California Storms: Mudslide Threat Causes Evacuations; More Rain Coming

Evacuations ordered as rain soaks hillsides already stripped by wildfires.

January 20, 2010, 12:40 PM

Jan. 20, 2010 — -- California's storms are bad enough that 500 homes in the Los Angeles area were evacuated today for fear of mudslides. At least two people are believed to have died in a series West Coast storms this week, and the strongest is not expected until this afternoon and Thursday.

California has been hit with a one-two-three punch -- three storms in a row coming in from the northern Pacific. They have brought a total of 20 inches of rain to some areas, as well as 15-foot surf and coastal winds of 60 mph.

Officials are particularly worried about the 250 square miles of land in southern California that were hit by wildfires late last summer. With foliage burned away, there is nothing to keep rain-soaked mud from sliding downhill.

"We're about as ready for the rains that will be coming as we can be," said Los Angeles Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa. "If you don't have to be on the road, why don't you stay home?"

In La Canada Flintridge, a picturesque but rugged northern suburb of Los Angeles near the base of the San Gabriel Mountains, people who live along canyon roads were ordered to evacuate today for up to four days -- even though many of them have complained about "evacuation fatigue" after the ground held this week.

"I cannot stress enough that this is not the time to stay," said Mayor Laura Olhasso. "So if you've been asked to leave and you have left, please don't be fatigued. Please leave again."

Henrik Hairapetian, a La Canada resident, wasn't buying it.

"The plan is to wait it out because they've been crying wolf so long that this may not be it. This is ridiculous," he said.

Scientists and government officials said luck had been with Californians so far, but there was no guarantee that a hillside might not suddenly give way.

"In many cases the water can't soak into the mountain because the fires made the soil somewhat impermeable," said Lucile Jones of the U.S. Geological Survey. "The water starts sliding over the land, and it reaches a critical point at which it starts to pick up material underneath it."

It Never Rains in California (Not Like This)

The National Weather Service kept storm warnings posted all along the Pacific Coast today, and warned of heavy snow and wind inland. People in the mountains around Flagstaff, Ariz., were told to expect 8 to 14 inches of new accumulation.

The western U.S. has, of course, had bad winter weather before, but scientists say this series of storms is caused by the Arctic Oscillation, a vast shift in air pressure over the northern hemisphere that has pushed low-pressure systems south from Canada.

"The rains are continuing to hit this area," said Mike Antonovich, a member of the Los Angeles County Board of Supervisors. "We've pledged the full support of any resources and all resources needed by public works, the sheriff, the fire and animal control to protect life and property during this devastating storm."

South of Los Angeles, near Long Beach and Huntington Beach, at least four funnel clouds were reported Tuesday -- rare in California, and especially so in winter. Gary Sewall was in Huntington Harbour when he said he saw a catamaran lifted 50 feet in the air.

"I saw what looked like a water spout that was circling around," he said, "and then we saw the boat out across the channel go up in the air and come crashing down."

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