The storms that have barreled across California for several days turned deadly at week's end, killing at least six people, leaving six more missing, flooding vast tracts of farmland, forcing hundreds to flee their homes and shutting a section of the state's major north-south freeway, as the first front finally made its belated push into the Southland on Friday night and early Saturday morning.
Two deaths were confirmed and six other people were missing after a bridge on Interstate 5 near Coalinga collapsed, spilling at least four cars into a raging San Joaquin Valley creek.
In several Southern California communities, residents made harrowing escapes as brown floodwaters surged into their homes. Malibu was the hardest hit locally, as dozens of houses were flooded along Pacific Coast Highway, which was closed under a mountain of mud and rock.
The destruction covered a broad swath from Big Sur to Orange County:
* Streams breached the California Aqueduct in two places in the Central Valley, as farmers and government workers pumped frantically to keep the vital waterway intact.
* The collapse of Interstate 5 near Coalinga, which will not be repaired for at least six weeks, was the most dramatic fissure in a badly shattered road and highway system.
* Extensive flooding of farmland flushed strawberries onto Ventura County beaches and damaged almonds and asparagus elsewhere--prompting predictions of higher produce prices in supermarkets.
* More than 2,000 people were evacuated from the town of Pajaro near the border of Monterey and Santa Cruz counties and another 1,500 people in Big Sur and Carmel Highlands were virtually cut off from the rest of California--with limited electricity, phone service and water.
* By Saturday night, 38 California counties had been declared disaster areas.
Inch-an-hour rains unleashed the destruction. As much as seven inches fell in some places, in a state already soaked this year with almost double the normal rainfall.
"The storm was just horrendous out here," California Highway Patrol spokesman Al Galvez said in Coalinga. Wearily eyeing more sheets of rain on the horizon, he added: "That is not a pretty picture."
While thundershowers continued in some areas through Saturday night, Southern California is expected to get a reprieve today and for the foreseeable future. Another storm front will arrive in the state Monday, but it is expected to remain mostly in the north and pack less power, forecasters said.
"This looks like the last shot, then it should be dry for an extended period," said Curtis Brack, a meteorologist with WeatherData Inc., which provides forecasts for The Times.
It was at an unremarkable bridge in rolling farm country that the devastating I-5 collapse occurred.
About 9:20 p.m. Friday, the columns propping up the giant freeway could no longer sustain a pounding from normally tranquil Arroyo Pasajero Creek. Boulders, uprooted trees and mud battered the columns until at least five gave way. When they did, two lanes that travel in each direction disappeared.
At least four cars hurtled off the roadway and into the brown water, although an exact count was difficult because of treacherous conditions and because the creek bed has for years been a dumping ground for abandoned cars.
One man was able to pull himself from the wreckage of a car and into a tree, where he waited for rescuers. Two bodies were spotted in one capsized car, but the floodwaters were too swift to retrieve them. The search for other survivors was apparently in vain.
A Fresno County sheriff's helicopter fired flares into the darkness Friday night at the site but could not find anyone, including two waitresses and a cook from nearby restaurants who were reported missing.
"There is no way to save a life, not as this stage," said Sgt. Jim Hamilton of the Fresno County sheriff's search and rescue team. "This is not a rescue operation anymore, it's a recovery mission."
A Caltrans official who surveyed the damage said the highway, the main line from Los Angeles to San Francisco and points beyond, would be out for at least six weeks. Traffic will be forced to either detour around a nine-mile stretch of the closed freeway or be rerouted to U.S. 99 or U.S. 101, which is nearer the coast.
Dave Crockett, a foreman at TCI Truck Leasing in Los Angeles, said the closing of I-5 is "going to crucify us," creating a major disruption for his company and other shippers.
Farm officials said the latest rains would add to a troublesome year, particularly for almonds in the northern Central Valley, asparagus in the Sacramento River Delta and strawberries in the coastal farmlands south of San Francisco.