Dramatic rescues, flooding, evacs amid downpours in Southern California

Family of four being rescued from Jeep caught in raging floodwaters in Murrieta, Calif. on Jan. 22, 2017

CBS Los Angeles/AIM News

LOS ANGELES -- The third and most powerful in a series of storms pounded Southern California, dropping nearly 4 inches of rain south of Los Angeles, flooding freeways and raising concerns about damaging mudslides.

Commuters could expect a messy drive to work Monday in several areas, with rainfall expected to ease slightly but not taper off until Tuesday.

Flash flood watches and warnings were in effect for swaths of greater Los Angeles and across Southern California, where multiple roads were closed Sunday or blocked by fallen trees.

The National Weather Service cautioned that the system could end up being the strongest storm in at least seven years. California has been swamped during a wet winter that has brought plenty of rain and snow after years of drought.

By early evening, the rainfall had set records. Long Beach Airport received 3.87 inches of rain by 5 p.m., breaking the all-time daily mark for rainfall. Los Angeles Airport got 2.78 inches of rain Sunday, another all-time daily record.

Los Angeles firefighters said they’d rescued a dozen people and two pets as of Sunday night and responded to more than 170 weather-related incidents in all.

Firefighters in San Bernardino County staged a dramatic swift-water rescue of a couple whose pickup truck was trapped in surging water west of the Cajon Pass. Television footage showed rescue crews sending a raft, which was anchored to a fire truck, into rushing brown water so the trapped couple could climb aboard, one by one, from the car’s passenger window.

Authorities said the Long Beach’s Swift Water Rescue team helped save two teenagers Sunday  after they decided to go rafting in the L.A. River in the middle of the powerful rainstorm, CBS Los Angeles reports.

Long Beach Fire Department spokesman Jake Heflin told the station, “We dispatched resources … to search for two individuals after their rafts were spotted empty in the river.”

About 15 minutes later, firefighters pulled one of the teens from the fast-moving current. Then, firefighters found the second teen, who managed to pull himself out of the water.

In Murrieta, firefighters rescued a family of four from a pickup truck that got caught in fast-moving water Sunday evening, CBS Los Angeles says.

A father, mother and their two children – ages 6 and 2 — were brought to dry land within about 20 minutes. Firefighters threw the family members life jackets and then rescued them one-by-one. There were no injuries.

The couple told KCAL9 their truck got swept into a ravine on their way home from a birthday party.

Fast-moving floodwaters swept through California mountain communities and residents fled homes below hillsides scarred by wildfires. Forecasts said mountain locations could see up to 6 inches of rain. Rain fell at a rate of nearly three-quarters of an inch per hour.

Residents in rural Santa Cruz County watched helplessly Sunday as the San Lorenzo River spilled over its banks for the second time this month, sending muddy water and debris into yards and homes. No injuries were reported.

“This is the fastest I’ve ever seen this river move. It’s already flowing under my house. I have maybe 2 feet of clearance before it’s in my living room,” Paradise Park resident Tammy Grove told the Sentinel newspaper.

Battalion Chief Aldo Gonzales with the Department of Forestry and Fire Protection said the river is the highest he has ever seen it.

Traffic was diverted off Interstate 110 south of downtown Los Angeles because of water flowing across lanes. The 710 Freeway was also closed because of flooding.

Authorities ordered evacuations near wildfire burn areas in Santa Barbara, Los Angeles and Orange counties. Potential debris flows could restrict access for emergency responders, officials said.

Some residents refused to leave, but Ralph Olivas loaded up his family and their dog and left his home in Duarte, nestled in scenic foothills east of Los Angeles that were left bare by wildfires last June. Recent rain sent rocks down steep streets where homeowners built protective barriers out of lumber and sandbags.

“We’re packing and leaving because the muds are coming, the mudslides,” he told CBS Los Angeles, adding that the risk “comes with the territory living up here.”

Farther north, officials warned of a “high avalanche danger” at all elevations of the Sierra Nevada mountains because of heavy snowfall that has closed several ski resorts. The Sierra Avalanche Center advised Sunday against travel in the area, warning of intense snowfall rates and gale force winds.

The San Francisco Bay Area was under a high surf advisory along the coast until early Tuesday with waves of up to 19 feet expected, National Weather Service meteorologist Steve Anderson said.

“Surf will be coming up and down, but coming so fast there’s no break,” he said.

The San Francisco Coast Guard warned of hazardous conditions at beaches after two people went missing in the water near Pebble Beach on Saturday.

Along the coast, big surf rolled ashore, with record 34-foot swells recorded Saturday in Monterey Bay. .

A historic WWI-era ship called the S.S. Palo Alto and docked near Santa Cruz was torn apart by massive waves Saturday.

The Bay Area was also under a flash flood watch that continues through Monday and a wind advisory was in effect until late Sunday.

Wine country communities that already experienced destructive flooding this month faced new flood warnings after strong thunderstorms Sunday.

“We’re seeing mudslides Bay Area wide,” said Anderson, adding that heavy rain over the past few weeks has saturated the ground. Wind gusts topping 50 mph brought down trees across Northern California.

In Mendocino County, a massive oak toppled onto an apartment in the city of Ukiah early Saturday, crushing the building and killing a woman as she lay in her bed, fire officials told the Press Democrat newspaper of Santa Rosa. The woman’s boyfriend and a 3-year-old boy escaped.

Capt. Pete Bushby of the Ukiah Valley Fire Authority said heavy rain apparently had destabilized the 125-foot tree.