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Thousands flee CA flooding

Hundreds of homes in danger as storm system pounds state with record rain, snow, mudslides

BY JOHN PAPE | McFARLAND, CA | December 20, 2010

A relentless weather system continued to pound California on Monday, forcing the evacuation of several thousand residents in a Kern County farming community.

The evacuations were ordered after major flooding was reported in McFarland, a community of 12,000 residents. Kern County Fire Department spokesman Sean Collins said as many as 2,000 people needed to seek shelter.

“Hundreds of houses are in danger of flooding,” Collins said. “They need to evacuate as soon as possible.”

A sheriff’s department helicopter was dispatched to the area to conduct an aerial survey of the flooding and search for any stranded residents.

The Kern Chapter of the American Red Cross was mobilizing to provide assistance to evacuees.

Earlier, about 10 homes in the nearby community of Weldon had to be evacuated.

Despite the bad weather and flooding, no casualties had been reported.

“Fortunately, we’ve had no reports of deaths or injuries related to the flooding,” Collins said.

Near the rural community of Lamont, extensive flooding of farmlands was also reported. Initial reports indicated a dike had failed, but those reports could not be immediately verified.

The threat of continued rainfall and flooding prompted Kern County officials to declare a state of emergency, while the county’s public health agency issued a warning to parents to not allow children to play in standing water.

Dr. Claudia Jonah with the Kern County Department of Public Health said standing water in streets and parks “may look like fun, but can cause major health problems.”

“I do not want to be the Grinch,” Jonah said, “but there is a real danger playing in flood waters the dangers you can see and dangers that will not be known until even weeks later.”

Jonah went on to say the flood water can pose health risks that include infectious diseases, chemical hazards and injuries.

The county seat of Bakersfield set a rainfall record on Sunday, tallying almost 3 inches by 6 p.m., making it the wettest December day on record for the city. The heavy rains flooded downtown streets as business owners rushed to put out sandbags to keep the water out of stores.

In higher elevations, the weather service issued a winter weather advisory through Tuesday for Kern County mountains above 5,000 feet. Accumulations of 4-7 inches were expected, with up to 9 inches in some isolated areas. With the heavy snowfall, forecasters warned the avalanche threat was “extreme.”

While Kern County appeared to be receiving the brunt of the bad weather, the storm system was also bringing record rainfall amounts to the southern parts of California, as well as heavy snowfall in the north and at higher elevations.

As much as 13 inches of rain had been recorded since Thursday in some areas, causing localized flooding and fears of widespread mudslides.

Heavy rains were even being recorded in the normally dry southwestern desert area.

The downpours put one community in the San Gabriel Mountain foothills just north of Los Angeles on high alert for possible mudslides. Many of the slopes surrounding La Canada Flintridge had been stripped bare of virtually vegetation by a wildfire, making mountainsides particularly vulnerable to instability and slides.

More than 40 homes in the hillside city were damaged or destroyed by a mudslide last February.

On Monday, residents were keeping a wary eye on those slopes, hoping the pounding rain would not trigger another round of slides.

“There really isn’t anything we can do but watch, wait and hope for the best. We’re at the mercy of the weather,” resident Gary Fox said. “This is just part of the price we pay for living in this beautiful area. It’s a trade-off.”

Fox said he had “just been fortunate” in February, when homes just blocks away from his were all but buried by the mudslide.

“It’s just nature’s way; we can’t control that. If this is something you can’t deal with, this isn’t the place for you,” Fox said.

The storms were expected to intensify on Tuesday before coming to an end Wednesday. The respite from stormy weather will be brief, however, with more rain expected by Christmas.

Forecasters say 3 4 more inches may fall across Southern California over the next several days and some isolated areas could ultimately see as much as 20 inches.

Flooding forced the closure of the Pacific Coast Highway from just north of Los Angeles to Oxnard, as well as State Route 1 north of Santa Barbara and State Route 34 near Oxnard, according to the California Department of Transportation.

Additionally, a mudslide closed part of State Route 41 in San Luis Obispo County.

CalTrans said it was unclear when any of the highways would be reopened.

In Los Angeles and the San Fernando Valley, 3-4 inches of rain were recorded, while parts of Monterey County received more than 13 inches.

In Pasadena, the old rainfall record of 1.5 inches was more than doubled when 3.5 inches fell on Sunday.

Heavy snow in higher elevations prompted the National Weather Service to issue a winter storm warning in the Sierra Nevada Mountains. NWS Meteorologist Jim Dudley said snowfall accumulations from 5 10 feet above 7,000 feet were “likely.”

“Periods of heavy snow will continue through at least (Monday) afternoon,” Dudley said. “Travel into the high country of the southern Sierra Nevadas may be difficult, if not impossible.”

While many Californians struggled with the effects of the storm, some guests at the Mammoth Mountain ski resort were celebrating the 32 inches of snow that fell in the past 24 hours. Another 1-2 feet of fresh powder was expected by Tuesday.

Even with more snow to come, Mammoth had already set the record for the snowiest December since the resort began keeping records in 1969. Despite the heavy snow, most lifts were in operation and trails remained open.

Jerry Colmes said he brought his family to the resort so his children could experience their first white Christmas.

“My two kids are 6 and 3 and they’ve never really seen snow, much less had a white Christmas, so my wife and I decided we’d treat them to a white Christmas this year. We figured our best bet would be here at Mammoth; boy was that good call,” Colmes said. “The snow’s over my three-year-old’s head.”

Colmes said he was not planning to leave until Sunday and hoped the roads will be open by then.

“But I’m not really focusing on that right now. Right now, we’re just enjoying our vacation,” he said.

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