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California evacuees return to mud-filled homes

LA CANADA FLINTRIDGE, Calif. — Residents evacuated from foothill communities deluged by weekend mudslides north of Los Angeles were allowed to return home Sunday as crews moved debris and started clearing catch basins in anticipation of more rain later in the week.

The final evacuation order was lifted for about 70 homes in the Paradise Valley area of La Canada Flintridge, said Los Angeles County sheriff's deputy Guillermina Saldana. Only residents with valid identification were allowed back into the neighborhood that was choked with a thick layer of mud and debris during a pummeling rain early Saturday.

Forty-three homes in the La Canada Flintridge area were damaged and 500 more evacuated Saturday after mud and water overflowed basins and surged into streets, taking furniture, cars and concrete barriers with it. Nine houses were declared unsafe to enter. About 25 vehicles were damaged.

"In my 20 years of fire service, this is the first time I've seen this much devastation caused by a weather system," Los Angeles County Fire Battalion Chief Mike Brown said while walking past suburban homes with thigh-deep mud in their yards.

Los Angeles County public works crews used bulldozers and other heavy machinery to move boulders, scoop out catch basins and clear roads.

"That series of storms two weeks ago, we took about 300,000 cubic yards of material out of our debris basins," L.A. County Department of Public Works spokesman Bob Spencer said. "This is going to be about the same."

Spencer said the still-soupy mud in the basins was incredibly difficult to remove the day after a storm, and would take weeks to clear. More rain is forecast to arrive Tuesday.

The mayor of La Canada Flintridge, Laura Olhasso, said Sunday the U.S. Forest Service should pay to help remove the mud and debris that came down the mountains from federal land denuded by wildfires.

"The federal government is not taking responsibility for the flow of mud that came from its property," Olhassa said. "They say there's nothing they can do to keep it from flowing, then they need to help clean it up. They need to be responsible property owners."

Olhasso said the city has received "no assurances" of help from federal authorities.

"This is potentially a threat for the next three to five years, which is how long they say it could be before the vegetation grows back," she said.

Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger toured the area Sunday, stopping to talk to reporters in front of a house where flowing mud left a mark on the wall at least 5 feet above the ground.

Schwarzenegger hugged a tearful resident whose voice broke as she told him her entire first floor was inundated with at least 2 feet of mud. Karineh Mangassarian told the governor she wanted crews to start digging her house out immediately.

"I want to save my house, but by the time the city gets here it will be too late," Mangassarian said outside her home, where mud reached up to the mailbox.

Schwarzenegger said the three county sites set aside for mud disposal might not be enough.

"They need to clean up this area as quickly as possible from the mud. They need permits for a fourth dumping site, disposal site, which have to come from the federal government and the state," the governor said. "We all have to work together to help the people whose homes were damaged."

Some residents complained they were not told to get out Saturday until the brunt of the damage was done — unlike during heavy rains in January when officials repeatedly warned foothill communities to be on alert.

Los Angeles County Fire Chief Michael Freeman said by the time officials saw how serious the storm was, it was too late to order evacuations for some and it was determined that it would be safer for them to take shelter in their homes.

About 800 homes across Los Angeles County were evacuated, but most were allowed to return home late Saturday as another round of expected rains proved tame and moved on quickly.

A crew of about 100 yellow-vested church volunteers brought shovels Sunday to help residents clear out the muck from yards and garages and living rooms.

Volunteer John Day shuttled a wheelbarrow full of mud from the home of 64-year-old Pat Andersen's house.

"Even though the Super Bowl is on, there's no other place I'd rather be," Day said.

Anderson had to flee her home with the help of a neighbor after grabbing her wedding rings and some clothes as mud rose in her living room Saturday.

"I've lived here almost 40 years and this was the worst it's ever been," she said after returning Sunday to find that the mud had swept her car through the garage wall, down a steep embankment and into her next door neighbor's bedroom.

The garage looked "like something big sat on it," she said, the mud in her living room was three feet deep and many of her belongings were buried even deeper in a neighbor's pool.

Next door, a teenage boy squatted with his head in his hands in what remained of his family's living room, now half-filled with dirt. His father pulled a remote control out of a puddle and laughed ruefully.

"Honey, I found the remote," he said.