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Storm lashes California and leaves polluted water

By Noaki Schwartz

Associated Press

Published: Thursday, Dec. 23 2010 1:43 p.m. MST

A house in the Beaver Dam Resort area falls into the Beaver Dam Wash in Beaver Dam, Ariz. Tuesday, Dec. 21, 2010. Heavy rains caused the wash to swell over its banks destroying roads and homes along it's path.

Las Vegas Review-Journal, John Locher, Associated Press

LOS ANGELES — Many California residents who endured flooding, mudslides and evacuations during a weeklong onslaught of rain must now clean up or even rebuild — and could face the prospect of not being able to spend Christmas at home.

The storm's push across the West left a muddy mess across Southern California and the threat of avalanches in Nevada, where Clark County officials urged residents of Mount Charleston, near Las Vegas, to leave after snow slides near two mountain hamlets.

The inland region of Southern California east of Los Angeles was emerging as among the hardest-hit areas, especially San Bernardino County, where a sea of mud damaged 70 homes in the community of Highland.

Ibeth Garcia and her family returned Thursday to a home surrounded by mud 4 feet deep to retrieve Christmas presents and clothes left behind when they fled a dirty torrent.

"We left with just our shoes, cell phones and car keys," said Garcia, 26. "We didn't have time for anything else."

They found just a light coating of mud inside the house and considered themselves lucky, as some of their neighbors' homes were uninhabitable.

Damage in the region largely occurred in counties south and east of Los Angeles County.

San Bernardino County authorities said the preliminary damage estimate there was at least $10 million and would likely increase.

Numerous motorists were rescued from swamped cars during the days of rain, but one driver was killed. The body of Angela Wright, 39, of Menifee was recovered from a car that was swept off a flooded road Wednesday near Canyon Lake in Riverside County, the coroner's office said.

While the rain had given way to only partly cloudy skies Thursday, the danger was not over for foothill residents living below wildfire-scarred hillsides.

"The ground is so saturated it could move at any time" and the threat will remain for several weeks, said Bob Spencer, spokesman for the Los Angeles County Department of Public Works.

More than 200 homes were ordered evacuated for more than 24 hours in La Canada Flintridge and La Crescenta, suburbs of Los Angeles below steep hillsides that burned in 2009 and where mudslides inundated homes and backyards in February. Evacuations ended Wednesday night.

Despite the return of sunshine Thursday, officials said Californians may want to resist the urge to head to the ocean.

The rain washed trash, pesticides and bacteria into waterways and prompted health warnings. Four beaches were closed in Northern California's San Mateo County, and another 12 miles of beach from Laguna Beach to San Clemente in Southern California's Orange County were off-limits because of sewer overflows.

"It can be very nice the next day and everyone says 'This is great! This is a beach day,'" said Jonathan E. Fielding, director of the Los Angeles county public health department. "It could well be but we will be monitoring and testing water and we won't recommend people go back there until we're sure it's safe."

Experts normally recommend waiting 72 hours after a storm before getting in the water, though in this case some are saying five days might be wiser. The contamination in some areas could last for weeks because of the especially heavy rains.

Mark Gold, president of Heal the Bay, a Santa Monica-based group that monitors and grades beach water quality, said rain causes more pollution to get flushed into the region's system of storm drains, channels and rivers that carry runoff to the sea.

"Literally every beach gets an 'F' when we get a rain storm like this," he said. "It's big enough to pollute each and every beach in LA County. It's a pretty extraordinary event when we have rain like this."

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