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‘Travel not advised’: California travelers pounded by a cold Thanksgiving-week storm

Snow at the top of the Tejon Pass
Snow blankets the top of the Tejon Pass along the 5 Freeway between Gorman and Frazier Park on Wednesday as a powerful storm moved through California.
(Al Seib / Los Angeles Times)

Regina Valenzuela left her home in Bell early Tuesday bound for Portland, Ore., where she was going to pick up her aunt for Thanksgiving. Or so she thought.

She had checked the weather reports for Northern California. Snow was in the forecast, but it was just rain farther north in Oregon. No big deal, she figured.

By the time she hit Shasta Lake on Interstate 5 about 2:30 p.m., ice was thickening. Cars were sliding. She bought tire chains and kept driving.

Valenzuela made it 42 more miles, about to the Shasta County town of Castella, when traffic suddenly stopped. Thus began a 17-hour holiday nightmare, in which she was trapped overnight in her Honda Accord on the snowy mountain with scores of other motorists.

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“GPS said a 30-minute delay. Then the cars started piling up,” Valenzuela said.

The motorists stuck overnight on Interstate 5 between Redding and the Oregon border before the roadway was closed caught the brunt of a cold statewide storm system that unleashed heavy rain, blustery winds and low-elevation mountain snow, prompting road closures and snarling traffic just as Thanksgiving travelers were out en masse.

The cold front originating in the Gulf of Alaska arrived in portions of Northern California on Tuesday, causing headaches for motorists. In San Francisco, which has been essentially dry for eight months, the storm brought about an inch of rain and pea-sized hail. Flooding bedeviled freeways throughout the Bay Area.

By Wednesday morning, rain was falling along the Central Coast, dampening the Cave fire burning in Santa Barbara County and allowing firefighters to get a handle on the blaze.

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In Los Angeles County, motorists had a rain-slicked morning commute. Snow fell along the 5 Freeway through the Grapevine. The Los Angeles River swelled, trapping a man in a thicket of trees near Atwater Village and forcing swift-water rescuers with the Los Angeles Fire Department to come to his aid.
More rain is expected on Thanksgiving Day as forecasters, law enforcement officials and road crews try to deliver a collective message: Stay home.

“Instead of telling you the whole spiel of when not to drive, we think it’s easier to give the advice of just staying home this weekend,” the National Weather Service in Reno tweeted. “It’ll be a mess out there and we want everyone to enjoy their holiday weekend.”

“TRAVEL NOT ADVISED in Shasta, Siskiyou, Trinity and Modoc Counties,” the California Department of Transportation tweeted. “There is nothing we can say at this point other than our Maintenance forces continue working non-stop as we speak.”

Valenzuela was still stuck in her car on Interstate 5 around 7 p.m. Tuesday. Another motorist flagged down a Caltrans worker who told them the road would be clear in 10 to 15 minutes. Hours later, no one had moved.

Vehicles somewhere north of Valenzuela had blocked the interstate. She turned her car on every half-hour, just enough to warm it, then turned it off. Her gas ran low. Then the snow started “a little blizzard,” she said.

Her windshield cracked.

She saw children crying and elderly people stranded. As the sun rose, she and other motorists hiked a mile though deep snow to a gas station, where she bought a gallon of water, dumped it and filled the container with gasoline.

A man in a Range Rover “took charge” to break open a path on the interstate as other drivers helped, followed by people with hand shovels, Valenzuela said. She escaped the jam 10 a.m. Wednesday, dismayed that authorities and road crews had not helped.

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The extended closures of Interstate 5 north of Redding were caused by too many motorists not having chains on their tires, leading to spinouts that blocked both northbound lanes, said Denise Yergenson, a Caltrans spokeswoman.

As snow accumulates around the cars that are stuck, plows can’t get through, she said.

“This is the first time that I remember this type of situation where we had this many people who didn’t chain up and spun out,” Yergenson said. “That’s why it took so long to open.”

Typically, ahead of storms, authorities will either look for chains on cars or ask drivers if they have chains with them in their vehicle and assume they’re being honest, Yergenson said.

By Wednesday afternoon, Caltrans had opened up the northbound I-5 north of Redding for the first time in about 24 hours.

In Southern California on Wednesday, the McDonald’s parking lot just off the 5 Freeway in Gorman had families stopping to play in the snow.

Neel Viswanathan was driving with his wife and two children from San Jose to Carlsbad, where they were going to spend Thanksgiving at Legoland.

“The kids are excited for Legoland. They’re more excited to see the snow,” Viswanathan said.

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As the thin dusting of snow melted, it was picked over by excited chilly revelers. But that was enough for Viswanathan’s 8-year-old daughter, Vatsika, to make tiny snowballs. He advised her to get snow from the hood of the car, where it had piled up.

Andrea Cota and her 10-year-old daughter and 11-year-old son stopped at the McDonald’s too during their drive from Whittier to her mother’s house in Kernville for Thanksgiving.

“It’s cold!” Cota said. “This is my kids’ first snowy holiday. They’re very excited.”

Just two years ago, L.A. sat down to a Thanksgiving feast just after the high temperature hit a crispy 92 degrees — an all-time daily record.

This year, some East Coasters who hoped for a sunny California Thanksgiving said they should have just stayed home.

“I couldn’t believe it. I didn’t pack a single coat in my suitcase. I thought I would be wearing flip-flops,” said Vy Powell, who traveled from Virginia to Orange County to spend the holiday with her aging parents in Anaheim.

Powell’s flight had cut into her Black Friday shopping budget, she said.

“Now that we’re stuck at home instead of lounging at the beach, I know I’m going to spend even more money eating.”

Her brother, Harry Bui, a college student visiting from Boston, said he was having buyer’s remorse over his pre-purchased tickets to Disneyland.

“The magic of the park is taking photos of Mickey and the cool cast in sunshine,” Bui said. “Have you ever seen a bunch of online images with rain sprinkled all over? I sure haven’t.

“This weather is crappy,” he added.

In the tiny Humboldt County town of Carlotta, Nicole Baird, who owns a restaurant just off Highway 36, was still cracking up over a blunt phone call she got Tuesday from a friend who works next door at the post office.

“Hey girl, just wanted to let you know the roof blew off,” the woman told her.

Sure enough, powerful winds had twisted a portion of the metal roof above the restaurant — which is called Tornado Dave’s.

“We went outside and saw that it had literally tacoed itself,” Baird said. “It’s nothing disastrous. It didn’t put anybody out of business. It’s just — what do you call it — ugly curb appeal.”

Powerful winds rocked northwestern California, with Crescent City in Del Norte County seeing gusts of 60 to 70 mph Tuesday, said Brad Charboneau, a meteorologist with the National Weather Service in Eureka.

A weather phenomenon known as a “bomb cyclone” — a low-pressure system that quickly strengthens — formed off the West Coast, bringing what is believed to be the lowest pressure ever recorded in California to Crescent City on Tuesday, Charboneau said. That low pressure drove the strong winds, he said.

Tuesday afternoon, officers in the California Highway Patrol’s new office in Crescent City heard a huge bang and rushed to the window. The metal roof of Ace Hardware next door was being peeled off. Part of it landed in their parking lot.

“It was really, really loud. Everyone pulled out their phones and started recording. It sounded like a big metal sheet being thrown in the wind,” said Officer Brandy Gonzalez.

As this storm system fades by Friday, a new winter storm is expected to start hitting Northern and Central California on Saturday and persist through Tuesday, while people are returning home from the holidays.

It could then hit Southern California by next Wednesday and Thursday, forecasters said.

That storm system is expected to be fueled by an atmospheric river of subtropical moisture coming from the west.

“It’s kind of like a fire hose, which is hard to control. Right now, we’re confident that there’s going to be a rain, and a lot of it, on Saturday afternoon through Sunday,” said Carolina Walbrun, a meteorologist with the weather service’s Monterey office. “Where the heaviest precipitation is going to be is still uncertain.”

St. John reported from Secret Town, Fry and Branson-Potts from Los Angeles, and Do from Orange County. Times staff writers Rong-Gong Lin II and Sarah Parvini and photographer Al Seib contributed to this report.


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