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Weather Hammers West

Low-Pressure System Initiates Record Rain and Snow

By Sylvia Moreno
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, January 12, 2005; Page A12

There has been record rain in Los Angeles; record snow in the Sierra Nevada; heaven on some of the ski slopes, but hell down on the ground.

Less than two weeks into the new year, much of the western United States has been inundated with precipitation spawned by an intense, low-pressure system that hovered off the Pacific Coast for four days but is expected to weaken and begin drifting eastward today.

_____Deadly Mudslides_____
Photo Gallery: Dangerous mudslides destroyed homes, snarled traffic, and left an unknown number of people dead.
Video: Bodies Found in of Calif.

"Thank God it's moving inland," said meteorologist Bruce Rockwell of the National Weather Service office in Oxnard, Calif. "We've had a brutal two weeks."

This was the second storm system to pound the West in two weeks, stranding motorists and passenger trains, closing roads and schools, forcing evacuations, collapsing buildings, triggering avalanches and mudslides, causing almost two dozen deaths and setting astounding records. Los Angeles -- with 17 inches of rain in two weeks, two inches more than the yearly average -- experienced the wettest 15 consecutive days since the weather service began recording precipitation in 1877. The higher elevations in the Sierra Nevada saw eight feet of snow during the first storm and 10 more during the second -- the most recorded since 1916. Even the Las Vegas Strip got a few inches of snow, forcing area schools to close early.

"We've had 'flood days' but never 'snow days,' " said Jackie Luna, an architectural drafter in Las Vegas. "It's been crazy. . . . We haven't had our normal sunshine."

Or as Rockwell, the meteorologist put it: "We got an entire season of weather -- plus -- in two weeks."

The weather system produced heavy rainfall in southwestern Utah, causing extensive flooding, and washing out bridges and homes. In Arizona, the governor declared a state of emergency in three northern counties because of flooding, while the mountains of northwestern New Mexico and southwestern Colorado saw higher than average snowfalls and snowpacks.

Whether the extraordinary amount of rain and snow will significantly alleviate the five-year drought that has affected the West is not clear, however.

"I wouldn't say it would end the drought, but it certainly has mitigated it somewhat," said meteorologist Jane Hollingsworth of the National Weather Service office in Reno, Nev. "Everything we get above normal in terms of precipitation is helpful."

But one thing is for sure, one Nevada official said. Bad weather means more tourist dollars for the state.

"If you're ever going to get stranded and can't go outside, Las Vegas or Reno would be a pretty good place to get stuck," said Bruce Bommarito, executive director of the Nevada Tourism Commission. "When it gets dark, people come in and fill up the casinos. And when it gets light, they hit the ski slopes."

Last year, Nevada saw a record 50 million visitors, and Bommarito said this year could be even better for the state's $35 billion tourism industry.

"Things are looking good. We love the snow. It's huge," Bommarito said. "Skiers and snowboarders are a hardy bunch. Even when conditions are bad, they find a way to get to the top of the mountain."

While mudslides in California caused deaths and injuries, an avalanche at a ski resort outside Las Vegas killed a 13-year-old boy traveling up a slope on a lift. In western Colorado, a family of cross-country skiers was missing for two days; authorities found the mother and teenage daughter yesterday, but the woman's husband was still missing. Some resorts closed intermittently because of severe wind gusts that caused white-out and blizzard conditions, and some mountains were unreachable because of road closings.

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