Image: Highland, Calif.
David Bauman  /  AP
The backyards of homes along Autumn Chase Drive in Highland, Calif., are flooded with mud from the storm.
msnbc.com staff and news service reports
updated 12/24/2010 11:27:44 AM ET 2010-12-24T16:27:44

Leslie Constante burst into tears when she saw a red tag slapped on her parents' garage in Highland, deeming it unsafe to enter.

"My mom and dad worked so hard for this," said the 29-year-old pharmacy technician, wearing knee high rubber boots.

She couldn't get inside to see how bad the damage was to Christmas presents and other belongings. Out front, two holiday reindeer were enveloped in mud several feet deep.

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Many California residents who endured flooding, mudslides and evacuations during a weeklong onslaught of rain must now clean up or even rebuild — and some face the prospect of not being able to spend Christmas at home.

Damage estimates in Southern California were in the tens of millions of dollars. In the San Bernardino County community of Highland alone, damage was estimated at $17 million, and an Orange County spokesman estimated it at $23 million. In Riverside County, the damage estimate was nearing $30 million.

San Diego County also saw heavy flooding in Mission Valley along Interstate 8, with Qualcomm Stadium flooded; crews had to pump an estimated 1.5 million gallons of water out in time for the Poinsettia Bowl game between San Diego State and Navy on Thursday night. The game went on as scheduled, and San Diego State won 35-14.

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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.

A state of emergency was declared in a total of nine counties, including Los Angeles, Orange and Santa Barbara.

In Highland, people were 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.

Image: Man removes items from muddy car
Alex Gallardo  /  Reuters
John Regalado, Jr., retrieves items from his mud-swamped car outside his homee in Highland, Calif., on Thursday.

Work crews tried 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.

Ibeth Garcia returned to her home surrounded by mud 4 feet deep to retrieve Christmas presents and clothes left behind when her family 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 a light coating of mud inside the house and considered themselves lucky — some neighboring homes were uninhabitable.

Weather.com: Get the latest Christmas forecasts

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.

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.

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The rain also washed trash, pesticides and bacteria into waterways, prompting 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 Orange County were off-limits because of sewer overflows.

Curtis Duran, 45, and his two children strolled the trash-strewn beach in Long Beach and surveyed debris carried 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. "We come down here all the time, and I've never seen so much," Duran said.

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.

About 25 homes sustained damage in Kern County at the southern end of the San Joaquin Valley, while 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.

But state officials saw at least a few bright spots to the series of storms that have battered California since last week.

"We don’t want to be overly optimistic, but recent storms have given us the best early season water supply outlook in five years," state water chief Mark Cowin told the San Diego Union.

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San Diego remains at a Level 2 drought status, which includes mandatory conservation, the newspaper said; some other districts had returned to voluntary measures before the most recent storms.

And snowpack levels in Northern and Central California are running roughly twice as high as average for early winter, according to the state Department of Water Resources.

Ski areas in the Lake Tahoe area were reveling in the abundant snow. Dawn Fishler, a meteorologist with the National Weather Service in Reno, told the Sacramento Bee that Tahoe City saw 70.5 inches of snow in November, just 3.5 inches shy of the 1994 record. So far this month, the area has received 30.5 inches.

This article contains reporting by The Associated Press and msnbc.com staff.

Video: Salvaging Christmas in parts of Calif.

  1. Closed captioning of: Salvaging Christmas in parts of Calif.

    >> back in this country, people in parts of the west are spending this christmas eve trying to salvage this holiday after this week's historic storm. kristen welker has the latest on the cleanup.

    >> reporter: on the night before christmas , a massive cleanup is under way in laguna beach , after the record-setting storm wednesday wiped out the beach and left 20 homes and nearly 50 businesses saturated in mud and debris.

    >> that's what took us the longest.

    >> reporter: today, officials declared the mess a state of emergency , as dozens took refuge in local hotels, which in the spirit of the season, are not charging flood victims.

    >> it didn't feel like christmas, so we didn't think about the holiday season at all. it was just about helping people.

    >> it looked a lot nicer before.

    >> reporter: carter pike is being hailed a hero of the storm. the 20-year-old rescued his neighbors who were trapped in rising waters. all while watching his car, his prized possession, get swallowed up by the flood.

    >> if one of those kids had been hurt, it's something i could never live with.

    >> reporter: usually a hub of holiday shopping, the downtown area is now a reminder of how much damage was done. store owners working feverishly to reopen.

    >> i think in my merchandise and fixtures, about $125,000 i lost. so a lot.

    >> reporter: communities throughout southern california are in recovery mode. damage is estimated to be in the tens of millions and with forecasts calling for more storms late christmas day , there is anxiety about what could come. loma linda is still a sea of mud after more than 18 inches of rain this week. carly's family hasn't been able to drive out of their home for three days, but they will have memories for a lifetime.

    >> all the water just piled right back.

    >> reporter: highland remains under evacuation orders. nearly 100 people were chased out of their homes. despite everything these communities have endured, today the sky is clear. and santa is on his way.

Photos: California storm causes widespread flooding and mudslides

loading photos...
  1. Ralph Lopez looks at the remains of his car covered in mud at this home in Highland, Calif., east of Los Angeles on Thursday, Dec. 23. (Nick Ut / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  2. Silverado Canyon in Orange County was among the hardest-hit areas in the storm that drenched Southern California on Wednesday, Dec. 22. Canyon residents Bob Lee and Rick Schaeffer work to prevent a van from going into a river. Storm runoff and mud prompted the evacuation of about 30 people in the area. (Alex Gallardo / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  3. This road into Silverado Canyon was among the dozens cut off on Wednesday throughout Orange County. (Nick Ut / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  4. The Christmas tree installed at the pier in Santa Barbara, Calif., came down in the storm Wednesday. (Spencer Weiner / Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  5. A storm-swollen Los Angeles River is seen on Wednesday in the San Fernando section of Los Angeles. (Damian Dovarganes / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  6. Umbrellas in hand, pedestrians stroll on the Walk of Fame in Hollywood on Wednesday. (Gabriel Bouys / AFP - Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  7. Oliva Brown, who spent the night at an emergency center, gets ready to leave after the mandatory evacuation order in her neighborhood was lifted in La Canada-Flintridge, Calif., on Wednesday. (Jae C. Hong / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  8. Runoff from Laguna Canyon floods the streets of downtown Laguna Beach, Calif., on Wednesday. Heavy rains flooded the area with up to four feet of mud. (Paul Buck / EPA) Back to slideshow navigation
  9. A woman looks out over the eroded beach near downtown Laguna Beach on Wednesday. (Paul Buck / EPA) Back to slideshow navigation
  10. Workers shovel mud onto the Pacific Coast Highway from the entrance to the Laguna Cinemas in Laguna Beach, Calif., on Wednesday. (Denis Poroy / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  11. Katharine Story sweeps mud and water from her clothing store in Laguna Beach on Wednesday. (Paul Buck / EPA) Back to slideshow navigation
  12. A worker at the Angeles National Golf Club tries to unplug clogged drains on the driving range on Wednesday. (Gene Blevins / Reuters) Back to slideshow navigation
  13. Ross Gill and Veronica Valeriano get a look at several boats that washed ashore on Wednesday in Santa Barbara, Calif. (Spencer Weiner / Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  14. Ralph Voehl delivers sandbags to protect the home of a neighbor in Modjeska Canyon, near Laguna Beach, on Wednesday. (Alex Gallardo / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  15. Raindrops frame a warning sign near Santa Barbara on Wednesday.


    EDITOR'S NOTE: The sign appears upside down because the light refracts through the rain drops like a lens. (Spencer Weiner / Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
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Interactive: Recent storms; how mudslides form

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