Orange County, spared for now from a deluge, was soaked Wednesday with exactly the type of rain it so desperately needs: Enough to moisten the parched earth and nourish its water supply, but not so fast and furious that it overloaded flood-control networks.
The showers, spawned by a weakening subtropical storm from Hawaii, started about 10 p.m. Tuesday and fizzled into a drizzle by late Wednesday morning. The rain erupted again in the afternoon and continued into the night.
Just after 6 p.m., rain-soaked hillsides sent a mudslide across both lanes of Ortega Highway, closing the mountain thoroughfare from La Pata Avenue in Orange County to Lookout Point, which is six miles past the Riverside County line.
Commuters had to find other ways home as Caltrans crews cleared the highway, reopening it at 8:15 p.m.
By about 9 p.m. Wednesday, 88 accidents, most of them rain-related, had occurred on Orange County freeways, CHP Officer Bill Wedderburn said. Most were "fender-benders," he said, and none was fatal.
Forecasters said the sporadic showers should continue through this morning, when another storm--this time a cold air mass from the Gulf of Alaska--moves in.
The northern storm, which had been expected here a day earlier, moved more slowly than meteorologists predicted, but it still could drop a couple of inches of rain along Southern California's coast and up to five inches in the mountains and foothills early today.
This morning's chance of rain is 90%, with scattered showers in the afternoon and a 60% chance of more rain tonight, according to the National Weather Service.
Orange County emergency officials said they doubt that the second storm will be intense enough to cause serious flooding.
"I don't think there will be a big one. It's not going to happen today or tomorrow, at least," said Bill Reiter, a public works operations manager who heads the county's storm center, which kicked into gear at 5 a.m. Wednesday.
Friday should bring a break from the stormy weather, but another storm could move in on Saturday.
By 3:30 p.m. Wednesday, just shy of four inches of rain had fallen on Santiago Peak, the county's highest point. Coastal areas of Orange County were moistened by less than an inch, while about 1 1/2 inches fell in North County cities. Other than Santiago Peak, Lake Forest received the most, with 1.85 inches.
That, however, is a drop in the bucket compared to the four inches that soaked the coast and inland cities in a mere six hours on Dec. 7.
"It's been relatively light in amount and intensity," Reiter said. "The good thing is that it has stretched over a long period. When it's of low intensity like that, we can handle it."
Tides, reaching about 6 1/2 feet, the highest in a year, posed no problems along Orange County's coast Wednesday. The surf was fairly flat, so beachfront homes and roads, even in the vulnerable Sunset Beach area, were not threatened, and runoff in channels flowed into the sea without backing up.
"At one point we almost closed (Pacific Coast Highway), but it kind of slowed down, and so far no problems," said Jack Ellis, supervisor of streets for the city of Huntington Beach.
Ellis warned that flooding in Huntington Beach could happen today, especially around high tide, shortly after 7 a.m. A small-craft advisory was posted for both the inner and outer coastal waters, with three-foot seas and a swell of six feet expected near the coast today.
The rain made for a miserable morning rush hour Wednesday as numerous freeways and other roads in Orange County suffered temporary lane closures because of minor flooding.
Authorities on Wednesday escorted traffic down Ortega Highway, a two-lane mountain road always vulnerable to rain, because of rockslides. Morning commuters at the infamous Orange Crush interchange encountered a 90-minute closure of the southbound Santa Ana Freeway connector to the eastbound Garden Grove Freeway because of flooding.
For most of the day, the El Toro Road on-ramp to northbound Interstate 5 was closed, as well as the southbound on-ramp and off-ramp at Jeffrey Road to the I-5. All are expected to be open this morning unless heavy rains overnight flood the area again.
"We're faring a lot better now than in December" during the last heavy rains, said Steve Saville, a Caltrans spokesman in Orange County. "What helps us out is when we get a break from the rain like we've had, and it allows a lot of the storm waters to subside."
Motorists can call a Caltrans tape recording at 1 (800) 427-ROAD for up-to-date information on highway conditions anywhere in the state.
Early Wednesday, Orange County flood-control crews, as well as some jail inmates, stood ready to battle flooding. They started looking for trouble spots at 3:30 a.m. The 150 members of Orange County Search and Rescue also were on alert.