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Dramatic rescues, evacuations, mud damage in Southern California rainstorm [updated]

December 22, 2010 | 11:29 am

A violent storm slammed into Southern California early Wednesday morning, flooded streets during rush hour and unleashed muddy torrents that caused one vehicle to take a nose-dive into a drainage canal and contributed to the death of a pedestrian.

Heavy downpours, from Santa Barbara to San Diego, pelted the Southland. The violent weather delivered some of its first blows to Orange County in pre-dawn hours, powered by the atmospheric collision of a mass of cool air from the Pacific Northwest and a flow of intense subtropical moisture from eastern Asia.

Laguna Beach found its downtown street awash in mud, debris and roiling waters. The heavy downpours contributed to the death of an unidentified female pedestrian, who was struck and killed by a sport utility vehicle as she crossed South Coast Highway in Laguna Beach just before daybreak, police reported.

Elsewhere in Laguna Canyon, neighbors were using ropes to try to pull out cars that were buried in mud. In some portions of the canyon, there were rows of cars that were caught in a flash flood and abandoned. Some homes were filled with mud that stood 4 feet deep indoors.

An Orange County driver spun off the 5 Freeway in Irvine and plunged into a flood-control channel. The motorist managed to call 911 on his cellphone as his car was filling up with water. Rescue workers plucked the man, suffering from hypothermia, from the rain-swollen channel and whisked him to the hospital.

"It was pretty dramatic," said Capt. Greg McKeown.

The drama rumbled across the Santa Ana Mountains community of Silverado Canyon in eastern Orange County.  What sounded like thunder was actually floodwater-driven boulders tumbling down the steep slope.

Click here for an interactive explainer on mudslides "When you hear the boulders going 'bang, bang, bang,' you know there's going to be problems," said Steve Eighart, a Silverado Canyon resident working on a makeshift dam to protect his home and a neighboring community center. "I had water up to the windows in the back of the house."

 Authorities issued an evacuation order for residents in Silverado Canyon, parts of Modjeska Canyon, Santiago Canyon and San Juan Capistrano.

"They've just been in the line of fire from a series of rainfall cells," said meteorologist Jamie Meier of the National Weather Service.

"That low has finally moved to just off of our coast, and the more energetic part of that system" has arrived, Meier said. "We're still in a very volatile situation."

[Updated at noon: La Crescenta and La Cañada-Flintridge are now under a flash-flood warning, as heavy rain was approaching the Station fire burn area, the National Weather Service said. Rainfall rates of 0.67 to 1 inch an hour were reported.

A flash-flood warning means that flooding or debris flow are imminent or occurring. Those living in the area should move away only if it is safe to do so; otherwise, residents who have ignored evacuation orders should climb to the second floor of their homes.

Debris flows can send water, tree trunks and car-sized boulders down streets as fast as 35 mph.]

The powerful storm cells over the eastern San Gabriel Valley and Orange County have now moved inland toward the Riverside and Ontario areas.

More than 15 inches of rain have dropped over the Station fire burn area in the San Gabriel Mountains, with one area --Tanbark Flats above La Verne -- recording 21 inches of rain in the last seven days. Those mountain areas remain at risk for debris flows, which could send water, soil and rocks tumbling out of the mountains onto foothill residential neighborhoods as fast as 35 mph.

Some residents of La Cañada-Flintridge refused to evacuate as sheriff's deputies went door to door urging them to get out. They felt lucky after surviving a gully-washer in February.

"We don't mind the rain at all. It's the mud that's catastrophic and will get you," Dale Reavis, 50, a plumber who lives on Earnslow Drive in La Cañada-Flintridge. So far, he said, this storm hadn't brought the havoc of the last one.

"When you've got lemons, make lemonade," said Skeet McAuley, 59, a neighbor, who lost a car in February. This time, he parked his car closer to the street in case he had to evacuate quickly.

But the worst is not over yet. After daybreak, heavy showers sat over Los Angeles County, which could still bring small hail, frequent lightning and possible waterspouts and small tornadoes, meteorologists warned.

Rainfall rates of up to two-thirds an inch per hour have been detected, with some heavier bursts seen in a few areas.

"The threat is still there," Meier said. Energetic rain is expected to continue through Wednesday afternoon.


Photos: Series of storms hits Southern California

Sheriff's officials warn foothill communities to keep roads clear

Laguna Beach shop owners assess damage during break in the rain

-- Nardine Saad and Sam Quinones reporting from Silverado Canyon, Louis Sahagun reporting from Laguna Beach and Andrew Blankstein, Kate Linthicum, Hector Becerra, Rong-Gong Lin II and Ken Weiss reporting from Los Angeles

Photos: Series of storms hits Southern California