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In California, a Wet Winter Gets Wetter

Mudslides Close Highways and Threaten Hillside Houses Near Los Angeles

By Amy Argetsinger
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, February 23, 2005; Page A01

LOS ANGELES, Feb. 22 -- As the latest in a series of epic, drenching storms hovered over Southern California, meteorologists acknowledged what many here had begun to suspect: L.A. has stolen Seattle's thunder.

Quite literally, that is. The low-pressure system that usually camps out over the perennially soggy Pacific Northwest for the winter found itself mysteriously diverted to the typically balmy southland this year.

Four houses on an unstable hill in the Highland Park area of Los Angeles were evacuated because the soil under them was slipping away. (Damian Dovarganes -- AP)

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As of Tuesday, downtown Los Angeles had collected 10 inches more rain than Seattle thus far in the season that began in July. And while the mountains near here have been digging out from some of their deepest snowfalls in nearly a century, ski slopes in Washington and Idaho have been forced to close.

"We're one of the wettest places on the West Coast," said Bruce Rockwell, a specialist with the National Weather Service in Oxnard, an hour up the coast from Los Angeles. "I've never seen it rain like this, and you're talking to somebody's that has been in the field for 30 years."

As the latest system moved into its sixth day, it began to take its toll on a landscape already sodden from a succession of storms stretching back before the holidays, turning roadways into rivers and causing great chunks of land to give way.

The Hollywood Freeway was closed for several hours late Monday when it flooded with as much as two feet of water. The runway of a Ventura County airport collapsed into the swollen Santa Clara River. Patches of the famous Pacific Coast Highway were closed off by dramatic landslides.

Two women, one in her mid-eighties, had to be rescued from a house in southeast Los Angeles when an earthen bluff liquefied and flowed into their house Monday. Los Angeles County Fire Department Inspector Ron Haralson said the mudslide came without warning, as many have in recent days.

"With the amount of rain in the short period of time, we're seeing new areas that are experiencing a lot of movement of the land and soil that's creating new hazards," he said. "We're seeing total collapses of hillsides, the oversaturated hillsides giving way."

Elsewhere, though, the land moved slowly, allowing residents to flee homes they may never live in again. Television news crews set up a deathwatch for four homes on a Los Angeles hillside, capturing on tape pieces of patios and swimming pools as they crumbled into the void below.

In Oceanside, near San Diego, a mudslide that forced the evacuation of six houses on top of a hill last month began to threaten the 10 houses sitting below.

Mudslides also covered train tracks along the Pacific coast and had forced Amtrak to suspend train service from Los Angeles to Santa Barbara through Tuesday. Service north to San Luis Obispo could remain suspended until next week.

As of Tuesday afternoon, the Los Angeles area had received 32.87 inches of rain since July, making it the fourth-rainiest season since meteorologists started keeping records in 1877.

Normally the region gets about 15 inches of rain in a year.

By the time the latest storm is expected to move out Wednesday, it probably will have pushed that total up by at least another inch, which would nudge the season into third place. Even if California gets only its normal amount of rain through the rest of the spring, it will almost certainly break the record of 38 inches, set in 1883, Rockwell said. And another storm is expected next week.

For those who spend their lives studying the weather, it is one for the memory books as well as the record books. Rockwell could not believe Southern California had experienced five consecutive days of rain.

"I've seen this much rain over two or three days, but not over five," he said.

Bill Patzert, a NASA climatologist at the California Institute of Technology's Jet Propulsion Laboratory, marveled over the staying power of the "slothlike low-pressure system" out of the Gulf of Alaska.

"We've been experiencing this since October," he said. "It's like 'Groundhog Day' -- every day I wake up and there's another low-pressure system out of the Gulf of Alaska."

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