LAGUNA BEACH, Calif. — The series of storms that dumped rain on Southern California for nearly a week gave the region one final lashing on Wednesday, leaving homes and cars awash in mud, pushing hillsides onto highways, flooding urban streets and threatening hundreds of homes.
Just before nightfall, residents of some 200 homes on a bluff in Highland, about 65 miles east of Los Angeles, were urged to evacuate.
Some 40 homes were earlier evacuated there when two creeks overflowed, swamping as many as 20 homes in up to 3 feet of mud.
"This mud flow moved cars, picked them up, stood them up on their nose at 45-degree angles, buried them," said Bill Peters, a spokesman for the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection.
Areas just south of Los Angeles — including a tony beach town that saw "rivers coming through" and its main beach washed away — were also hard hit before the rain tapered off Wednesday afternoon.
Dozens of homes were hit by mud, at least two people were killed in storm-related car accidents, more evacuations were ordered and dramatic rescues unfolded — one involved a man who called from his cell phone as his car filled with water. Another saw a man and his sons rescue three women and two children in a pickup truck surrounded by rising water.
Laguna Beach, where homes top $1 million, saw extensive damage as did other communities in Orange County, which also saw widespread road closures.
In nearby San Juan Capistrano, some 400 people were urged to evacuate around midday after floodwaters destroyed part of a flood channel.
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Laguna Beach residents were cleaning up after torrents gushed through in the pre-dawn hours.
"There are rivers coming through town, and they’ve washed out the north end of our beach," Laguna Beach resident Jeff Grubert told the Los Angeles Times early Wednesday.
Axl Dominguez awoke early Wednesday to a bumping sound and looked out the window to a scary sight: Plastic trashcans floating down the flooded Laguna Beach street.
And then the water came rushing into his house.
"We didn't have time to get anything. It happened really fast," the 15-year-old said, shivering in shorts, a mud-splashed sweat shirt and bare feet as he waited to go with his family to an evacuation center. "Water started coming in from all the walls. Then the wall fell and we got out through the window."
At one point, the entire downtown area was under 3 to 4 feet of water, police Lt. Jason Kravetz told NBC News, and about 10 mudslides had been reported.
A swift water rescue team saved some 20 to 25 people from their homes in the Laguna Canyon area, Kravetz added.
Dozens of homes were damaged or destroyed in the canyon when mud flows hit around 3 a.m. Some residents said neighbors had to jump out of windows to escape.
Canyon resident Matthew Pike told the Times that he was awakened at 3 a.m. by screaming.
"I grabbed a flashlight and scanned the street and discovered three women and two children in the back of a pickup truck surrounded by rising flood waters," he said. "They were screaming and crying, 'Help us. Please help us.'"
Pike said he and two sons waded across the water barefoot as debris hit them. "We tied a garden hose to a pillar of my house and attached it to a fence post across the street, then got them across one at a time," Pike said.
A driver just inland was rescued after veering into a flood-control channel, the Times reported. He called 911 as his car filled with water and minutes later rescue crews reached him and pulled him out safely.Weather.com: Get the latest California storm forecasts
Rescues, falling trees, mudslides
The Orange County Register said at least six people had to be rescued from cars in Laguna Woods at 2 a.m. after driving around barricades. Awoman was saved by a sheriff's deputy just as her car began to submerge.
A mudslide in Silverado Canyon, Orange County, also led to local residents being evacuated, fire Capt. Greg McKeown told NBC News.
In Silverado Canyon, Mary Adams and her husband got up in the middle of the night to check for mudslide danger as rains pounded the hill above them.
They had just crawled back into bed at 3:30 a.m. when they heard a low, dull roar and then echoing boom of boulders tumbling into a creek.
Adams, 54, jumped from bed to see a small river of mud, rocks and debris sweep past her side door, whisking the couple's travel trailer 100 feet down the hill and filling their garage and succulent garden with thick ooze.
On Wednesday morning, the rain was still coming down hard as Adams surveyed the damage. The sound of falling rocks still rang out every few minutes as the rain poured down outside.
Like Adams, dozens of her neighbors had refused to evacuate and worked with shovels to clear debris from storm drains and divert rivers of water and muck from their homes and cars.
"If we can get the truck out, then maybe we can leave but I'm not going to be away from my house and just be sitting in an evacuation center three blocks down the road," said Adams, who has lived in the canyon more than 30 years.
In Pomona, a city east of Los Angeles, a rain-soaked hillside collapsed on part of a busy Interstate 10 transition road as overwhelmed drains left hubcap-deep pools of water on roadways littered with fender-bender crashes.
The landslide covered three lanes of the transition and the California Highway Patrol shut down part of the ramp before Wednesday morning's rush hour.
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Many areas just north of Orange County appeared to have dodged the storm bullet. Among them were La Canada-Flintridge and La Crescenta, foothill suburbs of Los Angeles below steep hillsides that burned in 2009 and where mudslides inundated homes and backyards in February.
Officials earlier ordered the evacuation of 232 homes there, but many residents refused to leave.
Olivia Brown, 45, left her home in the La Canada-Flintridge area around midnight.
"I'm worried about a rock coming down on the house," Brown said at a Red Cross shelter. "My husband stayed home with two of our dogs. He had to be a man, you know, and hold down the fort.
"When he's nervous, it makes me nervous. I had to go," she said.
Los Angeles County health officials warned residents to be careful through Thursday of polluted water around storm drains, creeks and rivers. The environmental group Heal the Bay said ocean water could remain contaminated with bacteria for much longer than that.
"When you have a major rain like this, we'll have an impact at some beaches for weeks," said Mark Gold, group president.
San Diego rescues, mess
Areas south of Orange County also got hit hard.
In San Diego, 51 people trapped by floodwaters around a hotel were rescued by crews using an inflatable liferaft.
Qualcomm Stadium was partially flooded ahead of the Poinsettia Bowl football game on Thursday between Navy and San Diego State. Bowl officials said the game would be played, with crews working overnight to drain the water.Video: Floods trap dozens in California hotel (on this page)
The Los Angeles Times said streets throughout San Diego County were blocked because of floods and 15,000 homes had lost power overnight.
It added that the commuter lane of Interstate 15 was shut from Escondido to San Diego and the Coaster train from Oceanside to San Diego was unable to run because of debris on the tracks at Encinitas.Video: Homeless couple rescues 4 from sinking car (on this page)
Other states impacted
Other states in the southwest have also been affected by heavy rain from the "Pineapple Express" weather system, which has swept Pacific Ocean moisture right into the Great Basin, and threatens to move across the South.
"It takes a lot of energy to push that moisture over the mountains," said National Weather Service meteorologist Dave Bruno. "This kind of storm could march right across the country and create a lot of bad weather along the way. It could affect the Southern Plains on Thursday and Friday. If it sticks together it'll hit Florida by Saturday."Video: Flood waters destroy Arizona homes
Flood warnings and emergency declarations were issued in a number of Utah, Nevada and Arizona counties:
- In northwestern Arizona, homes along a flooded wash teetered on the edge as residents scurried to gather belongings with the threat of even more structures being swept away. "It is a mess," Beaver Dam resident Lois Rolfsmeyer said. "The water is going to take our next-door neighbor's house and the one behind us, and it's eroding under our house." Five vacant homes were lost because of flooding in the rural area. Nearly two dozen homes were damaged — some already partially collapsed and submerged — and at least three of those could be swept away, officials said.
- In Utah, evacuation orders for the town of Rockville, population 247, were lifted late Tuesday after authorities determined a dam on the Virgin River was stable. Suspected leaking from the earthen dam was actually just saturated soil.
- In southern Nevada, a state of emergency was ordered after rain-swollen creeks closed some roads in the Las Vegas area and snow disrupted electricity to about 300 customers on nearby Mount Charleston.
NBC News and The Associated Press contributed to this report.