Southern Californians recount harrowing mudslides during deadly record-breaking storm

LOS ANGELES (AP) — Jesus Barron answered his wife’s panicked phone call warning him that a mudslide was smashing into their bedroom in the hills of eastern Los Angeles County. Then, the line went dead.

“She called me and told me the mountain was coming down,” he recalled Wednesday. “I thought the worst.”

Wendy Barron escaped their Hacienda Heights home during Tuesday’s historic downpours in Southern California, but it was seriously damaged when mud flowed down the hillside and blasted through the two retaining walls the family built when they moved in seven years ago.

“It’s not enough to stop Mother Nature, of course,” Jesus Barron said.

The storm fueled by the second of back-to-back atmospheric rivers to hit California in days came ashore last weekend in the state’s north before it moved down the coast and parked itself over the south for days, turning roads into rivers, causing hundreds of landslides and killing at least nine people.

The final punch came Wednesday afternoon and evening as heavy rain drenched the region. The forecast was for a potential dump of an additional 1 to 3 inches (2.5 to 7.6 centimeters) of rain in parts of Los Angeles and San Diego counties and snow and thunderstorms at higher elevations.

Winter storm warnings and advisories continued in Southern California mountains and to the north in the Sierra Nevada.

The National Weather Service said that around 4 p.m. Wednesday, there were reports of a possible tornado in San Luis Obispo County on California’s central coast. Authorities said either the swirling gusts of a tornado or severe straight-line winds toppled trees and power lines, tore up asphalt from streets and caused some building damage in Grover Beach and Pismo Beach.

A tree fell outside a Grover Beach tile and flooring store Wednesday afternoon, although owner Brittany Prince said she didn’t hear it go because of the wind.

“We looked outside and saw things blowing down the street,” she told the Tribune of San Luis Obispo. “I came out to go close the rollup door, and things were flying, so I just left it. I went back inside to make sure we were safe and then I looked out and saw the tree was down.”

The storm was expected to ease off again and move off Thursday or Friday, giving way to fair weather for most of the state by the weekend.

But even after the rain, authorities warned of the ongoing threat of collapsing hillsides. After all of the rain and snow of the past week, it wouldn’t take much for more water, mud and boulders to sluice down fragile hillsides, experts said. At least 520 mudslides have already occurred in Los Angeles alone.

Even before the evening drenching, the storm had dumped more than a foot (30 centimeters) of rain in some areas, making it one of the wettest periods on record for the Southern California.

The Barrons’ home is too damaged for them to live in for the next few months, though the couple was able to retrieve some belongings. Now, they need to decide whether they want to return once it’s repaired.

“We love it here,” Jesus Barron said. “However, it wouldn’t be easy to go through this again.”

Jill Shinefield has lived in Beverly Crest, a neighborhood in the Santa Monica Mountains, for 23 years. She watched this week as her neighbors evacuated and other homes got damaged by mudslides. She chose to stay because her home is not up against the hillside.

“We have in the past been concerned about fires, but we’ve never even really thought about mudslides,” she said.

Around 430 trees fell in Los Angeles alone, the city said, and work crews have struggled to deal with the storm’s aftermath.

One tree that held firm helped protect a home Sunday night in the Studio City neighborhood. The carob tree and an SUV that had been pushed out of its parking space by mud blocked debris from crashing into Scott Toro’s home when a mudslide hit his community.

“The mud came down the hill and it stopped 3 feet (about a meter) short of our front door,” Toro recalled Wednesday as he cleaned up his yard. “It sounded like a helicopter crashing, or even a freight train coming through.”

Electrical outages on Wednesday had been substantially reduced from their peak levels, but there were still more than 71,000 customers without power, mostly in northern and central parts of the state, according to Poweroutage.us.

People were urged to avoid touching downed lines and to steer clear of roads that are at risk of flooding and mud. During the storm, at least 50 stranded motorists in Los Angeles were rescued from fast-moving swollen creeks, rivers, roads and storm channels, fire officials said.

Four of the nine people killed by the storm were hit by falling trees or limbs, according to Brian Ferguson, a spokesperson for the Governor’s Office of Emergency Services. Another died when power failed and she lost her oxygen supply, one drowned in the Tijuana River near the U.S.-Mexico border and three died in vehicle crashes, he said.

Atmospheric rivers also pummeled the state last year and caused at least 20 deaths.

This winter’s drenching does have a silver lining in that it helped boost the state’s often-strapped water supply. The water content of the vital Sierra Nevada snowpack jumped to 73% of average to date, up from 52% on Jan. 30, state Department of Water Resources data showed. The snowpack provides about 30% of California’s water when it melts.

At least 7 billion gallons (26.5 billion liters) of storm water in Los Angeles alone were captured for groundwater and local supplies, the mayor’s office said. Just two years ago, nearly all of California was gripped by a devastating drought that strained resources and forced water cutbacks.

As the latest weather front moved east, it prompted warnings across the state line in Arizona, where 12.4 inches (31 centimeters) of snow that fell at Flagstaff Pulliam Airport tied a record set in 1901.

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Associated Press journalists Christopher Weber and John Antczak in Los Angeles, Julie Watson in San Diego, Walter Berry in Phoenix, and Scott Sonner in Reno, Nevada, contributed.

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