Ferocious Storm Hits Southern California

A freak storm pummeled parts of Southern California with up to 5 inches of rain and hail, forcing motorists to abandon swamped cars at the height of rush hour and leaving thousands of residents without power.

Lightning lit up the region as fast-flowing water turned some streets to rivers Wednesday night. Water swept trash and other debris to the doorsteps of homes and stores. In areas where the hail was deep, adults snapped photos and children frolicked Thursday in a landscape that looked more like Minneapolis than Los Angeles.

"It was just unbelievable," said National Weather Service (search) meteorologist Curt Kaplan. He said 5 inches of rain was recorded in just two hours in southern Los Angeles, nearing the previous record for the area of 5.9 inches -- "but that was in an entire day." Skies mostly cleared overnight.

The sudden downpour surprised commuters, and firefighters reported rescuing more than 100 motorists and pedestrians from waist-deep waters. Tow truck drivers packed their lots with abandoned vehicles and parked others in school lots.

The storm stalled for an hour over parts of southern and eastern Los Angeles County. Among the areas hardest hit were urban communities in the southern Los Angeles district of Watts and in neighboring South Gate, Lynwood and Compton.

Martice Thacker was forced to abandon her car when the hail began.

"I panicked, and I opened the door, and the ice came all the way up in the car," she told KCAL-TV.

The Los Angeles County Fire Department responded to blazes caused by lightning strikes and rescued people trapped in elevators that lost power, said fire Capt. Mark Savage.

"It's been freaky," he said.

A small mudslide covered part of Highway 18 near Rimforest in the San Bernardino Mountains (search), but the road remained open and no more serious slides were reported.

Nearly 115,000 electrical customers were left without power for varying lengths of time, said Paul Klein, a spokesman for Southern California Edison.

Some made the best of the rare weather. Teens in Compton, about 10 miles south of downtown Los Angeles, pelted each other with ice in a hail-ball fight.

Other people ventured out of their houses Thursday morning with cameras to record what they called a once-in-a-lifetime event.

"It was great. I loved it. Hail was just roiling down the street like water," said 56-year-old Olivia Williams. "Our power has been out since yesterday afternoon. All we have are candles and oil lamps."

Mudslides had been feared in mountain and hillside areas cleared of vegetation by wildfires that raged through the region some two weeks ago. But by the time the storm reached those areas, it had weakened considerably and dropped just over an inch of rain, said meteorologist Bruce Rockwell.