LOS ANGELES, Jan. 4 -- Yet another violent storm -- at least the third in a week -- descended on the West over the past two days, closing a major stretch of California interstate and triggering floods through Nevada and Arizona on Tuesday.
The storm smashed rainfall records in Las Vegas, glazed neighborhoods near Hollywood with hail and coated mountain roads as far south as San Diego County with a layer of snow. The highest peaks of the Sierra Nevadas collected as much as nine feet of fresh powder.
Neda Roy slides down a hill in California's San Bernardino National Forest. Storms have dumped snow as far south as San Diego County and left as much as nine inches on parts of the Sierra Nevada range.
(Damian Dovarganes -- AP)
"We're just in a wet cycle," said Bonnie Bartling, a meteorological technician for the National Weather Service in Los Angeles.
And before it plowed into the Rockies and the Plains -- making way for two more winter powerhouses expected to hit the coast within the week -- the storm killed at least two people. A man in California's San Fernando Valley died when his car slid off a wet road into a palm tree. Another man, on a backhoe, drowned in rural Punkin Center, Ariz., when the machine went into a swollen creek. A friend who was traveling with him was still missing late Tuesday.
Some reports said the men were trying to cross the creek, while others stated that they were trying to measure its depth. "We're not sure what they were doing down there," said Lt. Chad Langley of the Gila County Sheriff's Department.
The California Highway Patrol closed a 40-mile stretch of Interstate 5 -- the state's major north-south artery -- after heavy snow began falling over a mountainous area north of Los Angeles early Monday. It remained closed much of Tuesday, when two feet of snow fell on top of an icy layer, and did not reopen until nearly noon. Many cars were diverted to smaller roads, but hundreds of truckers were stranded overnight in the small community of Castaic.
"Our parking lot was full; every parking lot in town was full," said the proprietor of a truck stop, who declined to give his name. "There was nowhere else to go."
The weather delayed planes in Phoenix and San Francisco. Flooding was reported in Las Vegas, while much of Arizona remained under a flood watch Tuesday. Nearly a foot and a half of snow fell on Flagstaff, forcing Northern Arizona University to close for the day. In Reno, Nev., residents measured snow banks as deep as four feet, making the snowstorm the region's biggest in 15 years.
And as the storm moved east, it blanketed the Colorado highlands with a foot of snow or more. Several highways were closed by snow and ice, and an avalanche covered a piece of U.S. 550 north of Durango.
Back on the coast, meteorologists took account of what has turned out to be an unusually wet period for Southern California. Thanks to epic storms in October and December, Los Angeles has collected four times as much rain since July 1 as it usually does in a comparable period.
Experts warn, though, that the latest rainfalls will do relatively little to alleviate the Southwest's years-long drought conditions. Meanwhile, they leave the coastal areas vulnerable to flooding and mudslides.
Bartling said the next storm front coming from the Pacific -- possibly on Thursday or Friday -- could be especially problematic because it is expected to be warmer than the previous one, "which could melt some of the snow and give us more runoff."
She said another, smaller storm system could arrive around Sunday.