BARSTOW — Downpours hitting parched sand caused flash floods from Nevada to Los Angeles County on Wednesday, forcing the closure of Interstate 15 and stranding high desert drivers in rivers of mud.
In Yucca Valley, 100 miles east of Los Angeles, a state of emergency was declared.
"It's a mess," said Town Manager Mike Stewart, who declared the town a disaster area and appealed for help from San Bernardino County. "We've got about three businesses experiencing flood damage and 19 homes that were flooded."
Meanwhile, Las Vegas endured its second day in a state of emergency, and the California artery to that city -- Interstate 15 -- was shut down when engineers discovered that water had cracked and bent three concrete pylons supporting the highway outside Baker.
Sporadic flooding continued throughout much of the day over the Mojave Desert, hitting hardest from Edwards Air Force Base south to Palmdale and Lancaster. Rivers of fast-moving dirt and sand swept motorists off roads, overturned parked cars and forced some desert residents to seek higher ground.
In the Antelope Valley, about 15,000 people lost power for a while. Power outages also were reported in Needles and other areas. In Lancaster, the storm overturned power poles and created a river of mud that swept a woman's car several hundred feet off a road. Firefighters rescued her by helicopter.
The San Bernardino County Fire Department made 18 water rescues, many of which were caused by drivers who ignored roadblocks, said Tom Barnes, a dispatcher for the agency. He said no injuries were reported.
"If you're traveling any roads in the desert area, the danger of flash floods is very real," Barnes said. "If you don't have to travel, don't. If you are traveling, watch for the rains, because they could be in the hills ahead of you and run off to the road very quickly."
Forecasters warned that more downpours and possible flooding would remain a threat for San Bernardino, Riverside and San Diego county mountains, as well as the Apple, Yucca and Coachella valleys until early this morning.
On the road to Las Vegas, northbound traffic backed up for an estimated 27 miles after damage to the supports of the 38-year-old Oat Wash Bridge was discovered, resulting in the closure of I-15 at Zzyzx Road about 10:30 a.m.
"Anyone going to Vegas is not going to get past Barstow," said California Highway Patrol Officer Adam Cortinas. Caltrans officials estimated that the bridge would be repaired by this morning.
Travelers were rerouted to eastbound Interstate 40 at Barstow and to northbound highway 95 at Needles. The unexpected parade of traffic amounted to a windfall for business owners in Needles.
"It's never this busy on a Wednesday," said Levi East, 18, a clerk at Westside Texaco and Dairy Queen. "We're like, where are these people coming from? Send them back."
East's cash register showed about 300 transactions in five hours, about 250 more than usual.
"People were getting angry because they had to travel around so much," East said. "They were saying they've had to go like so many extra hundreds of miles."
The sudden, heavy downpours were the death throes of former Tropical Storm Erika, which swept across the Caribbean earlier in the week. The storm weakened as it pushed inland over Mexico, but remnants moved north and west over Arizona, southern Nevada and Southern California.
Energized by heat rising from the Mojave Desert, the moisture from these remnants condensed into massive thunderheads that dumped up to 2 inches of rain in less than an hour Wednesday. The rain fell onto bone-dry desert sand incapable of absorbing the moisture quickly, creating torrents of muddy runoff that cascaded down normally dry streambeds.
The showers were heavier than usual, but not unprecedented. Warm, moist air from the Caribbean frequently invades Southern California during August and September, causing rain in the deserts and mountains, according to the National Weather Service.
Las Vegas residents took the brunt of it late Tuesday night, when thunderstorms dumped 3 inches of rain in less than 90 minutes in some parts of the city, overwhelming flood control facilities, swamping suburban neighborhoods and prompting city officials to declare a state of emergency.
After touring the flood's aftermath by helicopter Wednesday evening, Las Vegas Mayor Oscar B. Goodman estimated that the storm system caused up to $1.5 million in damage to public property. Damage estimates for private property weren't available, but officials said one home was destroyed, 37 received major damage and 21 had some minor damage. About 3,000 customers briefly lost electrical power. The worst flooding was confined to the city's northwest suburb, while the Las Vegas Strip and downtown escaped serious damage.
Where the rain did no damage, however, some welcomed it.
"This is very good, getting rain out here this time of year," said Mel Baker, a retired school superintendent and 28-year resident of California City, where the storm was dramatic but not punishing. "The plants love it, and it clears the air up beautifully."
And on Interstate 40, some travelers remained optimistic.
"Once we make it through this," said Robert Pogan, 37, of Ontario, "I'm sure we'll be happy to be on our way. We're ready for Vegas."
Times staff writers Li Fellers, Eric Malnic and Wendy Thermos and Associated Press contributed to this report.