Published December 21, 2010
FLAGSTAFF, Ariz. – Four homes in the northwestern corner of Arizona were washed away by flooding after rains pounded the area Tuesday, and more houses were expected to be lost overnight, a fire chief said.
And in California, officials ordered evacuation of 232 homes in La Canada Flintridge and La Crescenta, foothill suburbs of Los Angeles, because of forecasts of more heavy rains on already saturated mountainsides.
Meanwhile, evacuation orders were lifted in a small Utah town about 60 miles northeast after a dam feared close to breaking was declared safe.
In Arizona, Mohave County declared an emergency Tuesday because of flooding in the Beaver Dam and Littlefield areas.
Jeff Hunt, Beaver Dam/Littlefield Fire District chief, said only one of the four destroyed homes was inhabited, but the resident was able to gather his belongings before flood waters carried it away.
Hunt said about a dozen other homes were still in danger of being washed away.
Authorities began warning residents late Monday that they should evacuate if heavy rains continued. Few people initially did so, but more heeded the warning Tuesday.
The flood waters cut through a retirement community and washed out about 200 feet of roadway.
Forecasters expected heavy rains across California going into Wednesday, and authorities began evacuations late Tuesday as concern grew about potential mudslides in the wildfire-scarred foothills across the southern part of the state.
Other than the evacuations in the foothills, inconveniences have so far been relatively minor: Rescuers had to pluck some stranded motorists from rain-swollen creeks. Shoppers dodged puddles while buying last-minute Christmas gifts. Disney resorts canceled a plan to shower visitors with artificial snow.
"We'll keep our fingers crossed, but the more rain that comes, the possibility of mudslides is definitely real," said Jim Amormino, spokesman for the Orange County sheriff's office, which has rescued nine people from the flooding in the past 24 hours.
"We've been lucky so far, but I'm not sure how much longer the luck will hold out," he said.
For all the perils of the torrential rains, there was a silver lining: The water is expected to help ease the effects of years of drought. Thursday is expected to be dry, with sunshine. There will be light rain on Christmas Day in parts of California.
The immediate concern, however, was the impact of the expected downpours, particularly in areas where wildfires stripped hillsides of the vegetation that keeps soil in place and burns up dead leaves and other debris that act like a sponge.
Downtown Los Angeles received one-third of its annual average rainfall in less than a week. As of midmorning Tuesday, the rain gauge at the University of Southern California campus recorded 5.77 inches. Forecasters said another 2 inches was expected there through Wednesday.
In Utah, evacuation orders for the town of Rockville, population 247, were lifted Tuesday evening after authorities determined the Trees Ranch Dam on the Virgin River was stable. Suspected leaking from the earthen dam was actually just saturated soil, said Kirk Best, regional engineer with the Utah Division of Water Rights.
The potential of the dam breaking led officials to issue evacuation orders for all of Rockville earlier in the day.
Washington County spokesman Marc Mortensen said a state of emergency remains in place for the county.
The National Weather Service said more rain was expected overnight. The Virgin and Santa Clara rivers were expected to crest again Wednesday afternoon.
Zion National Park was evacuated Tuesday morning. Park officials said in a news release that they evacuated an unspecified number of people, including guests staying at the Zion Lodge and campers in the park.
St. George Mayor Daniel McArthur declared a state of emergency for his city about 40 miles southwest of the national park due to flooding, but no evacuations were ordered there.
The Washington County sheriff's office said flooding wiped out one of two bridges to the southern Utah town of Gunlock. About a half-dozen roads in the county, including state Route 9 in Zion National Park, have been closed.
A flood warning has been issued for Kane and Washington counties through Thursday.
A state of emergency also was ordered for nearby southern Nevada, after rain-swollen creeks closed some roads in the Las Vegas area and a thick blanket of snow disrupted electricity to about 300 customers on nearby Mount Charleston.
County crews were expected to work through the night to clear roads so that energy workers could restore power in the mountain area buried under 2 feet of snow.