L.A. evacuations ordered; California braces for more rain

By Gillian Flaccus

Associated Press

Published: Tuesday, Dec. 21 2010 11:17 p.m. MST

People attempt to pull a truck out of the rain-swollen Santiago Creek near Modjeska Canyon, Calif. on Tuesday.

Associated Press

Enlarge photo»

LOS ANGELES — If six days of pounding rain wasn't enough to dampen holiday spirits, a seventh could prove to be downright dangerous.

Forecasters expected heavy rains across California going into Wednesday, and authorities began evacuations late Tuesday as concern grew about potential mudslides in the wildfire-scarred foothills across the southern part of the state.

Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger declared a state of emergency Tuesday for Kern, Orange, Riverside, San Bernardino, San Luis Obispo and Tulare counties because of the extreme weather conditions.

Officials ordered evacuation of 232 homes in La Canada Flintridge and La Crescenta, foothill suburbs of Los Angeles, because of forecasts of more heavy rains on already saturated mountainsides.

San Diego police evacuated dozens of homes and businesses but no structural damage was reported in the city, said Lt. Andra Brown. A commuter rail station was closed in the city's Sorrento Valley area due to heavy rains. About a dozen homes were evacuated in a cul-de-sac south of downtown.

A mudslide closed one street in the La Jolla area of San Diego.

Farther inland in Riverside, a surge of water swept through a homeless camp near the banks of the Santa Ana River.

Rebecca Truver, 45, was holed up in her tent when her dog and her cat started acting strangely.

"They knew something was happening," Truver said of her dog and cat. "Then all of a sudden the water came through up to my knees."

Three people suffered minor injuries and about 50 lost all their belongings in the flood, Ruth Record, with Come as You Are Homeless Ministries, told the Riverside Press Enterprise.

Other inconveniences have so far been relatively minor: Rescuers had to pluck some stranded motorists from rain-swollen creeks. Shoppers dodged puddles while buying last-minute Christmas gifts. Disney resorts canceled a plan to shower visitors with artificial snow.

"We'll keep our fingers crossed, but the more rain that comes, the possibility of mudslides is definitely real," said Jim Amormino, spokesman for the Orange County sheriff's office, which has rescued nine people from the flooding in the past 24 hours.

"We've been lucky so far, but I'm not sure how much longer the luck will hold out," he said.

For all the perils of the torrential rains, there was a silver lining: The water is expected to help ease the effects of years of drought. Thursday is expected to be dry, with sunshine. There will be light rain on Christmas Day in parts of California.

The immediate concern, however, was the impact of the expected downpours, particularly in areas where wildfires stripped hillsides of the vegetation that keeps soil in place and burns up dead leaves and other debris that act like a sponge.

Downtown Los Angeles received one-third of its annual average rainfall in less than a week. As of midmorning Tuesday, the rain gauge at the University of Southern California campus recorded 5.77 inches. Forecasters said another 2 inches was expected there through Wednesday.

Up to two inches of rain per hour was expected in areas primed for a major mudslide by last year's wildfire in suburbs just north of the city.

The storm was expected to drop a total of 10½ to 15½ feet of snow at Mammoth Mountain, about five hours northeast of Los Angeles in the Eastern Sierras, capping off what's already made record books as the December ever at the ski resort.

Mudslides are a significant risk for three years after a fire and are especially likely anytime the rainfall rate reaches or exceeds one inch per hour, said Susan Cannon, a research geologist with the U.S. Geological Survey.

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