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Evacuations continue as officials scramble to clear debris basins

Rivers of mud and debris damaged or destroyed dozens of homes as they cascaded down the hillsides of La Cañada Flintridge. Crews are racing to make room in catch basins before more rains arrive.

February 06, 2010|By Victoria Kim, Ruben Vives and Nicole Santa Cruz

A flash flood warning in the San Gabriel Mountain foothills damaged by the Station fire has been lifted and a second band of rain cells passed through the burn area without triggering more of the mudslides that damaged or destroyed 43 homes in La Cañada Flintridge, closed several roads in the Santa Monica Mountains and washed out portions of Angeles Crest Highway and Ortega Highway near Idyllwild.

But with debris basins along the San Gabriel Mountains near capacity or overflowing, any additional rain or thunder storms will carry the threat of more damaging debris flows.

Los Angeles County Supervisor Michael Antonovich, who appeared with officials from the fire and public works departments at NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory, said he was shocked by the storm damage in La Cañada Flintridge, which he felt could have been prevented if the US. Forest Service had acted more quickly to prevent the spread of the Station fire last fall.

"Earlier this morning I toured the site and I was devastated; I was really, really, shocked by what I had seen," Antonovich said. "The homes destroyed, automobiles pushed out of the way by the storms, the mudslides moving heavy concrete barriers. . . . It was as if you were at Universal Studios on the studio tour seeing a war zone area."

Evacuation orders remain in place for about 540 homes in parts of La Cañada Flintridge, La Crescenta and Acton until at least 8 p.m., when officials will reevaluate the threats. The city of Sierra Madre, where saturated foothills are threatening to break loose, has also issued evacuation orders.

More than 150 L.A. County firefighters were in the area late today clearing roads and assessing storm damage, said Los Angeles County Fire Inspector Frederic Stowers. He said firefighters will probably remain in the area overnight.

Additional rain bursts could mean mud and debris flows in La Cañada Flintridge, La Crescenta, Glendale, Sunland-Tujunga, Soledad Canyon, Acton and Aliso Canyon. Information is available at the Department of Public Works website.

Public works officials reported one piece of good news: Crews have been able to break apart and remove an 8-to 10-ton boulder that was clogging a critical debris basin above Ocean View Boulevard in La Cañada Flintridge.

Yet the threat is not over.

"I hate to say this, but there might be more damage," said Nicole Nishida, spokeswoman for the Los Angeles County Sheriff's Department, noting the condition of two large debris basins above La Cañada Flintridge. A Red Cross shelter has been set up at La Cañada High School.

At least five homes have been tagged as uninhabitable in the Paradise Valley neighborhood of La Cañada Flintridge at least six others are inundated with mud and debris. In one, mud had reached the roof line.

About 25 vehicles were damaged when they were struck by the K-rails that were put in place to protect homes. Several residents had to be rescued from their homes and cars by firefighters after they became trapped by mud flows, which also slowed evacuations, Stowers said.

"Between the mud, the traffic and the damage, it kind of caused some logjams in getting people out," he said.

About 9,000 homes in the San Fernando Valley and Los Angeles were without power due to storm damage, and by afternoon 5,000 were still without service, according to MaryAnne Pierson, spokeswoman for the city's Department of Water and Power. More than 27 crews were working to repair the damage, she said.

The front yard of Amanda Manukian's home was strewn with mud and the remains of sandbags that had been washed away Saturday morning by heavy rains. Her garage had also flooded.

"It looked like the Niagara Falls was coming down the street," she said. "This hill right here, half of it came down," Manukian said, pointing to a hill about a quarter-mile above her home on the 5400 block of Ocean View Boulevard.

At least a foot of debris was reported in some houses, and family photos and furniture could be seen poking out from the rocks and debris that overwhelmed streets and yards.

Leslie Fernandes, 49, told the Associated Press that he awoke in his La Cañada Flintridge home just before 5 a.m. to the sound of thunderous rain. "I heard a roar and a rumble and I went to look outside and there were cars swept down the street," Fernandes said.

The storm that moved in Friday had not been expected to sit over the Los Angeles region so long, but an overnight high-pressure ridge over the central United States unexpectedly stalled and prevented the weather front from swiftly moving out. The intensity of the predawn rains appeared to catch residents and officials by surprise.

Authorities remain most concerned about the northern edge of Ocean View Boulevard near Manistee Drive in La Cañada Flintridge, a neighborhood that was deluged by a river of mud, rocks and trees as it bore the double blow of a collapsing hillside and an overflowing debris basin.

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