CASTAIC, Calif. – Hundreds of drivers were stranded for hours in a high pass north of Los Angeles early Thursday as a frigid storm plastered the mountains of Southern California with a blanket of snow and peppered other parts of the region with hail and heavy rain.
Another storm — a warmer one moving up Thursday evening from Mexico — was expected to dump up to an inch of rain in Los Angeles but bring less snow to the mountains.
Snow forced the California Highway Patrol to shut down Interstate 5 late Wednesday on each side of the notorious Grapevine section of Tejon Pass, which rises to an elevation of more than 4,000 feet between the Los Angeles Basin and the San Joaquin Valley.
An estimated 300 to 500 trucks and cars were stuck overnight in a 40-mile stretch of the major north-south artery but most had been guided out by morning, said CHP Officer Mark Ehly.
"We were taking cars out pretty much one at a time" through the night, he said.
The icy interstate remained closed as the old storm lingered and the next storm moved in.
"Looking north it's blue sky but south, it's pretty ugly," Ehly said.
The closure also snarled traffic on both approaches to the pass as drivers waited in lines to exit and turn around.
About 70,000 vehicles normally use the Grapevine section of I-5 each day, but its high elevation in the Tehachapi Mountains makes it susceptible to winter storms.
In Lebec, on the northern side of the pass, many drivers took refuge Wednesday night at the Best Rest Inn, which was so crowded that they slept in chairs or on the floor.
"I put the coat on the floor down there in the hallway - I started a trend, too —and that was our mattress," Donna Drew of Laguna Niguel told KCBS-TV.
She and husband Damon were in their car for 6 1/2 hours without heat before making it to the hotel.
"And believe you, I could not feel my hands or my feet," she said.
In mountains 50 miles east of Los Angeles, bad weather shut down Interstate 15 at Cajon Pass for three hours Wednesday night.
Elsewhere, heavy rain littered roadways with jackknifed trucks, flipped cars and fender-bender crashes. There were about 125 crashes on Los Angeles County freeways overnight, CHP Officer Francisco Villalobos said.
Flash flood watches were issued for Southern California areas burned bare by last fall's wildfires but only minor mudslides were reported.
By early Thursday, rainfall totals from the storm had grown to 6.85 inches at Matilija Dam in Ventura County, 5.47 inches at Gibraltar Dam in Santa Barbara County.
Downtown Los Angeles had recorded 1.17 inches from the storm, raising its seasonal total above 7 inches, more than usually has accumulated to date. But city has a long way to go in order to meet the average total of 15.14 inches for the whole season, which began on July 1 and runs through June 30.
"We get almost three-quarters of our rainfall from November through about April," National Weather Service specialist Stuart Seto said.
"If we didn't get any more rain for a couple months, we could end up below normal," he said.