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'Niagara' of mud hits homes

Dozens of houses in La Cañada Flintridge are damaged or destroyed in a storm that defied forecast.

February 07, 2010|By Rong-Gong Lin II, Victoria Kim and Ruben Vives

An unexpectedly powerful rainstorm unleashed a torrent of mud that inundated more than 40 houses Saturday, leaving La Cañada Flintridge's northernmost neighborhood awash in boulders, dented cars and broken homes.

The force of the mudflow appeared to catch residents and officials off guard, as the forecast initially called for a light to moderate rainstorm. No evacuations had been ordered Thursday or Friday, when the rain began to fall.

But before dawn on Saturday, an intense band of rain cells formed over the mountains burned in the massive Station fire. What was supposed to be a fast-moving storm instead stalled, dumping rain at an alarming rate. The power of the debris flowing off the mountain pushed a 10-ton boulder into a critical catch basin in La Cañada Flintridge.

The boulder clogged the drain like a giant stopper and the ashen muck had nowhere to go but through the Paradise Valley neighborhood on the northern end of Ocean View Boulevard. Mud flowed two miles downhill, all the way to Foothill Boulevard.

"It looked like the Niagara Falls was coming down the street," said Amanda Manukian, who lives in the 5400 block of Ocean View Boulevard. She said she saw firefighters scramble out of her neighbor's home when a burst of rainfall poured down, threatening the crew.

The mudflow twisted garage doors into dented accordions, disintegrated walls of sandbags and knocked over 4,000-pound concrete barriers that lined the road to divert water away from homes. About 25 vehicles were damaged, flowing down the street and smashing against walls, trees and one another.

Despite the damaging flows, there were no reports of deaths or serious injuries. By Saturday night, evacuation orders had been lifted for most of the more than 500 homes that had been under mandatory orders throughout the day. Only homes in the Paradise Valley neighborhood remained evacuated.

Of the 43 homes that were damaged, 31 had mud or other debris enter the house, while 12 suffered major structural damage. About 30 were located in Paradise Valley, while the others were scattered elsewhere in La Cañada Flintridge and La Crescenta.

Elsewhere in the Los Angeles region, the rainstorm flooded freeways and caused numerous accidents, caused scattered mudslides in hillside neighborhoods and washed out portions of at least two mountain roads: Angeles Crest Highway and Ortega Highway near Idyllwild. Scattered power outages were also reported.

But the damage was worst at the top of the hill in La Cañada Flintridge's Paradise Valley. The rains made good on worst-case-scenario predictions that geologists and emergency officials have been warning about since the Station fire denuded 250 square miles of the San Gabriel Mountains.

Some residents were awakened by water flooding waist-deep into their homes. Two men rescued a bedridden 86-year-old woman trapped in her room, tethered to an oxygen tank, her bed floating in the rising water.

On Manistee Drive, a white single-story home appeared submerged in several feet of dirt, looking as if a giant child had dropped the house in a sand pit.

"The one time they don't evacuate, this happens," said Justin Jesscoat, an Ocean View Boulevard resident whose parked car was swept down the street.

P. Michael Freeman, chief of the L.A. County Fire Department, acknowledged that crews were operating on weather forecasts that turned out to be incorrect. "I think it's imperative that everybody understand the unpredictability of predictions," Freeman said.

By Saturday night, the precipitation had largely cleared out of the Los Angeles area. Forecasters expected dry and warmer conditions Sunday and Monday, but there is a chance rain can return on Tuesday.

The National Weather Service had forecast that up to 1 1/2 inches would fall on the coast and in the valleys and as much as 3 1/2 inches would fall in the mountains and foothills by Saturday.

But actual rainfall was more intense, with about 4 3/4 inches falling in the mountains. Downtown L.A. saw 2.85 inches of rain since Thursday night; Santa Monica, 3.24; and the Hollywood Reservoir, 4.09.

Saturday's storm also moved more slowly than anticipated. A ridge of high pressure over the central United States unexpectedly stalled, causing the storm to sit over L.A. and give the region a more thorough drenching, said Bill Hoffer, a spokesman for the National Weather Service.

Other hillside residents in the region were affected by the storm. In the Hollywood Hills, Susan Morris, 42, who lives on Nichols Canyon Road, was roused at 5 a.m. by a tenant living in her guest house who saw mud coming through the ceiling. She said her husband, P.J. Pesce, 47, ran outside and saw mudslides had filled the road with tons of dirt, forcing floodwater toward their 1940s ranch house.

With the help of a neighbor, Morris said, she and her husband dug a trench to redirect water away from their house and into the canyon.

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