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Floods, mudslides batter West

Thousands fill sandbags to protect homes in California, Nevada, Utah

BY JOHN PAPE | December 22, 2010

The storm system that has been battering California for most of the week was gradually moving east on Wednesday, but not before bringing flooding, mudslides and evacuations to much of the state.

Before the storms clear out late Wednesday, forecasters say another round of brief but intense thunderstorms are likely.

The threat of mudslides prompted the evacuation of some 240 homes in the foothills above Los Angeles, as well as 30 families in the Silverado Canyon of Orange County.

Those evacuations were in addition to the 2,000 people ordered to leave their homes in the Kern County community of McFarland on Monday. Ten homes in nearby Weldon were also evacuated.

Gary Fox was one of those who evacuated from the San Gabriel foothills community of La Canada Flintridge, just north of Los Angeles. Slopes surrounding the area had been denuded by a wildfire and were becoming increasingly unstable and susceptible to mudslides.

More than 40 homes in the community were damaged or destroyed by mudslides last February and Fox said the rains of the past week were much worse than prior to the earlier slides.

“By late Monday, we were pretty sure we’d be evacuating, even if the authorities didn’t tell us to. We dodged the bullet in February, but saw what happened to some of our neighbors’ homes and knew how dangerous things were getting,” Fox said. “We packed up some of the irreplaceable items like family photos and got out.”

Fox said, as of Wednesday, his house was still safe, but he had no idea when he might be able to return home.

“I don’t think I’ll really be comfortable until things are dry. You’ve got understand that when the rain ends if it ever ends that doesn’t make it safe to go home,” he said. “Those hillsides are soaked and as long as all that moisture is there, a slide could happen. We’ve checked into an extended-stay hotel and we’re just taking it day-by-day.”

Other La Canada Flintridge residents were fighting to protect their homes by filling sandbags in an effort to shore up vulnerable areas. County officials delivered large Dumpsters filled with sand and were providing bags for residents.

‘I’m not going down without a fight,” resident Jim Proctor said. “This is my home and I’m going to do everything I can.”

Proctor said he was willing to “fill sandbags through Christmas” if it would help protect his home.

“Sure, it’s a lousy way to spend Christmas I’m wet, I’m tried and my back hurts but this is better than doing nothing and just hoping your home will be safe. If these hillsides let go, this may be too little too late, but at least I tried.”

South of Los Angeles, landslides, flooding and downed trees were causing problems in most Orange County beach communities as the storm system continued to pound the area.

In the community of Laguna Beach, much of the downtown area was flooded by as much as 4 feet of water and city officials were urging business owners to use sandbags or “flood gates” to keep water out.

"Flood gates are wooden or fiberglass slats that some businesses had installed after the last downtown flooding several years ago. If your business has these, then there would be a slat stored away somewhere and rails on each side of the doorway to hold the slats,” the city said in a message to business owners.

Additionally, empty bags for sandbagging were being made available at Laguna Beach fire stations.

City officials were also keeping a wary eye on the Laguna County Channel in the area of Beach Street. Flooding at that location had previously sent water as deep as two feet onto Broadway and Ocean Avenue.

One death reported in Laguna Beach appeared to have been storm-related. A woman was killed around 7 a.m. Wednesday as she tried to cross the Coast Highway during a heavy rainstorm.

In addition to the fatal accident, Laguna Beach Police Lt. Jason Kravetz said one resident had to be rescued after a mudslide caused one wall of his home to collapse. That man was not seriously injured.

In addition, more than 35 people had to be rescued Wednesday morning from stranded cars and homes in hillside areas of Laguna Beach and Laguna Woods.

In the nearby San Bernardino National Forest, a woman had to be rescued after her pickup truck was swept off the road by the rain-swollen Lytle Creek. San Bernardino Fire spokesperson Tracy Martinez said floodwaters had apparently washed out the road and began to carry the woman’s truck downstream.

Even as water began to fill the cab of the truck, the woman remained calm enough to call for help.

“She did the right thing; she stayed in her (truck) and dialed 911,” Martinez said.

Before rescuers could arrive, the truck was swept about a quarter-mile downstream where it lodged on a small island.

In a rescue operation that took four hours, a fire department swift-water rescue team was able to fire a rope to the truck with what was described as a “harpoon-like gun,” allowing rescuers to reach the woman. She was then taken to a nearby hospital with non-life threatening injuries.

“She was a very fortunate woman,” Martinez said.

In expansive Kern County, which is roughly the size of New Jersey, the storm brought flooding to lower-lying areas and heavy snowfall to the higher elevations. Weather-related problems caused county officials to declare a state of emergency on Tuesday.

In a statement announcing the emergency declaration, the Kern County Fire Department said emergency personnel were being overwhelmed.

"Kern County and local emergency response agencies are faced with being extended beyond their functional capabilities due to the severe weather conditions and continued threat of flooding which will affect the infrastructure of the county," the statement read.

In addition to evacuations in McFarland and Weldon, a large amount of farmland near the community of Lamont was inundated when an irrigation dike failed, sending floodwaters into surrounding fields. Mudslides, falling rocks, flooded creeks and rivers and fallen trees all added to the weather-related problems in Kern County.

While the storm system is expected to move out of California by late Wednesday or early Thursday, it is expected to continue to drop large amounts of precipitation as it moves across Arizona, Nevada, Utah and beyond.

Even as California was still being pounded, creeks in normally dry parts of Arizona and Nevada were rising out of their banks, claiming roads, cars and even homes.

Five vacant homes in the Beaver Dam Resort near Littlefield in northwestern Arizona were washed away when a normally dry creek was turned into a raging river by floodwaters. The homes, part of a golf course retirement community, were each valued at more than $220,000.

No injuries had been reported, according Beaver Dam-Littlefield Fire District Chief Jeff Hunt. More homes may be lost as the rain continues and more of the creek bed erodes, he said.

"I think that through the night we'll lose potentially several more, especially if we get the flows increasing," Hunt said. "If we get more velocity, it will pick them off one at a time."

In Nevada, Clark County which includes Las Vegas was placed under a state of emergency Wednesday afternoon.

County Manager Virginia Valentine said she issued the declaration of emergency to deal with threats of flooding in southern Nevada and heavy snowfall in the mountains. The county also set up an emergency operations center to help coordinate response to the emergency.

“Clark County has issued an emergency declaration to help the community cope with widespread impacts from this incident,” Valentine said. “With a declaration in place, we can call upon other public entities for assistance, including the state of Nevada and the federal government, to get resources as quickly as possible to our residents.”

The declaration also allowed the county to speed up the process of purchasing and staging resources to deal with related emergencies, as well as call upon other public entities for emergency assistance.

The declaration said the flooding “poses a serious threat to health and safety as well as property of the residents in Clark County.”

It also noted “northeast Clark County, which includes Moapa Valley, Moapa and Bunkerville, are being significantly impacted by rising river waters. There are also snow conditions which have resulted in power outages likely for several days on Mt. Charleston and reducing available resource capacity. First response and evacuation are high priorities for both northeast Clark County and Mt. Charleston.”

At Mt. Charleston, county public works crews planned to work through the night on snow removal. The crews were working in concert with NV Energy to plow roads so repair crews can work on power outages in the area. About 300 residents were without power.

More than 2 feet of snow was expected on Mount Charleston through Wednesday. Public safety officials were urging the public not to attempt to visit the resort community due to the storm and power outages.

Utah’s Zion National Park was closed due to flooding and those staying in the park were evacuated.

“Zion National Park is currently closed as a precaution due to rising river levels and potential flood damage to roads and infrastructure. The Zion Lodge and Watchman Campground in Zion Canyon are being evacuated to prevent the possibility of park visitors being trapped in the park by rising water levels,” park spokesman Ron Terry said. “The park will be closed until the river level begins to drop and damage can be assessed.”

Forty miles to the southwest, the mayor of St. George, Utah declared a state of emergency due to flooding.

Floodwaters also washed out one of two bridges in the southern Utah community of Gunlock, according to the Washington County Sheriff’s Office.

A flood warning was issued for Utah's Washington and Kane counties through Thursday, and the Virgin and Santa Clara rivers were expected to crest Wednesday afternoon.

One bright spot was in Rockville, Utah population 247 where an evacuation order was lifted after authorities determined the Trees Ranch Dam on the Virgin River was not in danger of collapse. Kirk Best, a regional engineer with the Utah Division of Water Rights said a suspected leak in the dam was determined to be saturated soil, and the dam was stable.

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