Californians face massive cleanups after storm

LOS ANGELES (AP) - December 23, 2010

The storm's push across the West left a muddy mess Thursday across Southern California and the threat of avalanches in Nevada, where Clark County officials urged residents of Mount Charleston, near Las Vegas, to leave after snow slides near two mountain hamlets.

Preliminary damage estimates throughout California were already in the tens of millions of dollars and were expected to rise. Acting Gov. Abel Maldonado declared a state of emergency in three more counties, adding Los Angeles, Kings and Santa Barbara counties to the list of six released earlier in the week.

The inland region of Southern California east of Los Angeles was emerging as among the hardest-hit areas, especially San Bernardino County.

In Highland, people were literally chased from their homes by walls of mud and water, leaving behind dwellings strung with holiday lights. They returned Thursday to find their neighborhood inundated with mud. Five homes were destroyed and nearly 70 others damaged.

Leslie Constante burst into tears when she approached her parents' house and saw a red tag slapped on the garage, meaning authorities had deemed it unsafe to enter. Out front, a display with two holiday reindeer was enveloped in mud several feet deep.

"My mom and dad worked so hard for this," said Constante, wearing knee high rubber boots and a rain jacket. The 29-year-old pharmacy technician couldn't get inside to see how bad the damage was to Christmas presents and other belongings.

Highland officials estimated the storm caused $17.2 million damage to homes, cars and a bridge that was washed away.

As residents surveyed their homes, work crews were busy trying to reopen more than a dozen canyon and mountain roads that were closed by slides and floods. Reopening times were listed simply as "unknown" for most of them.

"There's a lot of road damage," San Bernardino County fire spokeswoman Tracey Martinez said. "The whole county received quite a bit of damage."

Ibeth Garcia and her family returned Thursday to a home surrounded by mud 4 feet deep to retrieve Christmas presents and clothes left behind when they fled a dirty torrent.

"We left with just our shoes, cell phones and car keys," said Garcia, 26. "We didn't have time for anything else."

They found just a light coating of mud inside the house and considered themselves lucky, since some of their neighbors' homes were uninhabitable.

In neighboring Riverside County, the damage estimate was nearing $30 million. In Orange County, spokesman Howard Sutter issued a preliminary damage estimate of $23 million, adding it was expected to rise.

Along the coast in the county, the upscale community of Laguna Beach suffered an estimated $4 million in damage to 46 businesses and 20 homes.

A section of the city's popular beachfront park was washed away, leaving chunks of mud and a gaping open space where green grass had been the day before. When the sun came out Thursday, however, volleyball players quickly filled what was left of the park.

The danger was not over for foothill residents living below wildfire-scarred hillsides.

"The ground is so saturated it could move at any time" and the threat will remain for several weeks, said Bob Spencer, spokesman for the Los Angeles County Department of Public Works.

Roads also remained a problem. Crews shut sections of Pacific Coast Highway in Los Angeles and Orange counties to remove loose rocks and clean up mudflow from hillsides. Further inland, rock and mudslides forced the closure of five state routes in Riverside and San Bernardino counties.

The rain also washed trash, pesticides and bacteria into waterways and prompted health warnings. Four beaches were closed in Northern California's San Mateo County, and another 12 miles of beach from Laguna Beach to San Clemente in Southern California's Orange County were off-limits because of sewer overflows.

"Literally every beach gets an 'F' when we get a rain storm like this," said Mark Gold, president of Heal the Bay, a Santa Monica-based group that monitors and grades beach water quality.

Curtis Duran, 45, and his two children Max and Ava strolled the trash-strewn beach in Long Beach and surveyed debris carried down to the shoreline by the Los Angeles River.

Cans, baseballs, plastic bottles and even a baby's high chair sat on the sand mixed with piles of discarded wood and shards of plastic. Ava, 5, picked up a deflated red ball and showed it to her dad.

"We come down here all the time, and I've never seen so much," said Curtis Duran.

In the Central Valley agricultural region, Tulare County officials said farms and dairies had been hard hit by flooding. About 300 homes were damaged, and 25 roads remained closed.

Allison Lambert, information officer for health and human services, said some preliminary damage estimates ranged beyond $60 million.

About 25 homes sustained damage in Kern County at the southern end of the San Joaquin Valley, and a highway through the Kern River canyon was expected to remain closed through the end of the year after "truck-sized rocks" were washed onto it, fire spokesman Sean Collins said.

On the positive side, state food and agriculture spokesman Jay Van Rein said the storm boosted the Sierra snowpack that supplies water to cities and farms, and the rains would help with grasses and hay, adding acreage to grazing lands in the spring.

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