Los Angeles, Southern California Face Worst Storm of Week

Families urged to evacuate, sign waiver if they don't.

Jan. 21, 2010 — -- If you live near Los Angeles, in the foothills of the San Gabriel Mountains, then you've heard the warnings. People who live in canyons prone to mudslides have been told to evacuate, and those who choose to say were asked to sign waivers releasing authorities from responsibility for their safety.

"Please, please, cooperate and obey the lawful orders of your police department," said Charlie Beck, chief of the Los Angeles police department.

California was hit today with the fourth -- and perhaps worst -- in a series of storms that have come in from the Pacific Ocean since last weekend. Up to 3 inches of rain may fall before it all ends. Since Sunday, the National Weather Service has already measured more than four inches of rain in several inland locations. There have been waves of 15 to 20 feet along the Pacific coast.

Late today acting California Gov. Edmund Brown Jr. declared a state of emergency in Los Angeles, Orange, Riverside, San Francisco and Siskiyou counties, giving law enforcement extra funding and powers to protect people if needed.

Police and emergency managers continued to worry about communities such as La Canada Flintridge, where wildfires last year had burned away the brush that anchors soil along canyon walls and raised the risk of mudslides. All told, they have ordered residents of more than 1,000 homes to evacuate, and said they cannot be responsible if people don't leave.

"I'm not going to roll the dice. There's no reason to do that," said Barry Powell of Glendale, Calif., who decided to get out of harm's way. "You've got lives involved."

But more than a quarter of those who got evacuation orders decided to ride the storm out.

"I feel safe. I've been through it before. We're stocked up. My wife is in a wheelchair, she's disabled, so moving her is like moving a hospital, and I'm just not up to that," said Jack Wonderlick of La Canada Flintridge.

"We've been here for 100 years. We might as well stay a little bit longer," said Frances Tucker, who lives nearby.

California Storms: Blame El Nino

The National Oceanographic and Atmospheric Administration said the storms were caused by a strong El Nino -- a massive patch of warm water that periodically forms along the equator in the Pacific and rearranges the jet streams that blow over it. Steamy air from the El Nino is carried eastward by the jet streams, and the paths of the air currents shift because the moisture and temperatures.

"We certainly have a very warm Pacific Ocean," said Mike Halpert, the deputy director of NOAA's Climate Prediction Center in Maryland. "So this is sort of what you would expect."

"Right now there's a strong jet aimed at California."

One measure of California's plight: the barometric pressure at Los Angeles International Airport was measured this morning at 29.20 inches of mercury and dropping. That may sound like an arcane thing of interest only to meteorologists, but it's the lowest number there since record keeping began in 1931. When the air pressure is low, surrounding air -- usually stormy -- is drawn in to make up the difference.

Some of the worst flooding was around San Pedro, south of Los Angeles, where Renee Avila said her home was caught in the middle of it.

"When the firefighters came and they opened the front door, most of the water came in," she said. "It was pretty bad. Computers, everything, shoes, beds, everything was destroyed."

Inland, the train of storms brought more than 2 feet of snow to some of the mountains of California and Arizona -- with accumulations of up to seven feet possible around Flagstaff, Ariz. Heavy rains also brought flash flood warnings around Phoenix, where 2 to 4 inches of rain were expected in addition to what fell earlier in the week.

As the weather moves eastward it is hitting Florida and Georgia, which are getting the storms that came ashore in California earlier in the week. A tornado was reported this afternoon near Jacksonville, Fla. The Los Angeles forecast is for showers to continue into Saturday.

"This weather event is not over," said police chief Beck.

Paria Sadighi contributed to this report.