Storm threat subsides in California

9:02 AM, Mar 2, 2014   |    comments
Skiers crowd the slopes at Snow Valley, Calif. as a strong storm dumped fresh snow on the slopes Saturday, March 1, 2014. A powerful Pacific storm hit the state early Saturday, but did not put a major dent in a drought that is among the worst in recent California history.
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LOS ANGELES (AP) -- A thunderstorm that brought sorely-needed rain to drought-plagued California is winding down after sending mudslides down foothill communities, flooding roadways and opening up sinkholes.

Evacuation orders remained in effect for hundreds of homes in Los Angeles County foothill communities where recent wildfires have burned away vegetation that holds soil in place, and bursts of rain caused occasional debris flows.

The storm marked a sharp departure from many months of drought that has grown to crisis proportions for the state's vast farming industry. However, such storms would have to be much more frequent to make major headway against the drought, weather forecasters say.

The heavy band of rain drenched parts of the state throughout Saturday before tapering off by nighttime. While the danger of mudslides was subsiding, officials urged residents who left their homes as much as three days earlier to stay away until Sunday morning.

"The good news is that it looks like the storm will pass ... but we still need to evaluate the safety of the area" before people can return home, Assistant Chief Steve Martin of the Los Angeles County Fire Department told a webcast news conference.

The National Weather Service said the storm is forecast to move east over the Rockies and into the Plains and Mississippi Valley through Sunday, bringing a hodgepodge of precipitation. Colorado's ski resorts could see up to 6 inches of fresh snow. A mixture of sleet and snow in Kansas, Missouri and Illinois will eventually change over to all snow - with up to 8 inches forecast for Kansas City and the St. Louis area - while northern Arkansas will see freezing rain. The system also has its sights set on the Appalachians and the East Coast into Monday.

The storm's eastward move on Saturday finally broke a 70-day streak without precipitation in the Phoenix area. An 85-day spell of no measureable rainfall in Las Vegas ended Friday. Rain and snow also finally came to drought-stricken New Mexico. In Denver, a highway pileup involving more than 100 vehicles killed one person and injured 30 others as heavy snow fell Saturday, authorities said.

In California, about 1,200 houses in the adjacent cities of Azusa and Glendora as well as nearby Monrovia were under evacuation orders because of the possibility of destructive flows from the San Gabriel Mountains, a rugged range largely covered by the Angeles National Forest.

In Azusa, 3 to 10 feet of mud buried Ed Heinlein's backyard, swallowing a metal fence and reaching up to the rim of a basketball hoop.

"We've got to find a way to get the 100 tons of mud out of my backyard," Heinlein told the Los Angeles Times. "We're probably looking at tens of thousands of dollars in damage."

Forecasters predicted only showers in California on Sunday as the storm heads east - a lucky break for the evening's Oscar red carpet festivities in Hollywood.

The storm was the much more powerful second act of two systems that hit California during the week.

Downtown San Francisco received 8.01 inches of rain by Saturday evening, bringing the city to 44 percent of its normal rainfall but avoiding the city's driest-ever "rain year" record by roughly half an inch, NWS meteorologist Matt Mehle said. The driest year was in 1851, with just 7.42 inches. The rain year begins July 1.

"All this rain has been really helpful but we are still behind the curve in terms of the drought," Mehle said.

Downtown Los Angeles tallied 4.34 inches from the second storm by 5 p.m. Saturday, said NWS meteorologist Joe Sirard in Oxnard. That raised the rainfall total to 5.54 inches since July 1, still 6.19 inches below normal.

In the Hollywood hills, a mudslide took down a tree which knocked down a power pole, leaving homes in the neighborhood in the dark late Saturday.

Other trouble spots included about 13 homes that were evacuated Friday night in the Lake Hughes area in northern Los Angeles County after a mudslide closed a major road. To the east in San Bernardino County, a levee failed and put eight houses in danger of serious flooding, but county fire crews were working to protect them and no evacuations were ordered.

The storm also created problems from the sea.

Heavy surf in the Long Beach area caused mild to moderate damage to 20 homes on Ocean Boulevard, though no evacuations were required, the fire department said.

In Santa Barbara County, strong waves sent water crashing into a beachside restaurant in Goleta and three boats onto the sand and a pier, county fire Capt. Martin Johnson said. The restaurant's manager told KEYT-TV that one of his employees was swept out into the ocean and underneath the pier, where he was able to get out of the water. Another employee was pushed back inside the restaurant by a rogue wave but was not seriously hurt.

A fierce wave also broke the windows of a restaurant on the Santa Barbara pier.

At the north end of Monterey Bay, strong waves apparently broke through the foundation of a seaside home, creating a blowhole on the driveway and shooting water over the roof. Also, a stretch of the oceanfront drive in Santa Cruz was shut down Saturday after a large sinkhole appeared in a cliff, opening the roof of a cave where homeless people have lived. Authorities said public works was investigating.

The storm was so volatile that a tornado warning was issued early Saturday for suburbs east of Los Angeles.

Numerous traffic accidents occurred on slick or flooded roads across California, including one about 60 miles east of Los Angeles involving a big rig whose driver died after falling from a freeway overpass. The Fresno County sheriff's office also reported a man was injured by lightning Friday.

Utilities repaired numerous scattered power outages.

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