Soggy California braces for deluge, as more storms take aim

More storms are steering toward California, which is already deluged. Warnings of flash floods and mudslides are in place in some communities, as worries rise about additional flooding.

Mario Anzuoni/Reuters
A vehicle drives through a puddle of rain water in Hollywood, California on Dec. 18. The National Weather Service has issued warnings of heavy rain with potential mudslides and flooding as a series of powerful storms moves through southern California.

At a corner Starbucks in Sherman Oaks, Calif., Milah Miller sips a latte and, on her laptop, googles the word “mudslide.”

“I thought it was a big ‘duh’ that a vegetation-stripped hillside can’t hold rain,” says Ms. Miller, who owns a home in a nearby canyon that is now being pelted by record rains. But it could be even worse. “Now, I’m finding that last year’s [wildfires] released a gas into the soil that weakens roots and forms a wax-like layer over the soil just beneath the surface. That’s why rocks and trees and mud flow so fast it’s hard to get out of the way.”

How fast does mud flow? That's not exactly clear. Estimates from local news reports range from 35 to 64 miles per hour.

Miller, a travel agent, is happy to escape, at least for a few hours, the incessant TV team-coverage of the rare weather system now striking the state. Since Friday, downtown Los Angeles has received 3.75 inches of rain, one-fourth of the average yearly rainfall, says the National Weather Service. Local news and newspapers are filled with stories of people sandbagging their streets and backyards to guide rushing water and mud away from their homes, thanks to a weather phenomenon that hits the state about once a decade.

The storm is sweeping the entire state, flooding streets in the desert town of Bakersfield, dumping nine feet of snow on Mammoth Mountain, and clapping Cape Mendocino with thunder. About 2,000 people in the farm town of McFarland, in the Central Valley, were ordered evacuated because of flooding. But the situation is worst northeast of Los Angeles, in the areas of La Canada and Flintridge, which in October 2009 saw some parts of the San Gabriel Mountains denuded by the worst wildfires in local history. The National Weather Service (NWS) says all the precipitation is the result of a northern cold front moving south from Washington State and colliding with a mammoth bank of subtropical moisture that has been parked off the Pacific coast for several days.

NWS predictions are for another five inches of rain in coastal plains and valleys by the end of Wednesday, with as many as 10 inches in the mountains, according to meteorologist Jamie Meyer.

Warnings of flash floods and mudslides are in place for several communities, and traffic has been barricaded from traveling parts of the Pacific Coast Highway between Malibu and Ventura because of boulder landslides that have blocked lanes of traffic.

There are spot reports of power outages, trees falling on cars and houses, cars stalling in water, and families trapped temporarily in their homes because of rushing water. Geologists for the state transportation agency, Caltrans, are checking cliffs from Malibu inland to San Bernardino to assess closing and opening of roads. There have been relatively few reports of road closures and mudslides, but agencies predict more of the same weather for several days ahead.

“I think you guys are going to see lots of flooding problems,” said meteorologist Mike Pigott, in an Associated Press report. Though the rain tapers off intermittently – the latest storm is expected to end Monday night – three more storms are lined up to come ashore between then and Wednesday night.

Trying to escape drizzle, traffic jams, and ubiquitous TV reporters, many residents are heading much further than their local cafe.

At the Starbucks, school teacher Winnie Stoudemire cracks off a crisp biscotti in her mouth and asks, “Who wants to sit in a corner in flat L.A. and watch it pour all day?” She's heading out. “We’re taking the kids skiing starting tomorrow. Ten feet of powder. Yippeeee! How many times in a lifetime can you say that?”

State agriculture officials say a silver lining to the storms is the end of 4-1/2 years of drought conditions. The prospect of steady flows of water for the Central Valley – which produces half of America’s fruits and vegetables – comes from the melting of the Sierra Nevada snow pack over time, which feeds the aqueducts and groundwater that Central Valley farmers rely on.

IN PICTURES: Global weather 2010

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