Hotel guests, homeless rescued from California floods

LOS ANGELES (Reuters) - Lifeguards in rubber boats rescued dozens of hotel guests and homeless people stranded by surging floodwaters in San Diego on Wednesday, as the latest in a string of storms drenched rain-soaked Southern California.

A sixth day of heavy downpours -- rare for the normally sunny, dry region -- flooded streets, knocked out electricity to thousands of homes and businesses and prompted evacuations in foothill areas prone to mudslides.

In the high-desert town of Lancaster north of Los Angeles, firefighters saved at least six people trapped in their vehicles by swift-flowing stormwater.

Heavy rains and flooding prompted a rare closure of the SeaWorld aquatic theme park in San Diego. And high water swamped the parking lot and football field at nearby Qualcomm Stadium, where the Poinsettia Bowl college football game was scheduled for Thursday.

Some 200 miles north along the coast, firefighters evacuated three homes after a small mudslide struck the seaside hamlet of La Conchita, site of an avalanche of mud that swallowed 15 houses and killed 10 people in January 2005.

Torrential showers also unleashed flooding in Nevada and Arizona. A rain-swollen torrent coursing through a normally dry wash in northwestern Arizona swept away four homes on Tuesday and swallowed two more on Wednesday. Several additional homes remained threatened.

“There’s total destruction from that stuff,” Mohave County spokesman Darryle Purcell told Reuters.

But the most widespread disruptions were reported in California, where Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger declared a state of emergency for several counties on Tuesday following five straight days of steady downpours.

Among the hardest hit areas on Wednesday were coastal San Diego and Orange counties, south of Los Angeles.

In the Mission Valley area of San Diego, lifeguards piloting inflatable boards with outboard motors ferried more than 50 people to safety from the Premier Inn, a hotel surrounded by floodwaters that ran waist-deep in places.

Sergeant Troy Keach of the San Diego Lifeguards said rescuers were hindered by swift currents, underwater obstacles and cars floating by in the muddy stormwater.

“It was very stressful and the water was cold,” he added.

Mike Albrektsen, 39, one of a number of homeless guests given a county shelter voucher to stay at the hotel, said the flooding began around dawn and “started coming up fast, and they told us to get out.”

Police in the upscale, seaside village of Laguna Beach shut down a seven-block area after more than 3 feet of muddy water swept through downtown streets and ran up against storefronts there, said police Lt. Jason Kravetz.

Crews also rescued a man trapped in his house by a mudslide that caved in one wall of the dwelling. Another 40 residents of a canyon area fled to a high school shelter for fear that additional mudslides could hit their homes.

“The crews are getting a little tired, everyone’s working really hard,” said Kravetz, adding that it was the most intense flooding in the picturesque town since 1997.

Farther inland, about a dozen vehicles became mired in thick mud from a slide that washed onto an Orange County toll road near Irvine, south of Los Angeles, said officer Gabe Montoya, a spokesman for the California Highway Patrol.

Just north of Los Angeles, authorities issued evacuation advisories for more than 230 homes in communities of La Crescenta and La Canada-Flintridge nestled along canyons and hillsides denuded of vegetation by recent brush fires.

Dozens of homes in that area were damaged by mudslides and flooding earlier this year. But Los Angeles County Fire Department Captain Frank Garrido said most residents were choosing to stay put for the time being.

Up to 15 inches of rain have fallen over Southern California since late last week from a “Pineapple Express” stream of moist air swept in from the tropical Pacific and colliding with cold Alaskan air -- and more rain was on the way, the National Weather Service said.

As much as 2 inches of rain per hour was forecast on Wednesday for the most intense storms. Flash-flood watches were posted across the region in slide-prone areas around Los Angeles, Santa Barbara, Ventura and San Bernardino counties.

Some of the most dramatic weather impacts were captured on television by MSNBC in Beaver Dam, Arizona, where floodwaters ripped four vacant homes from their foundations and swept them downstream on Tuesday. Two more collapsed on Wednesday.

Las Vegas also was hit by heavy showers, with a flash-flood watches posted there until 10 p.m. Wednesday night.

Additional reporting by Marty Graham in San Diego, David Schwartz in Phoenix, Damon Hodge in Las Vegas; Editing by Greg McCune