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Southern California highway buried in mud, hundreds of drivers remain stuck

Rescuers were struggling Friday to help hundreds of people trapped in cars that got caught in flash-flooding and violent mud flows along a major Southern California trucking route. 

A California Highway Patrol official said people were rescued from State Route 58, roughly 10 hours after they were stranded in a powerful storm on Thursday evening, using ladders and tarps across mud up to 6 feet deep.

No injuries or deaths were reported.

"I've never seen anything like this before," said Sgt. Mario Lopez, a spokesman for the California Highway Patrol. "The whole side of the hill just came down onto State Route 58 ... There's no highway."

Lopez said those rescued, including two tour buses full of people, were taken to Red Cross shelters. The storms unleashed flash flooding and debris flows along the 58, Interstate 5 and in two small mountainside communities, where at least a dozen homes were reported damaged.

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Lopez said it will take days to reopen the highway, a mile of which is choked with mud between 2 and 6 feet deep. About 200 cars and semi-trucks were trapped in the now-hardened mud, frozen in place at odd angles.

Hundreds of semis were backed up for miles on the freeway Friday because of the closure. Lopez said they would likely eventually be turned around.

Emergency crews were working to dig out head-high mounds of mud from the 58 and Interstate 5, which was also shut down as cars were trapped in the mud Thursday.

The affected section of Interstate 5, one of the state's major north-south arteries, carries traffic among steep mountains over a pass rising to an elevation of more than 4,100 feet between the Central Valley and metropolitan Los Angeles.

The mud in the northbound lanes of I-5 was soupier than that in the southbound lanes, making it harder to scoop out, California Department of Transportation spokeswoman Lauren Wonder said.

Lake Hughes, a tiny mountainside community in northern Los Angeles County, also was in the path of the storm.

Robert Rocha, a 37-year-old resident, said he was driving home from work when the storm hit, stranding him for three hours before he found a way to get home.

"It was getting pretty hairy out there," he said. "I've never seen it rain that hard in such a short period of time, the hail and wind — it was coming down hard," he said. "The debris was just intense — chunks of wood and rock flowing everywhere."

Los Angeles County Fire Department Capt. Keith Mora said the agency rescued four people and two dogs from atop one car on Thursday. Many more were able to walk to safety after waiting out the flood on top of their own vehicles, he said.

"They were able to use their vehicles as a security blanket, to stand on top of and stay higher than the flood water," Mora said.

In all, the agency reported rescuing 14 people and eight animals. Los Angeles County firefighters were going house to house on Friday checking on any stranded occupants.

At least a dozen homes in the area were damaged by the mud flows, said Kerjon Lee, a spokesman for Los Angeles County Department of Public Works.

He said more than that could be damaged, but crews had to bust through blocked roads before they could get an exact count.

Bill Wells, a local rancher, was walking through the area looking for his livestock on Friday morning.

"I think my livestock was swept away and penned against the fence. I think they're all dead," said Wells, who was near tears.

A sheriff's deputy gave Wells a ride deeper into the devastated area so he could continue his search.

The thunderstorms were powered by a low pressure system pulling in moisture from the south. As much as 1.45 inches of rain fell in a quick span of time near where the most intense flooding occurred.

The National Weather Service said a flash flood watch would be in effect again Friday afternoon and early evening for the mountains and deserts because of the continuing threat of severe and slow-moving thunderstorms, which raises the potential for flash floods and debris flows.

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