Thunderous mudslides damaged dozens of homes, swept away cars and pushed furniture into the streets of the foothills north of Los Angeles on Saturday as intense winter rain poured down mountains denuded by a summer wildfire.
No injuries were reported but residents and emergency responders were caught off guard by the unexpected ferocity of the storm, which damaged more than 40 homes and dozens of vehicles.
Some 540 homes were eventually evacuated at the foot of the San Gabriel Mountains after heavy rains overflowed debris basins, carried away cement barricades and filled houses with mud and rocks.
Some residents complained they were not told to get out until the brunt of the damage was done — unlike during heavy rains last month when officials repeatedly warned foothill communities to be on alert.
"Nobody knew it was going to be this bad," said Katherine Markgraf, whose mother's house was filled with more than two feet of mud, debris and tangled tree roots. "Last time, they started warning us in time to prepare for it."
The storm's payload came between 4 a.m. and 5 a.m. Markgraf said she only got an alert around 10:30 a.m., though officials later said that warning was to prepare residents for a second band of rain.
Too late for evacuations
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 and it was determined that it would be safer for people to shelter in their homes.
"We are operating just like everyone else, based on weather predictions," Freeman said.
Rainfall totals topped 4 inches in a 24 hour period in some areas, the National Weather Service said. Los Angeles County Fire Inspector Matt Levesque said forecasters and county and city officials did not anticipate the magnitude of the slow-moving storm.
Markgraf spoke to a reporter as she stood on Manistee Drive, a cul-de-sac under an overflowed debris basin at what appeared to be the epicenter of the storm's damage.
Her mother, Pat Anderson, president of the La Canada chamber of commerce, who lives in the house, had to call a neighbor to help her escape the rising mud in the predawn darkness. Anderson's car had been sucked out of its garage and shoved against her next door neighbor's home.
Crews working to the road said some houses had been shifted from their foundations by the weight of the deluge.
"It's surreal," Markgraf said as she surveyed her childhood home with a video camera, documenting the damage for insurance purposes. "It's nothing we expected."
Filled with feet of mud
The house next door was also filled with several feet of mud. The handlebars of an exercise bike could be seen sticking out the brown sludge and a kidney-shaped swimming pool was filled to the brim with mud and rocks. Couches, televisions and records were strewn about the buried yard.
Several residents said they woke up around 4 a.m. to the sound of crashing and rain pounding on their rooftops.
"It was like thunder," said Dave Becica, whose house was undamaged. "I said, I hope that's not the mountain coming down. It was the mountain."
Across the street, his neighbor was less fortunate. All the windows along the front of the house had been blown out and mud had swept through the house. Shoveling away what he could, the man declined to be interviewed.
Leslie Fernandes, 49, said he chose not evacuate in order to try to divert flowing debris flow from his house.
"I heard a roar and a rumble and I went to look outside and there were cars swept down the street," said Fernandes said.
A retaining wall on Fernandes' property burst and 2 feet of mud was piled on his driveway, topped with a layer of ash from last summer's wildfire.
Family photographs, toys, furniture items and other items were dotted throughout the debris that gushed into yards and streets. At least five homes had been "red-tagged" by county inspectors, meaning they were unsafe to enter.
By Saturday evening, a total of 12 homes had major damage, 31 others received minor or moderate damage and 25 cars were damaged, County Supervisor Mike Antonovich said.
"It was devastated, I was really, really shocked by what I had seen," Antonovich said after touring the damaged areas. "It's as if you were at Universal Studios on the tour seeing a war zone area."
Half way along Ocean View Boulevard, where the hillside road flattens out, a jumble of 12 cars and trucks had come to a stop after being washed down the road. A silver sport utility vehicle lay on top of a flattened Toyota, both completely mangled.
Another of the wrecked vehicles belonged to Kelly Schroeder, who parked her car Friday night outside her house a quarter mile up the road.
"I'm not going to complain, because our neighbors are in such a bad state," Schroeder said.
The evacuations were ordered in foothill areas of Sierra Madre, La Canada Flintridge, La Crescenta and some parts of Acton.
Evacuation centers were set up at La Canada High School and at a recreation center in Sierra Madre. The Red Cross was working to establish other locations to shelter displaced residents.
Crews used bulldozers and other heavy equipment to clear masses of mud and rocks that blocked suburban streets and intersections.
At least 30 of the damaged homes were on Ocean View Boulevard in Pickens Canyon.
Looming above the damaged houses were the wildfire-scarred mountain slopes, still blackened from wildfires.
The National Weather Service warned of floods likely in foothill areas of Santa Anita, Sierra Madre, Arcadia and Monrovia. A foot or more of snow was possible at elevations of 5,000 feet or more.
Widespread flooding and downed trees tied up traffic and caused accidents across Los Angeles County. At least three fatalities were reported after vehicles hydroplaned and crashed on Los Angeles County freeways, and water almost a foot deep flowed into businesses on Melrose Avenue.
Scattered power outages affected more than 10,000 customers in the Los Angeles area.