Storm pounds Southland, flooding streets and homes

The second of four rainstorms forecast for Southern California pummeled the coast this afternoon, with gale-force winds and at least one tornado lifting boats in Orange County 30 to 50 feet, causing serious flooding across the region and promoting a new round of evacuations.

But forecasters said the worst is yet to come, in the form of a stronger, colder storm set to hit the L.A. area Wednesday evening. Authorities plan to evacuate 489 homes in the mudslide-prone foothill areas including La Cañada Flintridge on Wednesday morning in advance of the storm. Those evacuations are expected to remain in place until Monday.

“With the first two storms, we got lucky,” said Bill Patzert, a climatologist for the Jet Propulsion Laboratory in La Cañada Flintridge. “Wednesday could be horrendous. Monday we got the right jab. Tuesday we got the left jab. Wednesday we could get the haymaker to the chin.”

Two fatalities have been blamed on the series of storms so far. An El Cajon woman was fatally crushed this afternoon when the passing storm uprooted a tree, which fell on her. On Monday night, a 100-foot tree crashed to the ground, crushing a Frazier Park man and his home.

Today’s storm was brief and intense, pummeling coastal areas with hail, ice, thunder, lightning and powerful winds for about two hours before giving way to sunshine and rainbows.

The National Weather Service recorded at least one tornado, four waterspouts and gale-force winds of up to 80 mph as the fast-moving storm swept through the basin. Some witnesses thought they spotted tornadoes in Costa Mesa and Goleta.

The force of the storm ripped several roofs off buildings, shattered windows and displaced about 40 people in San Pedro. Chest-high water gushed through the streets so quickly that it stranded drivers on the 710 Freeway in Long Beach and swallowed cars in parts of Belmont Heights.

Rescue crews spent hours in Long Beach and Orange County plucking residents out of flooded cars and homes.

Lightning struck the ConocoPhillips refinery in Wilmington, sparking a small fire in one of the stacks. Wind swept through Costa Mesa, and took chunks of several buildings with it.

“It touched down on the building across from us and ripped off the paper and insulation and flung it into the street, landed into our building and ripped the skylight off,” said Charlie Rose, 29, publisher of an independent music magazine L.A. Record, whose office is at Whittier Avenue and 17th Street.

At Peter’s Landing Marina in Huntington Harbour, manager Scott Seaton watched through the window as a “cyclone” came over the building and touched down in the marina. At one point, Seaton watched it pick up a 40-foot catamaran, twirl it several feet in the air, then drop it on top of another boat.

“It was just amazing watching that thing dance up in the air,” Seaton said. “As quick as it came, it was gone. I can’t even imagine seeing a monster one because this thing seemed so powerful. . . . It was just unbelievable.”

Chad Zarndt said he felt “violent shaking. I’ve never seen anything like this here in O.C.”

Nearby, the tornado lifted a parked SUV and sent it crashing to the ground, its windows shattering.

In Long Beach, the problem was rising water.

Isaac Chavira, 25, who lives in a two-bedroom, ground-floor apartment at 8th Street and Bennett Avenue in Long Beach, said he had just put his 19-month old daughter down for a nap around noon when brown muddy water started seeping through his door. He peered out the window and saw water and debris running down the street “like a river.”

Eventually, the water reached his shins.

“I kind of panicked,” he said. He opened the windows and yelled, “What do I do?” to his neighbors.

Long Beach firefighters arrived shortly, and Chavira handed his daughter through the window. Then he climbed out.

Brendan Kearns, 25, who also lives on 8th Street, said that when the downpour started, he heard a woman screaming for help out the window of her SUV.

The water had risen nearly to the car’s window.

Inspiration struck. He turned his air mattress into a make-shift boat and tossed it outside. But before embarking on his rescue mission, Long Beach firefighters arrived at the scene. After the rain stopped, the air mattress lay on a patch of grass, upside down, brown from the mud.

On 4th Street in San Pedro, water seeped under the door of Sonal and Bobby Prajapat’s convenience store and crept up to their waist in just half an hour.

Paper plates, candy, cracker packages and Oreos floated in the water, until it flowed back out, leaving behind a carpet of mud and puddles.

“This is my whole life savings here right now,” Bobby Prajapat said, seemingly in shock.

Jerry Bazan, 30, swept the water and mud out of his ground-floor apartment on 4th Street. As the water started surging under the door, he had turned off the circuit breakers and headed straight for his flat-screen TV, purchased just last week, and moved it to the higher ground of his son’s bunk bed.

“Its just destruction,” Bazan said. “Everything got ruined -- furniture, books.”

As the storm flooded homes and shattered windows, forcing some people to climb out their windows to escape, the Orange County Fire Authority’s emergency call volume soared by more than four times during the heaviest storm surge this afternoon. Some 75 to 100 callers reported flooding, leaking roofs and damage from the fierce winds between 1 p.m. and 3 p.m., said authority spokesman Greg McKeown.

Authorities remain most concerned about communities hit by last year’s Station fire. The blaze left La Cañada Flintridge, La Crescenta, Acton and other communities vulnerable to mudslides during periods of intense rain.

So officials have taken the unusual step of evacuating hundreds of home though Monday, saying residents in these zones should leave by 1 p.m. Wednesday.

“If people go to work in the morning and this place gets hammered by rain, they may not be able to get home,” said U.S. Forest Service spokesman Rich Phelps.

Times staff writers Mike Anton, Tony Barboza, Hector Becerra, Andrew Blankstein, Steve Chawkins, Cathleen Decker, Carla Hall, Amina Khan, Tony Perry, Louis Sahagun, Ruben Vives and Kimi Yoshino contributed