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Deluge Arrives Late, but Still Packs a Punch

February 01, 1996|ERIC MALNIC | TIMES STAFF WRITER

The strongest storm of the winter hit Southern California late but hard Wednesday, firing bursts of heavy rain that flooded basements in San Gabriel and snarled homebound commuter traffic throughout the Los Angeles Basin.

The heaviest rain pounded the foothills of the Santa Monica, San Gabriel, San Bernardino and Santa Barbara mountains, with close to three inches reported in some areas by nightfall Wednesday.

Half an inch of rain fell in Malibu in just half an hour, and similar downpours were reported in canyons above Pasadena, Altadena, Hesperia and Santa Barbara.

Unlike years past, when fire-ravaged hillsides gave way in torrents of mud and debris, slopes generally held fast in Wednesday's heavy rain, although a small mudslide did block several lanes at the junction of the Golden State and Antelope Valley freeways near Newhall.

The biggest problems Wednesday occurred as flood-control channels filled to the brim with muddy runoff water.

A 13-year-old boy fell into a rain-swollen channel in Santa Clarita about 4 p.m., but he managed to clamber to safety after drifting almost two miles downstream. . The boy, who was believed to be in good condition, was not immediately identified.

Lt. James Turner of the San Gabriel Police Department said the flooding occurred there when the Rubio Wash flood control channel--which collects runoff from San Marino and Pasadena--began overflowing its banks at midday. Water from the channel spilled over onto several neighborhood streets below the San Gabriel Country Club, leaving intersections awash and several basements flooded. "It was raining like hell," Turner said. "I've been here 31 years, and I've never seen runoff like that before. The storm drains just couldn't grab it all."

Rising waters prompted the Army Corps of Engineers to close roads in the Sepulveda Flood Control Basin.

Despite a rash of rain-related fender benders, few serious traffic accidents were reported. Among the worst were a school bus spinning out on the Simi Valley Freeway in the San Fernando Valley that slightly injured an 18-year-old student and a chain-reaction collision on the Golden State Freeway in Valencia that involved 10 vehicles, including a Greyhound bus. No one was injured in the Valencia accident.

Scattered power outages were reported throughout the Southland, but service generally was restored within a few hours.

Rob Kaczmarek, a meteorologist with WeatherData Inc., said the rain was coming from a large, relatively warm storm system--born in tropical waters near Hawaii--that ambled slowly across the eastern Pacific toward the mainland.

Originally expected to strike California late Tuesday, the storm stalled about 500 miles off the coast, taunting forecasters by refusing to move onshore as anticipated.

After issuing a flash-flood watch for the Santa Barbara area at 6:45 p.m. Tuesday, National Weather Service forecasters had second thoughts, rescinding the watch two hours later and conceding that "only scattered rain showers" were expected in the Southland for the rest of the night.

But the forecasters did not lose faith in the storm, saying it would get here by Wednesday afternoon and promising substantial rain when it arrived. They were right on both counts.

By 4 p.m. Wednesday, two inches of rain had fallen at the Los Angeles Civic Center. Other storm totals as of 4 p.m. Wednesday include 2.8 inches in San Gabriel, 2.32 inches in Monrovia, 1.52 in Redondo Beach, 1.16 at Los Angeles International Airport, 1.1 in Long Beach, 0.98 of an inch in Woodland Hills, 0.88 of an inch in Santa Ana, 0.82 in Northridge, 0.48 in Newport Beach and 0.40 in Montebello.

The rain at the Civic Center raised the total for the season--which runs from July 1 to June 30--to 4.52 inches, well below the normal total for the date of 7.84 inches.

However, because of conservation measures, careful planning and much heavier precipitation in the northern half of the state--from which Southern California gets much of its drinking and irrigation water--reservoirs are full and water officials say there's no need to worry about a drought, at least not yet.

Kaczmarek said the rain should taper off here by this afternoon as the storm heads east into Arizona and Nevada. He said the clearing trend should continue through Saturday, but that skies are expected to start clouding over late Sunday.

"We might see some more rain Sunday night or Monday morning," he said.

Times staff writer John Johnson and Times correspondent Nicholas Riccardi contributed to this story.

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