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Snow, wind shut down Interstate 5, a traffic nightmare for Southern California travelers

Heavy snow and 90 mph winds over the Grapevine prompt officials to close the freeway indefinitely. Chilly temperatures, rain in the L.A. Basin and snow in mountain areas are forecast through Monday.

January 03, 2011|By Carla Rivera and Margot Roosevelt, Los Angeles Times

Frigid winter weather stormed into Southern California on Sunday, the final day of the New Year's holiday weekend, causing traffic delays, stranding motorists and powdering Santa Clarita and several other Southland communities with a rare dusting of snow.

UPDATE: Hundreds stranded as snow closes key routes

A cold front that originated in the Pacific Northwest brought chilly rains, heavy snow and wind gusts of up to 90 miles per hour to the Grapevine, prompting the California Highway Patrol to shut down Interstate 5 from Castaic to the Kern County line. More than 100 vehicles were stranded, some disabled by the snow. Others tried to take back roads and became stuck in mud.

The CHP sent tow trucks to help dislodge the vehicles and escorted others through the pass, Officer Krystal Carter said. But travelers heading north and south faced daunting delays, including a detour that took them to California 126, U.S. 101, California 166 and then back to the 5.

The interstate was not expected to reopen until crews were able to clear the road, possibly Monday or later.

Matt Morrow, returning to Southern California with his family after a ski trip to Lake Tahoe, described blizzard-like conditions and an element of chaos on the 5 as stranded motorists sought shelter and gas.

"The entire freeway came to a screeching halt," said Morrow, 47, an Internet marketer from Foothill Ranch in Orange County. "It was snowing like crazy right down there on the freeway."

Morrow, with his wife, daughter and son, said it took nearly an hour for the traffic to move about 100 yards. Other motorists were driving onto the median to get around traffic.

"There were mild cases of road rage," he said.

Service stations had no electricity or gas and Morrow said he tried but did not succeed in bribing a maid at a Grapevine hotel to let his 18-year-old daughter use the bathroom in one of the guest rooms.

"There was a line of 50 people trying to get a room," Morrow said. "There was no bathroom in the lobby. So we finally turned around."

Robin Rustic, a desk attendant at the Econo Lodge just off Interstate 5 in Gorman, said six families had taken refuge in the motel after the freeway closed.

"It's snowing, they just closed the freeway," she said before hanging up to tend to the new guests.

Roman Camacho, manager of a Carl's Jr. restaurant in Lebec, said it began snowing lightly about 8 a.m. Sunday, and became heavy by midday.

Shortly before the freeway closed, he saw about 100 cars backed up on the northbound side. "People are stuck bumper to bumper going north," he said. "They are moving really slow."

By mid-afternoon, the snow level had fallen to 1,300 feet with flurries in Valencia, Canyon Country and other communities in Santa Clarita. Up to 2 inches was expected to accumulate overnight and the snow level was expected to remain unusually low at least through Monday, said National Weather Service meteorologist Jamie Meier.

The last time it snowed in Santa Clarita was Dec. 22, 2008, when 10 to 16 inches of snow also fell in the Antelope Valley, according to the weather service.

In Valencia, Paul Butler said his in-laws had been visiting Southern California for seven weeks to avoid the "English winter," but have endured bone-chilling temperatures, rainstorms, gusty winds and now snow.

"We were sitting down for the traditional Sunday lunch and all of the sudden, we looked out the window and it's snowing," Butler, 45, said. "It's really bizarre. The sky is all white."

Butler, who has lived in Valencia for about seven years, said he's seen it snow there only one other time — five or six years ago. His 14-year-old daughter Brodie was delighted by Sunday's snowfall.

"She just stood outside with her tongue hanging out," Butler said. "We locked the door on her."

The weather service issued a winter storm warning through late Monday for area mountains as well as the Antelope Valley, with accumulations of 4 to 8 inches predicted. There were reports of snow flurries at an elevation of 800 feet along California 126, near the Ventura County community of Piru.

Rain was expected to last through Monday in the Los Angeles Basin, with 0.75 to 1.5 inches forecast.

Winds of 15 to 25 miles per hour — with gusts of up to 35 mph — will make the cold feel even colder, Meier said. Beginning Tuesday, temperatures are expected to rise, with highs in the 50s to near 60 degrees. Nighttime lows are expected to remain nippy, in the 30s and 40s.

carla.rivera@latimes.com

margot.roosevelt@latimes.com

Times staff writers Kimi Yoshino and Rich Connell contributed to this report.

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