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Downpours Again Soak High Desert

August 28, 2003|Eric Malnic | Times Staff Writer

Downpours drenched the Mojave Desert again Wednesday, just a few miles from where flash floods poured through homes and swept a car into a storm channel Tuesday, killing three people.

There were no reports of additional flood damage Wednesday. But residents of Twentynine Palms such as Robert Terry Thomas, whose home had been invaded by almost two feet of muddy water the day before, watched the gathering storm clouds with apprehension.

"You can see it's raining hard to the south," he said Wednesday afternoon. "I just hope to God it doesn't hit us again."

By nighttime, heavy rain had forced authorities to close sections of California 62 about seven miles east of Twentynine Palms. A number of side streets were impassible, said Adrienne Baldwin of the Sheriff's Department.

The high desert, hit by a series of destructive rains this month, may see more thunderstorms over Labor Day weekend, according to the National Weather Service.

Residents spent Wednesday cleaning up and recounting the sudden storms that dumped as much as 2 inches of rain in less than two hours. About 30 homes in Twentynine Palms and Joshua Tree were swamped with water and mud. Officials were still trying to tally damage estimates.

"I was walking home from the store with my kids at about 3 o'clock when it started to rain hard," said Thomas, 30. "It got darker and darker, and there was thunder and lightning. I couldn't believe how hard it rained.

"The floodwater started coming from everywhere," he said.

Thomas said he waded through the brown, turbulent stream with his 8-month-old son, Riley, in his arms when his 4-year-old son, Mycah, stumbled and slipped beneath the surface of the water.

"I managed to grab his arm just before he disappeared under our truck," Thomas said.

Thomas said he put both children inside the truck. After another hour or so, the water subsided, leaving behind about 3 inches of mud throughout much of his apartment.

"My friend Elizabeth Stolp and I spent the whole night cleaning up," Thomas said.

The downpours that hit the Mojave Desert on Tuesday and Wednesday were the latest in a series of thunderstorms that has raked the deserts and mountains of Southern California and southeastern Nevada.

Flash floods cut roads and buried homes in the high desert north and east of Los Angeles on Aug. 20 and undermined a bridge on Interstate 15, causing the Los Angeles-to-Las Vegas route to close for nearly a day.

Less than half a mile from Thomas' ground-floor apartment, Laura Lee Ridgeway, 38, had gone for a drive in a heavy rainstorm Tuesday, taking along her sister, Leslie Jean Juarez, 36, and Juarez's 14-year-old daughter, Amanda. Sheriff's deputies said that when Ridgeway tried to ford a rain-swollen wash near her home on Tamarisk Avenue, her car stalled. A sudden torrent washed it from the road into a storm channel.

"A family friend saw what was happening and waded into the water to help," said Robin Haynal, a spokeswoman for the San Bernardino County Sheriff's Department.

Haynal said the friend, Jason John LaBelle, 28, helped Juarez and her daughter safely out of the car, but the driver was still trapped.

"Both Juarez and LaBelle went back, but they couldn't get the door open," Haynal said. "Then the water washed the car farther downstream, and it turned over. Both [Juarez and LaBelle] were swept away."

Ridgeway's body was found in the battered wreckage of the car. The bodies of Juarez and LaBelle were found about five miles downstream.

Lisa Ridgeway, the elder sister of Leslie Juarez and Laura Ridgeway, called LaBelle's heroic rescue attempts "crazy, but awesome."

"He was the best friend of our family," she said Wednesday. "In fact, we thought of him as a member of the family."

At least three other motorists were rescued from floodwaters by firefighters Tuesday afternoon. The downpour was also blamed for an accident that killed a motorist in nearby Joshua Tree.

The National Weather Service said such heavy rain is not unusual for this time of year.

Tim McClung, a Weather Service meteorologist, said winds circulating clockwise around persistent high pressure pull warm, damp air from Mexico into the deserts of New Mexico, Arizona, California and Nevada during July, August and early September.

"The temperatures in the desert are in the 100s, and that causes the surface air to rise, pushing the moist air above it up to about 20,000 feet, where it cools and condenses," McClung said. "What you get is thunder, lightning and rain."

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