Powerful storm drenches Southern California with heavy rain

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A vehicle is seen in the Los Angeles River at the Washington Bridge near downtown Los Angeles on Tuesday, Dec. 14, 2021. Rain is drenching Southern California as a blustery storm charged down the state, triggering river rescue efforts and raising the threat of mudslides in areas scarred by wildfires. (AP Photo/Ringo H.W. Chiu)

LOS ANGELES – A powerful storm charged south through California on Tuesday, drenching the drought-stricken state with desperately needed rain but also triggering rescue efforts on a swollen river and mandatory evacuations due to the threat of mudslides in some areas scarred by wildfires.

The National Weather Service reported remarkable rainfall in several parts of the state.

North of the Golden Gate Bridge, Mount Tamalpais accumulated more than 11 inches (28 centimeters) over 72 hours. By early Tuesday, nearly 7 inches (18 centimeters) of rain had fallen in one area of Santa Barbara County, northwest of Los Angeles. More than 4.6 inches (11.8 centimeters) fell within 24 hours in Orange County's Silverado Canyon, south of LA, where sheriff's deputies rescued residents from homes inundated by mudslides.

Los Angeles firefighters searched the surging Los Angeles River on Tuesday after discovering two submerged vehicles wedged against a bridge pillar south of downtown and learning that a third vehicle had been swept past the bridge. No victims, if any, were immediately located and firefighters were waiting for the water level to fall.

“The circumstances surrounding these three separate vehicles and their journey down the LA River remain unclear,” a Fire Department statement said.

Earlier, a man was rescued after being swept into a covered stream channel in the San Fernando Valley. The man called for help on his cellphone and firefighters reached him through a maintenance hole on the street above. He suffered bruises and hypothermia, fire officials said.

“It's kind of scary out there,” said Dean Heller, while filling up his car's gas tank in northeast Los Angeles. Heller said he'd seen a few minor auto accidents and traffic on the Arroyo Seco Parkway had slowed to a crawl because of flooding in lanes.

“I'm just trying to get stuff done so I don't have to be on the roads any more,” he said.

The powerful system is a so-called atmospheric river that sucks up moisture from Pacific Ocean and dumps it at lower elevations as rain and in the mountains as snow.

The storm began over the weekend in Northern California and has brought heavy precipitation as far inland as Nevada, where more than 6 feet (1.8 meters) of snow fell since Sunday night at the Mt. Rose ski resort just southwest of Reno and more than 4 feet (1.2 meters) fell at Heavenly on Lake Tahoe’s south shore. Mammoth Mountain in the eastern Sierra also got about 4 feet (1.2 meters).

Residents near the Alisal Fire burn scar in California's Santa Barbara County were ordered Monday to evacuate over concerns that heavy rains might cause flooding and debris flows. The order was lifted Tuesday afternoon.

Similar orders were issued for people living near burn scars in the San Bernardino Mountains east of Los Angeles, where rockslides were reported. A mountain route into the resort town of Big Bear was expected to be closed until Wednesday while crews cleared several feet of mud and debris.

Avalanche warnings were in effect in the Mono and Inyo county areas of the eastern Sierra Nevada as snowfall, which began Sunday, continued Tuesday. Vail Resorts' three Lake Tahoe-area ski resorts opened late Tuesday morning after the significant snowfall. Spokesperson Sara Roston said Kirkwood Mountain Resort, which closed Monday for safety reasons, was among them.

In Orange County, south of Los Angeles, about 800 canyon homes were under evacuation orders Tuesday after a flash flood warning was issued in the area scorched by a 2020 wildfire.

After a cloudburst calmed to a drizzle, Lori Bright leaped a puddle in LA’s Highland Park neighborhood, determined to get her daily steps in despite the soggy weather.

“There’s a lull, so I decided to go for it,” Bright said. “I don’t really mind getting wet. Just happy to have any rain.”

She crossed her fingers in hopes that the deluge might make a dent in the state’s drought.

Jeffrey Mount, a senior fellow at the Public Policy Institute of California’s Water Policy Center, said the storm won’t be a drought-buster, but water watchers are excited about all of the snow it's dumping in the Sierra Nevada.

Melted snow that runs into California’s watershed when the weather warms makes up about a third of the state’s water supply. It’s important for a strong base of snow to develop in December so that storms later in the winter have something to build on, he said. Most western U.S. reservoirs that deliver water to states, cities, tribes, farmers and utilities rely on melted snow in the springtime.

“You’re literally putting water in the bank up there,” he said.

Any moisture is much-needed in the broader region that’s been gripped by drought that scientists have said is caused by climate change. The latest U.S. drought monitor shows parts of Montana, Oregon, California, Nevada and Utah are classified as being in exceptional drought, which is the worst category.

A second storm predicted to hit California midweek shortly after the current system moves on could deliver almost continuous snow in mountainous areas, said Edan Weishahn of the weather service in Reno, which monitors an area straddling the Nevada state line.


Har reported from San Francisco. Associated Press writers Christopher Weber and Robert Jablon in Los Angeles, Terence Chea in Oakland, Kathleen Ronayne in Sacramento and Scott Sonner in Reno contributed to this report.