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Downtown L.A. breaks 85-year-old rainfall record as winter storm lingers over Southern California

Traffic is turned around on the northbound 5 Freeway just before Gorman.
Traffic is turned around on the northbound 5 Freeway just before Gorman as a cold storm brought snow to parts of the Southland and closed the freeway through the Grapevine.
(Myung J. Chun / Los Angeles Times)

A slow-moving winter storm hovering over Los Angeles made a mess of conditions Thursday — dropping record rainfall in many spots, prompting the closure of multiple major roads and highways, spurring evacuations near wildfire burn scars and forcing water rescues, officials said.

At least 50 people had to be rescued from the Leo Carrillo Campground in Malibu after significant rainfall sent a torrent of muddy water through the area, according to Los Angeles County Fire Department spokesman Geovanni Sanchez.

Apple Valley resident Keith Elvert, 37, had been camping in the area with his wife, children, parents and niece since Tuesday. When he opened the door to his trailer around 3 a.m., “there was two feet of water running outside the trailer pretty swiftly,” he said.

“It was pretty scary — there were some branches and debris, and it was real muddy brown,” Elvert said. “You appreciate the power of the water at that point.”

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VIDEO | 00:19
Storm floods a Malibu campground

Campers are forced to evacuate as flooding deluges the Leo Carrillo campground in Malibu.

The family grabbed what they could and evacuated by car to a hotel in Thousand Oaks. They hope to get back to the trailer Friday or Saturday to assess the damage.

Sanchez said all campers were evacuated safely, and no injuries were reported in the flood.

Meanwhile, accumulating ice and snow forced officials to close a portion of the Grapevine in both directions of the 5 Freeway for nearly 10 hours. The highway, which serves as a major artery for travel in and out of Los Angeles County, reopened around 4 p.m., the California Highway Patrol said.

A portion of Pacific Coast Highway at Puerco Canyon Road in Pacific Palisades that also was closed due to rocks and debris reopened Thursday afternoon, the California Department of Transportation said.

A grandfather and granddaughter wear rain jackets near a flooded section of the Leo Carrillo Campground
Mark Carrow and his granddaughter Ella Glass stand near a flooded section of the Leo Carrillo Campground due to a heavy downpour in Malibu. Carrow and his family were camping at the site when the flooding happened.
(Genaro Molina / Los Angeles Times)

The storm also stymied some transit riders: In downtown L.A.’s Union Station, several inches of water filled at least one hallway early in the morning.

“I don’t live in L.A. but travel through often, and I’ve never seen so much water in the L.A. River or a flooded Union Station,” said Parker Day, who captured video of the water in the station.

Day said his Amtrak Coast Starlight train was delayed about 20 minutes because of the flooding.

At least nine daily rainfall records were broken around the L.A. area Thursday, according to preliminary data from the weather service.

Downtown L.A. saw 2.34 inches of rain, breaking the record of 1.85 inches set in 1936.

Several locations broke records set on an especially wet Dec. 30 in 1951, with Lancaster, Palmdale Regional Airport, Hollywood Burbank Airport, Camarillo and Oxnard setting new high marks at 1.17 inches, 0.85 inches, 1.9 inches, 1.81 inches and 2.03 inches, respectively.

Long Beach Airport and Los Angeles International Airport each more than doubled records set in 1981 with 2.07 inches and 3.09 inches, respectively.

In Sandberg, 2.05 inches of rain smashed the record of 0.57 inches set in 1995.

Forecasters noted that the rainfall totals were preliminary and that additional precipitation could boost the day’s record amounts.

The soggy conditions lingered throughout the day, and a winter storm warning was in effect in the mountains of Ventura and Los Angeles counties as well as San Bernardino County, including Big Bear and Wrightwood, where officials warned of difficult travel conditions with significant reductions in visibility.

Flash flood watches were in effect for the Lake, Bobcat, Dam and Ranch 2 burn scar areas through Thursday afternoon, with residents asked to prepare for potential flooding and debris flows and sandbags offered at fire stations.

Officials in Orange County also issued voluntary evacuation warnings for Silverado Canyon, Williams Canyon and Modjeska Canyon near the Bond fire burn area, which expired at 1 p.m.

Some residents said they had already seen enough.

“I live in a part of L.A. where you walk everywhere,” said Koreatown resident Matthew Olivarez. “I mean, I can go out and do stuff, for sure, but it’s such an inconvenience.”

Olivarez said he couldn’t recall seeing such consistent rain before. He typically walks to his supermarket, his bank and the nearby train station, so he was more than ready for dry weather to return.

Multiple locations broke daily records for record low maximum temperatures as another winter storm promises to bring more moisture through New Year’s Eve.

Mike Wofford, a meteorologist with the National Weather Service in Oxnard, said the storm moved into the area at a fairly normal pace but then stalled when it reached Los Angeles.

“Most storms we get six hours of rain and it’s through, but this particular situation is different,” he said. “The low pressure sitting off the coast is not really moving; it’s just kind of funneling moisture into our area.”

The rain also prompted the closure of Mulholland Highway in the Santa Monica Mountains between Las Virgenes Road and Cornell Road, the Los Angeles County Department of Public Works said. Heavy mudflow and rockfall have littered the roadway, which maintenance crews will work to remove once the heavy rain subsides.

A large amount of mud and debris was also blocking the southbound lane of Malibu Canyon Road north of the tunnel. Drivers were advised to use caution and avoid mountain roads during the rain.

Angeles Crest Highway from State Route 39 to Big Pines also was closed because of snow and landslides.

Southern California wasn’t the only place affected by the storm.

Staggering snowfall brought much of the Sierra Nevada to a standstill, with tens of thousands of residents still without power Thursday afternoon, according to Pacific Gas & Electric Co.

Gov. Gavin Newsom on Thursday declared a state of emergency in 20 counties stretching from Orange up through Sierra. The proclamation will support response and recovery efforts after the storms and directs Caltrans to request immediate federal relief for highway repairs or reconstruction.

The snow comes as a much-needed surprise for the bone-dry West, where only months ago, officials put residents under a state of drought emergency.

Highways 50 and 80, which have been intermittently closed this week because of significant ice and snow, were open only to essential travel, Caltrans said, noting that some gas stations are out of fuel and supplies. Snow chains are required.

In a video update, Caltrans Director Toks Omishakin urged people to stay off the Sierra highways and said there already has been more than $22 million worth of damage because of the winter storms.

Crews have been working around the clock in 12-hour shifts to keep the roads passable for essential travel, such as those making critical trips or delivering freights and goods in the state, he said.

“If it’s a trip just to hang out with family and friends, we’re saying stay off the roads. The conditions are treacherous,” he said.

The Placer County Sheriff’s Office announced it was suspending a search for missing skier Rory Angelotta at the Northstar California Resort on the north end of Lake Tahoe near Truckee.

“It has been determined there is no realistic possibility Rory has survived the severe winter conditions,” the Sheriff’s Office said. “A scaled response is still planned for recovery operations at the resort.”

The six-day rescue effort saw about 220 personnel from 17 agencies and rescue organizations participate as extreme winter conditions — including high winds, whiteouts, nighttime temperatures in the teens and more than seven feet of new snow — pummeled the area, the Sheriff’s Office said.

“This was a difficult decision, especially for the volunteers who have worked so hard to bring Rory home,” the Sheriff’s Office said. “Unfortunately, it was a decision that had to be made. Our hearts go out to the family.”

The UC Berkeley Central Sierra Snow Lab in Donner Pass on Wednesday reported that it had received 264 inches of snow since Oct. 1, breaking a 51-year October-through-December snowfall record of 260 inches, set in 1970.

The rain in Southern California is expected to roll out by Friday, and though New Year’s Eve could begin with a few showers, the start of the new year should end up dry.


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