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Strongest storm of the week moving into L.A. area, bringing flood, mudslide threats

January 21, 2010 |  6:34 am

Long Beach

The strongest storm of the week was rolling into Southern California this morning, bringing heavy, sustained rains that will last into the evening.

The National Weather Service said the rains will get progressively heavier through the morning and early afternoon, with the strongest showers coming in the late afternoon and early evening. The snow level is expected to drop throughout the day, making it possible that officials will again close the Grapevine and Cajon Pass.

More rain is expected Friday and early Saturday.

The NWS issued a flood warning this morning, saying the risk is high for mudslides and debris flows in foothill areas from Acton to La Cañada Flintridge hit by last year's Station fire.

Scattered -- and at times intense -- showers were reported this morning, the leading edge of the big storm. The rain caused numerous accidents, jamming the morning commute. Wednesday's evening commute was marred by freeway flooding.

In Long Beach, which has been hard hit by this week's rain, the mayor urged residents to avoid driving today if possible, and Cal State Long Beach was closed.

Forecasters said today's drenching could bring with it some wild weather conditions.

"Keep your eyes peeled for tornadoes and some lightning and thunder," said Bill Patzert, a climatologist for the Jet Propulsion Laboratory in La Cañada Flintridge. "But as this moves into my area up here in the foothills, sooner or later, something here has to break loose."

The storms have gotten progressively worse through the week.

Streets from San Pedro to Sunland flooded. And the afternoon commute turned into a nightmare when portions of the 405 and 710 freeways were inundated by several feet of water, stranding several cars. The Grapevine was closed for much of the day because of snow, and officials Wednesday night shut down Interstate 15 at the Cajon Pass. A rock slide closed California 1 at Mugu Rock in Ventura County.

There were reports of hail and scattered power outages. At least one waterspout off the coast of Hermosa Beach prompted city officials to call residents, telling them to stay indoors. And a dozen children were rescued in separate swift-water rescues in La Habra and Yorba Linda.

Lightning struck two Southwest Airlines Boeing 737s before they landed safely at Bob Hope Airport in Burbank. The airliners, which were flying from Oakland and Sacramento, landed at 9:38 a.m. and 9:57 a.m., respectively. Both were taken out of service to check for possible damage.

The back-to-back-to-back wallops have dropped more than 3 inches of rain on downtown Los Angeles and more than 5 inches in Long Beach since Sunday. The precipitation has pushed L.A. into an above-average rainfall total for this time of year -- with a total of 8.23 inches since July.

The biggest concern remains the Station fire-ravaged foothill areas of La Cañada Flintridge, La Crescenta, Glendale, Tujunga and Acton, where more than 1,000 homes were under mandatory evacuation.

Many homeowners refused the order and remained in their residences, frustrating officials.

Los Angeles Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa and Police Chief Charlie Beck issued stern warnings that lives could be at risk and pleaded with residents in mudslide-prone areas to evacuate. The city, Villaraigosa said, could be looking at a "La Conchita situation" if the intense rains continue as forecast. In 2005, 20 people were killed when the hillside above the small Ventura County community collapsed.

"This weather event is not over," Beck said.

Debris flow experts from the U.S. Geological Survey offered their own cautionary notes, likening the heavy rains to a 1969 storm that triggered landslides, mudslides and floods that killed 34 people near Glendora. Rivers of mud, rocks and debris can cascade down mountainsides and through channels, picking up sediment along the way at speeds up to 35 mph, experts said.

By 5 p.m. Wednesday, rainfall was abating and the storm water rushing down Ocean View Boulevard in La Cañada Flintridge was mostly clear -- a good sign for residents who had ignored repeated evacuation orders.

Like many other holdouts, George Wiktor, 60, spent the day keeping a close eye on neighbors' homes and studying the latest National Weather Service forecast.

-- Kimi Yoshino and Tony Barboza

Photo: A man walks to his car from the Long Beach Aquarium during a downpour on Jan. 20, 2010, in Long Beach. Credit: Allen J. Schaben / Los Angeles Times

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