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Tension mounts, more rain possible overnight

February 9, 2010 12:00:00 AM PST
Southern California braces for another nasty storm, and more flooding and mudslides are feared, especially in communities still cleaning up after the destruction over the weekend.Anxiety was high Tuesday as heavy rain moved through the burn areas. So far, there have been no major mudflows, but the rain isn't over yet.

At the ready, a massive backhoe remained posted at the bottom of the catch basin above the devastated Paradise Valley neighborhood in La Canada Flintridge Tuesday night. Crews are on alert for more potential problems.

"In case it rains, we've got to keep this open," said crew member Bob Huisman, speaking of the debris basins. "If it's a lot, we get rocks like this coming down, and they got to be out of there. That's what caused a lot of problems."

Paradise Valley residents hope that keeping the basin drains clear acts as insurance against a repeat of Saturday's destructive flash flood.

"They dragged in a 335, a gigantic CAT excavator, and hopefully the guy is going to be sitting up there like the most expensive security guard of all time," said Jeff Schroeder, a La Canada Flintridge resident.

In a news conference held by county officials Tuesday afternoon, authorities estimated approximately $11 million as the total bill for cleaning up the massive damage the winter storms left behind.

The head of L.A. County Department of Public Works said the catch basins collected 90,000 cubic yards of mud and debris.

There is a possibility that the storm may pick up momentum Tuesday night, and authorities are worried those who chose to remain in their homes despite evacuation orders are in danger.

"Leave right now, who have been told to evacuate. Don't make a decision, because you can't evacuate when you have flash floods," said L.A. County Supervisor Michael D. Antonovich at the Tuesday news conference. "You can't evacuate when the boulders are coming down, and you can't evacuate when the cars are being pushed down from the river."

"These individuals are not going to be John Waynes by staying in their homes. You can't save your home when you have a mudslide attacking your home," Antonovich added.

A flash flood warning was in effect for the Station, Morris and Santa Anita burn areas of Los Angeles County until 6 a.m. Wednesday, but all warnings were lifted 1 a.m. Wednesday as the rain systems have moved away from the area.

However, mandatory evacuation orders are still in place for people in La Canada Flintridge, Acton, Soledad Canyon, Aliso Canyon and La Crescenta. Residents were asked to leave by 10 a.m., and officials said the evacuations may be lifted by Wednesday night, but they are still not completely sure of when residents will be let back in.

Officials say they will be assessing the conditions on an hourly basis and will decide on whether to lift the evacuation orders sometime Wednesday morning.

Tuesday afternoon, evacuation orders were also issued for dozens of homes in the path of potential mudslides in Sierra Madre. But with improving conditions, the mandatory evacuation orders were lifted and all previously closed streets were reopened at around 7 p.m.

Sierra Madre resident Andy Dotson's home has two driveways that converge, bringing mud right up to his garage.

"Yesterday, we had 75 volunteers and we had two Bobcats donated to us, and they came up and we cleaned up everybody's yards. I mean, everything was cleaned out. We pushed everything to the street for the city to come and pick it up," said Dotson. "It's just incredible. I can't believe how much mud keeps coming out from behind that hill."

The rain is expected to last through the night and into Wednesday morning, and then conditions are expected to clear up.

La Canada Flintridge residents took evacuation orders seriously, especially after the devastating mudslides from the past weekend. La Canada Flintridge saw the most damage from mudslides, with 43 homes damaged and nine homes red-tagged.

"We've packed up several times now, so we're getting better at it," said La Canada resident Janet Sturms.

The neighborhoods in La Canada Flintridge that were evacuated are all around Ocean View Boulevard. About 60 percent of homeowners in La Canada Flintridge that were given mandatory evacuation orders have followed the orders, which is a high number for the area.

La Canada resident Debby Mahoney said she would stay, but her husband is at work and she does not know how to use the family generator.

"I'm afraid that if we have another inch, there's no place for it to go. It's going to head down there, and there's already piles in the street. And if we undermine a power pole, we can lose power here for three to four days," said Mahoney.

Up and down Ocean View Boulevard and its side streets, flood weary residents are asking themselves, "Do I stay or do I go?"

People in the Paradise Valley neighborhood have been trying to clean up the mess before the next storm arrives. Ocean View Boulevard and the cul-de-sacs that back up to the burned hillsides were inundated with muddy water and rocks.

Sheriff's deputies warned vehicle owners to move their cars off of Ocean View Boulevard. They don't want a repeat of Saturday's deluge when flood waters swept parked vehicles down the street and into K-rails and into trees.

"If they're on these streets and their cars are there, within the next hour or so, they could be towed at their own expense," said Steve Whitmore of the Los Angeles County Sheriff's Department.

Many of the residents who lost their homes over the weekend decided to stay and keep clearing their property of debris and mud.

Chris Furstenberg of La Crescenta paired sandbags with wooden planks to seal off his driveway. He said he hopes his efforts and the K-rails will be enough to protect his home from mud, but he won't stick around to find out.

"We saw what happened on Ocean View, and we just really can't take the risk of not having the evacuation, and thinking that it's just going to be a short storm," he said. "You never know up here. Up here is a different climate."

L.A. County Sheriff's Department deputies knocked on 224 doors in La Crescenta Tuesday morning to make sure residents evacuate. Those exercising their right to stay home signed refusal to evacuate forms. An estimated 40 percent are choosing to stay put.

Cary Burch of La Crescenta said he opted not to leave so he can stay home and safeguard his house.

"I'm going to proceed very cautiously, and make sure that I'm alert and aware," he said.

Many of Burch's neighbors loaded up their personal belongings. Terry Dorwart of La Crescenta said he was evacuating for the fourth time.

"I'm scared, but I'm not scared, I trust my Lord," he said.

Public works crews set up new tow away zones to keep streets open and prevent cars from being washed away.

La Crescenta escaped the destruction wrought upon its neighbor La Canada over the weekend, but residents are still worried. However, the rain was fairly light in La Crescenta Tuesday afternoon, and there was only a small stream of clear water flowing down the streets along with small rocks.

Crews from the L.A. County Department of Public Works were unclogging the debris basins with the use of 300 dump trucks. They are focusing on six of the smaller ones that are dry enough to clear.

"We got a couple of houses that are real low, and if this overflows like it did the other morning, and it clogs up down there, then we are going to have some problems down on our street," said Ray Stewart, a La Crescenta resident.

Even though crews have been working nonstop since the weekend, the basins will still have a lot of debris, so with the next storm, many expect that they will overflow.

A top priority is the status of the Mullally Debris Basin. Its drainage path into a storm basin under Manistee Road was blocked by huge boulders, which was the root cause of Saturday's flood. However, officials said the basin has now been completely cleared out, so extensive flooding residents saw over the weekend shouldn't happen again, but there is no guarantee.

"They did an incredible job digging up that basin from what it was yesterday. You can actually see the bottom of the front catch basin, so that's good," said Markgraf.

Residents who are evacuating were urged not to leave vehicles parked on the street and to bring in garbage bins from the curb.

Southern California has a long history of deadly slide events. The La Conchita landslide in 2005 killed 10 people and destroyed 30 homes. In 2003, 15 people at a church camp in San Bernardino County were killed by a mudslide.

Experts say that the massive Station Fire burned up much of the available fuel, so residents don't need to worry about another fire of that size in the near future. However, the recent mudslides from the winter rains did little to alleviate future mudslides from happening.

Melissa MacBride, Subha Ravindhran and Gene Gleeson contributed to this report.