LOS ANGELES (Reuters) - The fourth and potentially strongest winter storm in a week bore down on normally sunny Southern California on Thursday, canceling flights, pounding beaches with huge waves and threatening to bring torrents of mud down on pricey hillside homes.
Californians, who have rarely seen rain during a three-year drought that left the state rationing water, suddenly found themselves deluged — forced to drive through flooded streets, bail out and sandbag their homes or in some cases evacuate.
Water officials said that a silver lining of the worst storms the state had seen in five years was the several feet of snow dumped on mountain ranges that could help ease critical water shortages, though they stopped short of calling the drought over.
In the meantime the heavy rain and high winds forced Southwest Airlines to suspend most of its flights from several area airports, leaving passengers stranded at least until Thursday evening, when the latest storm was expected to pass.
Some 1,000 homes remained evacuated in communities north of Los Angeles that were left blackened and barren by last year’s wildfires, as authorities feared that five days of steady rain would bring down entire hillsides of mud.
Though the mud had held steady through three storms so far, officials said that as of Thursday catch basins were full and the hills saturated. Flash flood warnings were issued.
But several residents on one slide-prone cul-de-sac in the community of La Canada-Flintridge, scene of last summer’s massive Station Fire, opted to stay put and help authorities channel swift-flowing water from the denuded hillsides towering over their homes.
“The idea is, don’t let it pile up there but keep it moving,” said 59-year-old George Witkor as he took a break from shoveling mud and rocks. “We’re trying to keep it flowing as long as we can. If it gets too deep we are out of here”
Neliya Ballard, 60, said she chose to stay home and ride out storm because “I’m so tired of evacuating. I’m stressed out and I have an older dog on top of that.”
Ballard, who lives across the street from where the Station Fire was stopped by firefighters, said she feared being separated from her dog if she went to a shelter.
Two houses in La Canada-Flintridge had already sustained damage from mud and other debris washed downhill by heavy rains, but no injuries were reported.
Weather officials issued flood warnings for low-lying areas and beaches, where waves as high as 25 feet eroded beaches.
Utility crews worked to restore power to some 14,000 homes and businesses in San Diego that lost electricity due to downed trees and power lines.
Interstate 5, the major artery connecting Southern California to northern parts of the state, was shut down because of snow at a mountain pass.
Some schools were also closed or students kept indoors.
The desert resort city of Palm Springs has received half its average annual rainfall this week, and at least two deaths have been attributed to the storms, including a 21-year-old man crushed when a tall tree toppled onto his house.
In neighboring Arizona, meanwhile, the National Weather Service issued flash-flood warnings for the area around Phoenix after storms dumped heavy rains across the city on Thursday.
Phoenix Sky Harbor International Airport warned of disruption to flights from severe weather, although it remained open and some Southwest flights were canceled.
The Weather Service said that at 8:20 a.m. (1620 GMT) it had recorded a barometric pressure at Los Angeles International Airport of 29.20, the lowest ever recorded.
Records have been kept since 1931.
Reporting by Steve Gorman and Dan Whitcomb, editing by Anthony Boadle