Californians doggedly dig out as mud flood continues

Like farmers caught in a drought, southern Californians are casting anxious glances toward the skies this week . . . but for the opposite reason: too much rain.

The area has been deluged with more rain in the last nine days than normally falls on the state in an entire year.

The flooding has buried entire neighborhoods in four to five feet of thick California mud, cut off water and electricity to many areas, collapsed sections of road and at least one freeway overpass, and isolated some communities from all forms of transportation save helicopters.

Gov. Edmund G. Brown Jr. has declared a state of emergency in four counties. Damage has been heavy in one other county, and two others have experienced flooding, but no major damage.

The governor is asking President Carter to declare parts of southern California a major disaster area, making those affected eligible for low-interest loans, tax deductions, and temporary housing. State officials estimate damages so far at $250 million and climbing, with little relief from the weather in sight.

More storms are expected to roll in off the Pacific, with rain predicted through Sunday. The soil already is well beyond saturation point, so water can do little but rush down canyon walls and roadways into already swollen flood zones.

Twenty-two fatalities had been attributed to the storm as of Feb. 20; some 40 homes had been destroyed, and another 775 damaged.

Hardest hit were neighborhoods tucked away in the exclusive canyon areas of Los Angeles. Brush fires last summer and the year before removed many of the shrubs needed to anchor the soil to the hillsides. In a typical Los Angeles scenario, the rains washed the dirt, and the houses anchored to it, down to the canyon bottoms and onto homes located there.

Minor flooding is almost a yearly problem in the canyons, but with rainfall well on the way toward setting a record, the effects over the last few days have been disastrous. Rainfall for the eight days prior to Feb 20 measured 11.72 inches, bringing the season total to 20.72 inches. Normal accumulation by this time is 9.63 inches.

Although flooding usually hits more expensive communities, the rains have shown no such class distinctions this time around. A number of middle- and lower-income areas have been equally ravaged by the mud and water.

A number of major arteries into Los Angeles from outlying suburbs have been either flooded, covered with mud, or just ripped away. A portion of the Pacific Coast Highway is covered with mud and closed, all but isolating the wealthy community of Malibu.

People are digging out with good-natured perseverance, many vowing to rebuild.

With water supplies to many areas cut off, streets are lined with open garbage cans, buckets, and bottles to catch rainwater for drinking. Even California's famous hot tubs are being used to hold drinking water.

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