The last of the major storms to batter Southern California this week packed a wallop Thursday, with high winds forcing Southwest Airlines to cancel dozens of flights, twisters tossing vehicles and ripping through structures, and 20-foot waves pounding the coast.
The storm departed with a climax of thunder, lightning and scattered heavy downpours Thursday night, capping a series of drenchings that began Sunday night. The accumulation since then -- nearly 6 inches in some areas -- sent mud sliding down streets in foothill communities hit by last year’s Station fire.
Officials remained highly concerned about more serious mudslides, especially with more showers expected today and a weaker storm forecast to hit Monday night.
Debris basins and washes were at or nearing capacity in La Cañada Flintridge, Acton, La Crescenta and Tujunga Canyon, and the burned hillsides were being saturated by water.
“We can’t keep running on luck forever,” said Chief Neil Tyler of the Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department.
Acting Gov. Jerry Brown proclaimed a state of emergency in Los Angeles, Orange, Riverside, San Francisco and Siskiyou counties because of the series of storms.
And many of the more than 1,000 residents ordered evacuated because of the rains are likely to be kept out of their homes through Monday.
The rains once again caused widespread street and highway flooding. The 5 Freeway was closed at the Grapevine because of snow for part of the day. And Ortega Highway was closed by a mudslide.
Rescue workers in Orange County spent more than two hours Thursday afternoon searching for a teenage boy who was last spotted in a turbulent, rain-swollen Santa Ana River, but were unable to find him.
Police and fire agencies scoured the river all the way to the Pacific Ocean -- a distance of nearly 20 miles -- using boats, helicopters and thermal imaging cameras, but found no sign of the boy and called the search off. Officials didn’t know whether he was able to get out on his own or had drowned.
Also, Harbor Patrol deputies in Orange County rescued six men whose outrigger vessel was capsized and shattered by 12-foot waves in Newport Beach Harbor.
To the north, suspected tornadoes touched down in Ventura and Santa Barbara.
“Remember the movie ‘Twister’? It was like that,” said Ventura Police Sgt. Jack Richards. “Pieces of metal shed siding were sheared off the sheds and actually propelled into wooden fences, stuck like razor blades. . . . It picked up a Chrysler Sebring off the ground, it hovered for a second and spun it around. It hit the tree and it blew out the rear and side windows.”
A tornado warning was also issued for eastern Riverside County, and strong winds tipped over three big-rigs in Blythe that blocked all lanes of traffic on the 10 Freeway for several hours.
The weather also caused problems at local airports.
On Thursday afternoon, about 100 people clustered around the Southwest Airlines counter at John Wayne Airport, trying to make arrangements after the airline suspended or canceled most flights in and out of Burbank, Ontario, Orange County, San Diego, Phoenix and Tucson, citing high winds.
Flights at Bob Hope Airport in Burbank and Los Angeles/Ontario International Airport were suspended after 1 p.m.; service was restored in the evening. In Orange County, San Diego, Tucson and Phoenix, the majority of flights for the afternoon and evening were canceled.
Shelby Stewart, his wife, son and in-laws made the best of the situation after learning that their flight home to Salt Lake City had been scrubbed. They had been in Orange County since Sunday, visiting Disneyland and taking in the sights. But after finding out Thursday afternoon that booking the eight of them on another flight would have cost $2,800, they decided instead to rent a car and head to San Diego.
“We said why not just extend our trip for a few days and have an adventure,” Stewart, 32, said.
A good plan, unless they were headed to Sea World, the city’s top tourist attraction. It was closed because of rain Thursday for the first time since 1998.
Dartagnan Pendleton, 41, stared at the flight board at John Wayne Airport, assessing his options. There weren’t many.
He said he was considering taking a flight to Fresno on another airline or even renting a car and driving to Oakland.
“I don’t know whether I can get through on the 5 Freeway,” he said.
The Grapevine was briefly shut down by snow.
Snow levels were expected to fall to as low as 3,000 feet Thursday night, with wind gusts of about 50 mph in the mountains.
“The snow will continue to pile up,” said Bob Smerbeck, a senior meteorologist at Accuweather.com.
In La Cañada Flintridge, former state Sen. Newt Russell, who lives on Ocean View Boulevard, had prepared for the rains by hiring an engineering firm to improve the network of catch basins in his sloped backyard and by stacking sandbags.
Nonetheless, a “roaring torrent” threatened to engulf his backyard as the rains moved in. Working alone with a shovel, Russell managed to dike and channel the flow so that it missed his house by inches, but he was growing tired by afternoon. “My wife is having conniptions,” Russell said. “I’m 82 and I shouldn’t be doing this. But I’m going to give it another hour.”
So far, though, the storms haven’t yet had the “punch” needed to unleash the hillside, said Sue Cannon, a research geologist with the U.S. Geological Survey.
Cannon said that as she watched the storms come in Wednesday and Thursday, “You could see the streaks of rain headed to the Station fire, then it would evaporate or head to the south or head to the north.
“We dodged a bullet -- at least in this case.”
But Cannon said it’s too soon to declare the threat over. Even brief, high-intensity showers could be enough to start debris flowing down ashy, waterlogged hills.
And another storm hovering over the ocean could make its way to Southern California next week.
If it comes this way, Cannon said, “it will be another week like this where we really need to be vigilant and on top of things.”
Times staff writers Mike Anton, Andrew Blankstein, My-Thuan Tran, Amina Khan, Tony Perry, Russ Stanton and Tony Barboza contributed to this report.