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Rain and hail pelt L.A. County

Residents reeling as powerful storm causes flooding

Matthew Johnson, 14, shovels hail off the street to help free a buried car in the Watts section of Los Angeles. More than 100,000 residences and businesses lost power.
Matthew Johnson, 14, shovels hail off the street to help free a buried car in the Watts section of Los Angeles. More than 100,000 residences and businesses lost power.
Nick Ut, Associated Press

LOS ANGELES — Cecilia Perez stood in what was left of her living room Thursday and surveyed the damage from a freak storm that flooded her rental house with 2 feet of water, mud and debris.

Perez, 24, and her father spent the night huddled on a raised mattress supported by chairs as icy water poured in waves through the door of their home in the Watts section of Los Angeles.

"It was like a lake around us," Perez said. "It was terrible."

The storm dumped about 5 inches of hail and rain on parts of Los Angeles County during a two-hour period Wednesday night, creating a winter white landscape in some areas that looked more like Minneapolis than Los Angeles.

Flooding from the downpour damaged dozens of homes, stranded hundreds of motorists and knocked out power to more than 100,000 homes and businesses. Hardest hit were urban communities like Watts and neighboring South Gate and Compton.

Firefighters reported rescuing more than 100 people from waist-deep waters.

Los Angeles County Supervisor Yvonne Brathwaite Burke called on Gov. Gray Davis to declare a state of emergency. Mayor James Hahn visited Watts, where residents shoveled hail and slush from streets lined with stalled, waterlogged cars.

Juan Diaz, 26, said most of the cars on his block wouldn't start. The night before, torrents of water had flooded his back seat.

"This morning when I tried to start it, water was coming out the exhaust pipe," he said. "The car has water instead of oil."

The National Weather Service said the powerful thunderstorm had developed for several days from a low pressure area off the coast. It picked up subtropical moisture before moving inland then stalled over southern Los Angeles County when the wind died down.

It dumped a total of 5.3 inches of rain south on the most heavily hit areas but less than an inch in downtown Los Angeles, about 10 miles to the north. No more rain was predicted through the weekend.

The most rain ever recorded in a 24-hour period in downtown Los Angeles was 7.33 inches from Dec. 31, 1933 to Jan. 1, 1934, said National Weather Service meteorologist Curt Kaplan.

Thursday, in the hardest-hit neighborhoods, insurance adjusters went from house to house assessing damage and consoling residents. Some people had insurance but others rented and said their landlords had only fire coverage.

Jose Bravo, 25, and his family had spoken with an insurance adjuster but weren't sure how much help they would get.

Inside the small stucco home where Bravo lived with his mother and two siblings, water had soaked a bed and the carpeting in both bedrooms. Mud and debris coated the kitchen floor and stained the bottom of a sofa.

At the height of the flooding, nearly two feet of water cascaded through his house, he said.

True Pawluk, a spokeswoman for the Los Angeles County Department of Public Works, said the flooding occurred after storm drains were overwhelmed by the deluge.

"There was nothing wrong with the drains — there was just too much water," Pawluk said.

Many residents tried to make the best of the rare weather.

In Watts, children in T-shirts played in piles of hail up to their knees. They pelted each other with slushballs as their parents gathered to film the impromptu street party.

"It was great. I just loved it," said 56-year-old Olivia Williams. "The hail was just rolling down the street like water."

Mudslides had been feared in mountain and hillside areas cleared of vegetation by wildfires that raged through the region some two weeks ago. But by the time the storm reached those areas, it had weakened considerably and dropped just over an inch of rain.