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Southern California storms save worst for last

Intensely wet system spawns flooding and mudslides. Orange County, San Gabriel Valley hit especially hard.

December 23, 2010|By Nardine Saad, Louis Sahagun and Mitchell Landsberg, Los Angeles Times

The first rumblings sounded like cracking thunder.

"When you hear the boulders going 'Bang, bang, bang,' you know there's going to be problems," said Steve Eighart, who has lived in Orange County's Silverado Canyon for 10 years, through the inevitable cycles of fire and flood that cut an edge of peril into Southern California's genial landscape.

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Now, on Wednesday morning, as a raging Pacific storm battered the region, boulders were tumbling into the canyon. And as Eighart looked out the door, he saw water from swollen creeks cascading toward his house like a waterfall.

"I had water up to the windows in the back of the house," he said a short time later. He spent the early morning hours building a makeshift dam to keep it out.

It was that kind of day across Southern California as a seventh straight day of pounding rain caused widespread flooding and damage. With the ground already saturated from the previous days of rain, nature delivered its strongest blow, a slow-moving, intensely wet storm spiked with wind, hail and thunder and wreaking havoc from San Diego to Ventura County.

It flooded downtown Laguna Beach with muddy goop, collapsed a concrete wall of Trabuco Creek in San Juan Capistrano and caused officials to release rising water behind the Whittier Narrows Dam in the San Gabriel Valley. A mudslide forced the evacuation of two homes in the Ventura County community of La Conchita, site of a tragic slide in 2005. Mud enveloped blocks of homes in the San Bernardino town of Highland, and San Diego's Qualcomm Stadium flooded a day before the Poinsettia Bowl.

It got so wet in Laguna Canyon that animal rescue workers were forced to transfer seals and a seal lion to higher ground, and prized koi fish were swept to their deaths.

Since last Thursday, Laguna Beach recorded more than 9 inches of rain, and downtown Los Angeles was inching closer to setting a record for the wettest December in 120 years. Downtown had received at least 7 inches in the last 7 days alone, with the record for all of December being 8.77.

A pedestrian died Wednesday morning when she was hit by a car while crossing South Coast Highway in Laguna Beach, but it wasn't clear whether the weather contributed to the accident. There were no estimates available of damage caused by the storm.

On Thursday, the storm system was expected to take a break – or, more accurately, to march east and out of California, although some lingering thundershowers were possible, forecasters said.

"They've just been in the line of fire from a series of rainfall cells," said meteorologist Jamie Meier of the National Weather Service. The storms blew in on the jet stream off the Pacific, powered by a vortex of low pressure from the Gulf of Alaska and fueled by an airborne river of subtropical moisture from eastern Asia.

The rainfall hit hardest in Orange County and the eastern San Gabriel Valley, although it was intense at times throughout the region. As is often the case, some of the highest rainfall volumes came in mountain canyons, producing torrents of debris-clogged floodwater that turned roads into creeks and creeks into rivers.

And once again, the people who made the ultimate Southern California bargain, trading safety for beauty, permanence for transcendence, were presented with a reality check.

Tonalli Martinez' family had lived in Los Angeles, Costa Mesa and Irvine before moving to Orange County's Modjeska Canyon 13 years ago. The 18-year-old said that on most days, nothing beats the beauty of living in the canyons.

"In the summers, you have these beautiful days," she said. "It's pretty worth it. Then you get these days, when you're trapped in your house and you need to go to work."

Modjeska Canyon has a history of natural disaster, including periodic flooding and a devastating fire in 2007. The Martinez home is elevated, so the engorged river just a short walk away didn't threaten it Wednesday as it did other homes. But that didn't keep muddy water from ruining Guillermo Martinez' workshop, where he makes Native American flutes and drums.

It was all enough to get Tonalli Martinez thinking about the trade-offs of living in the canyons.

"I feel like it's worth it," she said. "But then, at the same time, it's inconvenient. But nature isn't about our convenience. You just have to put up with it. The elements aren't going to do what you want."

In nearby Silverado Canyon, residents found themselves stranded by torrents of water, mud, boulders, tree branches and other debris that cut off the leafy neighborhood from the rest of Orange County.

"Right now, we can't get out and they can't get in," said Mike Colgan, a former firefighter who has lived in the canyon for 30 years.

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