Mudslide batterssmall CA town

A wall of mud crashed down Monday afternoon on this tiny coastal enclave.

BY P.J. HELLER | LA CONCHITA, Calif. | January 11, 2005

"I saw it coming. I thought I was gone. It was coming down with such speed. I just ran."

—Marco Roldan

A wall of mud unleashed from a rain soaked and unstable hillside crashed down Monday afternoon on this tiny coastal enclave, killing at least three people and destroying 15 to 20 homes.

At least nine other people were injured, one critically, when the mudslide hit at 2:05 p.m. and buried residences in a four-block area tucked up against the unstable hillside. The mud was 30 feet deep in some places, according to Joe Luna, a spokesman with the Ventura County Fire Department.

By nightfall, police, firefighters and search and rescue teams continued to dig through the debris trying to locate six people still reported missing. The town has a population of about 200 people.

“I saw it coming,” said 28-year-old Marco Roldan. “I thought I was gone. It was coming down with such speed. I just ran.”

“It sounded like fireworks,” added Chris Riley, 21. “I saw this big dust cloud and felt the ground move. I could feel the earth shake.”

The mudslide occurred shortly after officials had begun a voluntary evacuation of the town which sits just off Highway 101 about 75 miles north of Los Angeles. The evacuation was begun after mud and debris began blocking the highway, forcing the closure of the road. Concrete barriers along the roadway were washed away and the much of the highway was a thick gooey mess.

Officials feared that heavy rain forecast for Southern California into Tuesday could result in more slides. Up to 1 inch an hour was predicted across the region for Monday night and into Tuesday, before skies were expected to clear. More than 25 inches of rain have fallen in some areas between 4 p.m. Thursday and 4 p.m. Monday, according to the National Weather Service.

Rain began falling again on the area Monday evening.

At least 10 deaths in California have been blamed on the storms.

The storms which have battered California for five days without a let up were expected to move into the central Plains, bringing rain and, with arctic air moving in from Canada, snow and cold.

La Conchita residents are no strangers to the disasters. In 1995, a mudslide destroyed about a dozen homes in the town. No deaths or injuries were reported.

The mudslide in La Conchita was the worst of the weather-related incidents reported Monday in Southern California. Elsewhere, roads, freeways and rail lines were shut down due to flooding, mudslides and rockslides. Traffic was brought to a virtual standstill in some areas. Downed power lines left thousands of people without electricity. Rescue crews plucked people to safety from floodwaters.

Los Angeles officials said they had received more than 3,000 emergency telephone 911 calls since Sunday.

Flood warnings and watches remained posted for a wide swath of Southern California, especially already drenched Santa Barbara, Ventura and Los Angeles counties. Snow was also forecast for the mountains in those areas. Heavy rain was forecast in Mendocino County in northern California.

Late Monday night Santa Barbara County officials ordered mandatory and voluntary evacuations in hillside and creek areas. Four emergency shelters were set up in the county.

Winter storm warnings were also posted until Tuesday night for the Sierra Nevada, from Yosemite to Kings Canyon. Forecasters predicted an additional 1 to 3 feet of snow at elevations above 7000 feet with up to 2 feet at lower elevations.

In La Conchita, meantime, residents watched and waited for word of family and friends, as well as whether their homes had survived.

“I hope my friends are OK,” Riley said. “I hope they find them. I hope I have a house to come back to.”

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