

Another neighbor, Stephen Moore, said he doubted anything could have been done to prevent the mudslide.

“If it’s going to happen, it’s going to happen,” Moore said.

About 9:30 a.m., an earthen bluff slid into a home in Hacienda Heights, filling it with mud and trapping two women inside, authorities said. Further sliding appeared imminent, and neighbors grabbed what they could and fled.

Firefighters rescued an 84-year-old woman stuck in knee-deep mud. The woman, whose name was not released, was treated at Whittier Presbyterian Hospital for minor injuries to her legs and feet, authorities said.

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Using buckets, chain saws and sledgehammers, firefighters cleared a path to get to the other woman, who was trapped for almost two hours in a shower, authorities said. She was covered in mud up to her waist.

“She was actually trapped in a little pocket,” said Capt. Don Roy of the Los Angeles County Fire Department. “The mud was fluid and every time we moved, some of the debris came in. Inside the house, the mud was ceiling high.”

The 39-year-old woman, whose name was not released, did not appear to have suffered any major injuries, officials said.

“She was hanging in there pretty good,” Roy said.

Officials said a third woman escaped on her own.

Nine homes in the gated community were evacuated.

Neighbor Christina Flores, 31, said she was not ordered to evacuate, but decided not to take any chances and left with her two sons, ages 5 and 11.

“We’ll probably come back tomorrow to check the situation,” Flores said.

Edward Osorio, spokesman for the Los Angeles County Fire Department, said officials were assessing the situation to determine when it might be safe to return.

“The water continues to seep underneath the mud, which makes for a very unstable situation,” he said as rain continued to fall.

About 6 p.m. Monday, three occupants scrambled to safety as an 87-year-old house slid about 30 feet down a rain-soaked hillside in Silver Lake.

“They all apparently got out all right,” said Brian Humphrey, a spokesman for the Los Angeles Fire Department. “But there are other nearby homes in danger.”

About a dozen homes in Glendale and three homes in Pasadena were evacuated Monday because of flooding and mudslides. A sodden hillside gave way in Bel-Air, carrying a swimming pool that dumped water into three homes on Roberto Lane.

Despite the Presidents Day holiday, there were more than 300 traffic crashes on rain-slick roads in the county during a 14-hour period that ended Monday morning, the California Highway Patrol said. That’s four to six times the normal amount for a 24-hour period without rain, officers said.

Los Angeles Mayor James K. Hahn ordered flags to be flown at half-staff in honor of Rory Shaw, the city engineer who fell to his death in a sinkhole in Sun Valley on Sunday.

Hahn said he met with Shaw hours before his death, conferring with him about the sinkhole.

Paramedics and a swift-water rescue team were unable to reach Shaw in time to save him, officials said.

Orange County

Mudslides forced officials to yellow-tag several homes in Mission Viejo, allowing residents to enter only in daylight. In rural Silverado Canyon, where 16-year-old Caitlin Oto died Sunday night when a boulder plunged into her family’s home above a general store, two other homes were red-tagged, prohibiting entry at any time, and two homes were evacuated.

Residents throughout the county grappled with fallen trees and flooding in their homes as water levels rose.

Clogged storm drains on North La Canada Drive in Brea sent water through several houses, taking toys and pillows. In Huntington Beach, a duck pond near Goldenwest Street and Edinger Avenue overflowed into a street.

Several streets and highways were closed throughout the county due to flooding or debris blocking the road, including portions of Coast Highway in Laguna Beach; Pacific Coast Highway in Huntington Beach; Ortega Highway at Antonio Parkway in south Orange County; and a portion of North La Canada Drive in Brea.

Wet roads and reduced visibility contributed to 118 accidents between midnight and 2 p.m. Monday in Orange County, about three times more than usual, according to the Highway Patrol.

“You don’t have the volume, but motorists tend to build up their speed more because fewer people are on the freeways,” said CHP Officer Katrina Lundgren.

Ventura County

Several roads were blocked by flooding and mudslides, including California 126 between Fillmore and Piru.

Metrolink canceled some commuter trains north of Moorpark, and Amtrak canceled some service between Los Angeles and Santa Barbara.

Despite continuing seepage, there were no reports of major damage in the beleaguered coastal community of La Conchita, where 10 people died and 12 homes were destroyed in a landslide last month.

On Sunday night, the Sheriff’s Department recommended evacuation of dozens of La Conchita residents, but most of them remained, according to Joe Luna, a spokesman for the county Fire Department.

“They’re survivors out there,” Luna said.

Dan Rogers, 34, a La Conchita resident who decided to stick it out Monday, said residents were getting used to the seepage in the slide area.

“It’s been happening ever since the slide,” Rogers said. “It rains, and the mud keeps flowing downhill toward the ocean. But the rest of the town is fine.”

Forty miles to the east, near the Los Angeles County-Ventura County border, officials opened floodgates to begin releasing water from Pyramid Lake because it was full.

Lake Piru, about 15 miles downstream, also was full, so water was pouring over the dam’s spillway, creating concerns about possible flooding further downstream if the water level continued to rise.

“It’s better if you can control the flow, and not use the spillway,” said operations officer John Bunce. “But you’ve got to let the water out one way or another.”

Inland Empire

Heavy rains were believed to be a factor in two traffic fatalities.

Adrian Chagolla-Ochoa, 22, of Fontana was killed when he lost control of his car in an area of standing water on eastbound Interstate 10 east of Vineyard Avenue in Ontario, about 2:20 a.m., the Highway Patrol said.

Investigators said Chagolla-Ochoa’s vehicle struck a center divider and slid back across the freeway, where it was rammed by a tractor-trailer.

On westbound California 30 in San Bernardino, Richard Ceballos, 24, of San Bernardino lost control of his sedan just west of Del Rosa Avenue, officers said. They said Ceballos’ car struck another vehicle, careened down a hillside and struck a large tree.

Times staff writers Nicholas Shields, Daryl Kelley, Jessica Garrison, Natasha Lee, David Reyes, Claire Luna, Mai Tran and Lance Pugmire contributed to this report.

*

(BEGIN TEXT OF INFOBOX)

No. 5 and rising

Rainfall in downtown L.A. in the 2004-05 season has already exceeded 32 inches.

1883-84 -- 38.18

1889-90 -- 34.84

1977-78 -- 33.44

1940-41 - 32.76

2004-05 -- 32.03*

1982-83 -- 31.25

1997-98 -- 31.01

1968-69 -- 27.47

1992-93 -- 27.36

1979-80 -- 26.98

*Season total through 4:30 p.m. Monday

Source: National Weather Service

Los Angeles Times


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