Hundreds of Californians Begin to Return Home After Wicked Weather

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Hundreds of evacuees were allowed Friday to return to their foothill homes as Southern California's week of lightning, vicious downpours and tornadoes dissipated into occasional thunderstorms.

As rainfall drenched the region earlier in the week, the homes had faced possible debris flows from a 250-square-mile area of the San Gabriel Mountains, northeast of Los Angeles, burned bare last summer by wildfire.

However, mandatory evacuation orders were lifted for all but a handful of streets after public works experts determined that the ground was safe — for now.

Only about 200 of some 2,000 homes throughout Los Angeles County remained under evacuation orders.

The city of Los Angeles canceled evacuations for all but one home, Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa said at a news conference.

However, residents seemed slow to return. At the foot of Mount Gleason in the Sunland-Tujunga area, barricades were removed from roads but the hilly, winding streets of the Alpine Village area seemed virtually deserted by early afternoon.

Irma Shakhoulian, who never left, said she was relieved that now her husband could slip out to a grocery store without worrying that he wouldn't be allowed to return to their home.

In neighboring Glendale, all evacuations were canceled after a helicopter swooped over mountain slopes, debris catch basins and storm runoff channels.

"We saw nothing to cause us any concern at this time," city spokeswoman Vicki Gardner said. However, she said the risk of mudslides and flooding could remain for days or even weeks and urged residents to keep their eyes open.

Some people never left, despite repeated official pleas to holdouts that they were risking their lives.

On a nearly deserted cul-de-sac in La Canada Flintridge, George Wiktor watched from his front yard on Friday as crews shoveled mud from the street into a truck.

A mudslide a day earlier was diverted around homes by extensive sandbagging.

"My home is fine. There is no drama here," said Wiktor, one of two homeowners on the street who refused to heed evacuation orders.

Meanwhile, in an early sign that things might be returning to normal, a UPS truck pulled up in front of a neighbor's home to drop off a package.

The string of storms that began Sunday evening killed at least people who were crushed by falling trees.

Flood control channels remained swollen and swift despite the drop in rainfall. In one dramatic rescue Friday afternoon, a dog was hoisted from the Los Angeles River by helicopter after trying to scramble up the steep concrete sides for more than an hour.

At a Los Angeles news conference, Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger declared a state of emergency for San Bernardino County, citing county estimates of 124 homes damaged by the storm and costs of more than $11 million for emergency response, building damage and debris cleanup.

On Thursday, states of emergency were declared for Los Angeles, Orange, Riverside, San Francisco and Siskiyou counties. However, the state Office of Emergency Services had no estimated of storm costs for those counties.

The declarations will allow the counties to obtain state reimbursement for much of their damage and cleanup costs, although state officials said it was unlikely that the damage was serious enough for them to qualify for federal emergency aid.

Repairs crews, meanwhile, worked around the clock to restore power to thousands left in the dark when lashing wind and falling trees knocked down power lines.

At a news conference, Schwarzenegger said 82,000 people remained without power throughout the state.

That included around 2,000 in Blythe, near the Arizona border, where a tornado on Thursday knocked down 80 poles, Southern California Edison spokeswoman Lois Pitter Bruce said.

The storms also had a bright side. They buried the Sierra in heavy snow, which is needed to replenish the state's water supply.

The water content in the snowpack of the northern Sierra Nevada nearly doubled over the past week. Electronic readings along the northern Sierra — the source for much of the water used by California cities and farms — show the snowpack at 117 percent of normal.

Even so, state hydrologists said more snow is needed over the next two months to lift California out of a three-year drought and refill its reservoirs.

The National Weather Service warned of scattered showers and thunderstorms through Friday evening that could drop up to an inch of rain an hour at times.

There also could be an additional 4 to 8 inches of snow in the mountains.

In communities below burn areas, only minor slides were reported but flash flood watches remained in effect.

Snow coated the mountains above the foothill neighborhoods Friday morning. To the east, snow also blanketed the city of Yucaipa below the San Bernardino Mountains.

A week of storms has brought 8 to 10 inches of rain to the Los Angeles-area mountains, while lower-lying areas got about half that, weather service meteorologist Eric Boldt said.

Most Southern California areas will see about a half-inch of rain Friday but areas hit by brief but fierce thunderstorms could get 1 to 2 inches, Boldt said.

Authorities said an extensive flood-control system was working, but many of the basins designed to catch debris-laden runoff from fire-scarred mountains were full as the region entered a fifth straight day of rain.

The weather was expected to dry out over the weekend before yet another storm front moved in.

Neighboring Arizona also was pounded with rain and snow that prompted a search for a boy who was swept away by rising waters, flooded an unknown number of homes in another community and left several hikers stranded.

A search was under way early Friday for the 6-year-old boy who was swept about 70 miles north of Phoenix near the community of Mayer. Dwight D'Evelyn, a spokesman for the Yavapai County Sheriff's Department, said the boy was presumed dead.

In western Arizona, a 2-foot surge of runoff flooded streets and an unknown number of homes early Friday in Wenden, a community of 500 people located about 100 miles west of Phoenix. No one was reported missing or injured.