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3 Killed as Unrelenting Storms Batter Southland

Times Staff Writers

A fourth day of thrashing thunderstorms began to take a heavier toll on Southern California on Sunday with at least three deaths blamed on the rain, as flooding and mudslides forced road closures and emergency crews carried out harrowing rescue operations.

In Elysian Park, a 42-year-old homeless man was killed and another injured when a mudslide swept away their makeshift encampment. Another man was killed on Pacific Coast Highway in Malibu when his SUV skidded into a mud patch and plunged into the Pacific Ocean. Ventura County officials reported Sunday that a 20-year-old man died north of Ojai as he tried to cross a rain-gorged creek Saturday, wearing a harness attached to a wire.

For others it was a day of close calls.

Dozens of people fled threatened neighborhoods from Santa Clarita to San Dimas. In the Hollywood Hills, a family narrowly survived as their multistory home collapsed, apparently in a torrent of mud. Hundreds of motorists skidded into minor traffic accidents.

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A Highland man remained stranded but safe in a San Bernardino County cave as raging waters outside prevented rescuers from reaching him. “The only way to get to the cave is to cross this water, [but] it’s flowing too heavily. It’s too dangerous,” said Cindy Beavers, a spokeswoman for the San Bernardino County Sheriff’s Department.

The storms had stalled over an area of the Pacific Ocean on Sunday evening, a few hundred miles off the coast of Point Conception, west of Santa Barbara, said Bruce Rockwell, a specialist with the National Weather Service.

“It’s stationary off the coast and constantly pumps in moist water from the south,” he said.

Forecasters had originally said that some areas of Southern California might receive more than 20 inches of precipitation over the weekend. Although they later reduced that estimate, a campground near Mt. Wilson, Opids Camp, received 20.82 inches of precipitation between 4 p.m. Saturday and 4 p.m. Sunday.

In that same time period, downtown Los Angeles received 4.49 inches of rain, Beverly Hills 7.79 inches, Santa Monica 4.7 inches, Chatsworth 5.81 inches, Claremont 7.51 inches and Lancaster 2.36 inches.

Continued downpours were expected through Tuesday, when the jet stream airflow from the north was expected to start pushing the storm inland toward Nevada.

Southern California has been drenched by a string of storms that began in late December and have been only sporadically interrupted by clear skies.

The current dousing, which began Thursday, has been the heaviest. More than 15 inches have fallen in Los Angeles in the first nine days of 2005, as much as the average annual rainfall downtown.

All across the Southland, residents dealt with rockslides, debris flows, downed trees, power outages and mandatory evacuations, though there were few serious injuries.

Mudslides, a sinkhole and other water damage forced Metrolink and Amtrak to cancel some train routes serving Los Angeles and Ventura Counties today.

In Orange County, a combination of storm runoff and big surf caused health officials to close Corona del Mar State Beach in Newport Beach and Capistrano County Beach in Dana Point because of sewage pipe leaks.

More than 300 miles away in the Eastern Sierra, skiers and snowboarders glided atop 48 inches of snow that has fallen on Mammoth Mountain since Friday. “We’ve just been pounded,” said Joani Lynch, a Mammoth Mountain spokeswoman. Some ski runs were closed at Big Bear Mountain Resorts because of heavy rains.

In Los Angeles County, the Department of Water and Power reported thousands of power outages in homes from Echo Park to Bel-Air. A rain-related accident on Mt. Wilson tore down transmission lines, interrupting the broadcast of the Indianapolis Colts and Denver Broncos playoff game on KCBS for two hours. In addition, at least half a dozen radio stations went off the air for more than an hour, including KIIS-FM (102.7) and KCBS-FM (93.1).

And in Arcadia, eight of nine horse races at Santa Anita Park were canceled for the first time in 10 years because of rain. As heavy rain fell in other parts of California, but the storms in the Southland presented the biggest challenges.

Los Angeles County

The 42-year-old homeless man who died in Elysian Park had been living with a younger acquaintance in a tent on top of a hill on the 1700 block of Stadium Way, just north of the Pasadena Freeway.

The man, identified as Jeffrey Lynn Earwood, was trapped under hundreds of pounds of thick mud, according to Los Angeles Fire Department spokesman Brian Humphrey. When rescue workers arrived, they said, only one of his limbs was visible. Humphrey said firefighters dug him out in less than 10 minutes, but he died at the scene.

The other man, who was unidentified, received minor injuries.

The victim in the Malibu traffic accident died after the SUV he was traveling in skidded off the road in the 19700 block of PCH. Los Angeles County fire rescue workers recovered the man’s body about 500 feet from where the vehicle went into the water off La Tuna Canyon Beach, said Lt. Randall Dickey of the Malibu Lost Hills Sheriff’s Station.

Four passengers in the car sustained minor injuries, Dickey said. Names and ages of the victims were not released.

On Laurel Canyon Boulevard, three people were safe after their 5,000-square-foot house collapsed, apparently the result of a mudslide. An unidentified motorist helped the father pull his 5-year-old daughter out of the debris, authorities said. Firefighters rescued the man’s 10-year-son. The family was hospitalized with minor injuries.

Humphrey said this was one of a number of areas where mudslides caused problems. Around 4 p.m., “tons of mud” from a hillside slid into the third floor of a home in Silver Lake, trapping a man inside, he said. Firefighters had to break a window in the home in the 1900 block of North Lucile Avenue to reach the man, who was uninjured. The Fire Department also evacuated three other nearby homes.

In Tujunga, five people were evacuated from the 6200 block of Gyral Drive after a mudslide near the Angeles National Forest, Humphrey said. No one was injured, though one house was damaged and nearby residents were advised to leave. Humphrey estimated that more than 100 roads in Los Angeles had seen flooding or mudslides or downed trees. “Most of the incidents are minor, and people do their civic duty with shovels in the mud.”

Other accidents were life threatening. In Norwalk, a car plunged into the swollen Coyote Creek from the northbound Santa Ana Freeway shortly before 4 p.m. Two women were quickly rescued but a man rode atop the car before falling into the swiftly moving water. He was pulled to safety by Los Angeles County Fire officials.

In Santa Clarita, officials had been keeping an eye on the flood-prone Polynesian Mobile Home Park for days.

By Sunday morning, they had evacuated more than 150 residents when the nearby Newhall Creek broke through a wall, sending fast-moving water gushing through the streets and toppling at least two trailers.

No serious injuries were reported, but residents of the low-lying park scrambled to pack their clothes and grab their cats and dogs as they abandoned their homes for higher ground.

Men, women and children -- some clutching pets bundled in blankets and carrying trash bags full of clothing -- grasped a rope set up by emergency crews to help residents traverse a muddy hill in the pouring rain.

“The wall broke and water just came crashing down, said Rebecca Hayes, 16. “It destroyed my friend’s house completely.”

A neighbor, Jesus Ceja, 22, said his entire street was flooded and water had risen to the windows of his mobile home by 7:30 a.m. “It looked like a river,” Ceja said.

His brother, Rodrigo, jumped from a window of the mobile home they share to rescue a woman caught in the tumult. “A truck floating by almost hit her,” Ceja said.

San Bernardino County

The storms spread havoc through parts of San Bernardino County. Freeways and tiny mountain roads were closed, plugging access to rural foothill communities.

An evacuation was called for about 60 homes in the remote mountain community of Forest Falls, about 19 miles east of Redlands, where the Snow Canyon Creek had backed up. Rescuers were worried that whatever was holding back the creek’s flow could let go, releasing a torrent of water and debris.

Beavers, the Sheriff’s Department spokeswoman, said the man in the cave, who is in his 50s, frequently camps in the Bonita Canyon area and had been there several days. He called a friend on his cellphone around 11:30 a.m. and said he was worried about the rising water outside.

Rescuers tried to find a way to reach the cave using heavy equipment and then reached the man -- who had equipment and supplies for several days -- on his cell phone.

“We told him that conditions were too dangerous, and we weren’t going to be able to get anyone to him, and he’d have to stay overnight,” Beavers said. A successful rescue occurred at the KOA campground in Devore. An unidentified man’s car got stuck in a muddy road, and water began to rise before county Fire Department rescuers were able to free him at around 7:30 a.m., said Tracy Martinez, spokeswoman for the county’s Fire Department.

Water, silt and rocks were shooting off the wildfire-denuded hillsides above flood-prone Greenwood Avenue in Devore, making the road difficult to maneuver for even four-wheel-drive trucks and SUVs.

On Saturday, rescue workers freed more than 170 motorists from cars that had been stuck in deep snow, a problem exacerbated by a broken-down bus that blocked both lanes of California Highway 18. On Sunday, a number of motorists remained at a Big Bear church, and sections of the highways 18 and 330 remained closed, said Janis Shucard, dispatcher for the San Bernardino Sheriff’s Department.

Ventura County

A 6-foot wall of mud oozed across California 126 on Sunday morning, forcing the highway’s closure between Fillmore and the Los Angeles County line and cutting off residents in the farm town of Piru.

All roads in and out of the tiny community were closed by mid-afternoon, according to sheriff’s department spokesman Eric Nishimoto.

He said the mudslide, in an area scarred by wildfire, blocked traffic in both directions. He said officials did not know how long it would take to reopen the highway, which cuts through the citrus-rich Santa Clara Valley.

Flooding and mudslides also damaged or threatened homes in Camarillo and the Casitas Springs area north of Ventura. And the threat of high water and flooding triggered the evacuation of hundreds of mobile home park residents in Fillmore and Moorpark, as well as an RV park at the mouth of the Ventura River.

Residents were being sent to emergency evacuation centers set up by the Red Cross.

Several people were trapped by rising water. Six people, apparently homeless and camping on the banks of the Ventura River, were airlifted to safety Sunday morning by a Sheriff’s Department helicopter as the river rose above flood stage

On Saturday, Andrei Natali apparently drowned after slipping and falling into the fast-moving waters of Matilija Creek. Natali’s family’s home had apparently been hemmed in by flooding, and the wire strung across the water was the only way to get to the nearest road, Ventura coroner’s officials said.

Train Service

In Ventura, Metrolink service north of Moorpark was canceled today because of rain-related problems. Trains will not operate from stations at Camarillo, Oxnard or Montalvo.

Passengers who usually board trains at Oxnard or Camarillo will be taken by bus to Moorpark Station. Montalvo station passengers should drive to Oxnard station to catch the bus, officials said.

Metrolink trains 900 and 901, which run between Burbank and Los Angeles, also were canceled today, as is the Amtrak/Metrolink shared service train 108/A768. Amtrak canceled all Pacific Surfliner service today and abbreviated service on Coast Starlight routes between Los Angeles and Santa Barbara because of a sinkhole.

The Coast Starlight trains will originate and terminate in San Luis Obispo instead of Los Angeles until further notice.

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(BEGIN TEXT OF INFOBOX)

Road closures

After rainstorms pummeled Southern California for the fourth day in a row Sunday, flooding, snow and slides forced the California Highway Patrol to close numerous roads and highways. Officials said they may remain closed today because cleanup efforts could take time, and conditions may worsen since more rain is expected this week. Here are some closures that may cause trouble for travelers today:

Los Angeles County

Santa Clarita area: California 126 is closed near San Martinez Grande Canyon Road.

Wrightwood area: Big Pines Highway is restricted between Largo Vista Road and California 2; snow tires and chains are required.

Palmdale: Palmdale Boulevard is closed between 70th Street East and 90th Street East.

Angeles National Forest: Lake Hughes Road is closed at the 13-mile marker; Glendora Ridge Road is closed from Glendora Mountain Road to Mount Baldy Road.

Encino: Burbank Boulevard is closed from Hayvenhurst Avenue to the San Diego Freeway.

Val Verde: Hasley Canyon Road is closed at Del Valle Road.

Sepulveda Pass: The two left lanes of the northbound San Diego Freeway at Bel-Air Crest Road are closed until Tuesday or later.

For more information about Los Angeles County road closures, go to www.chp.ca.gov.

Ventura County

Fillmore area: California 126 between Fillmore and the Los Angeles County line is closed indefinitely.

Santa Paula area: California 150 about half a mile west of Thomas Aquinas College is closed because of a 75-foot-wide sinkhole.

Camarillo area: California 118 is closed at Somis Road; University Drive at Lewis Road, leading to Cal State Channel Islands, is closed. Motorists must use Potrero Road to enter or exit the campus.

For more information about Ventura County road closures, go to www.vcsd.org.

San Bernardino, Riverside counties

Big Bear Lake area: California 18 is closed at the Snow Valley ski area.

San Bernardino: California 330 is closed from Highland Avenue to Running Springs; the northbound lanes of Interstate 215 are closed from Palm Avenue to Interstate 15.

Lake Elsinore: Ortega Highway is closed at Grand Street.

For more information about Inland Empire road closures, go to www.dot.ca.gov.

Source: California Highway Patrol

Times staff writers Nancy Cleeland, Erika Hayasaki, Daniel Hernandez, Fred Alvarez, David Reyes, Seema Mehta, Jennifer Mena, Terril Jones, Eric Bailey and Eric Slater contributed to this story.


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