The collapse of a hillside in an affluent Laguna Beach neighborhood sent residents fleeing for their lives early Monday as a series of lethal storms that has battered Southern California for 13 days saved some of its most punishing blows for last.
In Laguna Beach, three hillside homes in an ocean-view neighborhood were destroyed by a mudslide before dawn, including one house that slid off its foundation, crashed 50 feet down a steep ravine and caught fire after it tangled in utility lines.
The storm system that forecasters say is expected to ease up today wreaked havoc throughout the region, increasing the death toll north and south of the border. At Camp Pendleton Marine Corps Base, "a tidal wave" of floodwaters piled up vehicles and left 70 aircraft in five feet of water.
The San Luis Rey River, usually a trickle, became a destructive torrent that undermined a road and washed cars downriver. Mudslides and rising waters forced evacuations. Millions of gallons of partially treated sewage flowed into Santa Monica Bay for the second day in a row Monday, prompting complaints that city sanitation officials mishandled the opening of a new sewer line serving the Hyperion Treatment Plant. Another spill continued to dump sewage into the ocean off south Orange County.
In Chula Vista, a bolt of lightning killed a San Diego man working at a garbage dump about 11:30 a.m. He is believed to be the seventh person in Southern California killed in the storms.
But the death toll could go higher. A man was feared swept away in the rain-gorged Santa Clara River in a rural area of Antelope Valley on Monday afternoon. He was last seen trying to cross the river near Acton to get to his four-wheel-drive vehicle.
In hard-hit Tijuana, the body of 11-year-old Miguel Angel Torres, who was missing since Jan. 7, was found in a well in the Ejido Mariano Matamoros section. He is the 26th confirmed weather-related fatality in the sprawling border city since the storms began. Two other people are missing and feared drowned.
Driving rain and rising waters continued to compound the misery for Tijuana residents. Of the 5,000 temporarily housed in shelters around the city Monday, more than 25% have lost "their homes, their possessions, everything," said Gabriel Rosas, a spokesman for the Tijuana mayor's office. Eighteen neighborhoods in the city have lost drinking water from broken mains ravaged by near nonstop rain.
A Marines Corps spokesman said about 30 Marines and civilians from Camp Pendleton were helped out of rushing floodwaters late Sunday. The Los Angeles County Sheriff's Department reported that a mudslide blocked Malibu Canyon Road near Malibu Creek State Park on Monday night. The slide caused an accident in which at least one person was injured.
The furious weather is expected to finally give way to sunshine today, forecasters say, providing public works crews, property owners and the Marine Corps a chance to better assess the multimillion-dollar damage and commence with the cleanup.
Steve Burback, a forecaster with WeatherData Inc., said Southern California should be dry at least until Thursday, when a moderate storm front may bring rain to Ventura County. That front should spare most of the region, he said.
By 4 p.m. Monday, more than 11.2 inches of rain had been recorded at Los Angeles Civic Center over a 13-day period since Jan. 6--more than triple the normal precipitation for the full month of January.
In many places the Southland's terrain gave in to the deluge. Saturated hillsides collapsed and streams overflowed their banks.
No one was seriously injured in the Laguna Beach slide and fire, to the amazement of officials who temporarily evacuated about 100 people from the neighborhood. A teen-ager suffered minor cuts on his foot as he tried to escape the crumbling house of a friend.
The house that caught fire, in the scenic Mystic Hills neighborhood overlooking downtown Laguna Beach, apparently was unoccupied when it tumbled down the slope and tangled in utility lines about 4:45 a.m. Monday. The owner, who was not identified by police, apparently was in San Francisco at the time.
Next door on Mystic Lane, two adults and four youngsters managed to scramble out a window minutes before the two-story house slid about 10 feet down the slope and buckled. Thomas Hitzel, who barely escaped from his home with his family, said the slide came abruptly about 4:15 a.m.
"I started hearing popping noises. My wife said: 'Oh, it's just routine creaking,' but I said: 'Let's get the kids out,' " said Hitzel, 45, a vice president at Avco Financial Services in Irvine.
Hitzel, his wife, Gayla, their son Ryan, 15, daughter Keleen, 9, and two teen-age boys who were sleeping over threw clothes on and at first tried to escape out the front door. But the house had started to collapse and the door was jammed, so they climbed out a window in the boy's bedroom instead. Some of them were barefoot, and a police officer and firefighter helped them over the buckled road.