POSTED: 4:44 a.m. HST, Dec 23, 2010
LAST UPDATED: 12:50 p.m. HST, Dec 23, 2010
LOS ANGELES — Many California residents who endured flooding, mudslides and evacuations during a weeklong onslaught of rain must now clean up or even rebuild — and could face the prospect of not being able to spend Christmas at home.
The storm's push across the West left a muddy mess Thursday across Southern California and the threat of avalanches in Nevada, where Clark County officials urged residents of Mount Charleston, near Las Vegas, to leave after snow slides near two mountain hamlets.
The inland region of Southern California east of Los Angeles was emerging as among the hardest-hit areas, especially San Bernardino County,
In Highland, people were literally chased from their homes by walls of mud and water, leaving behind dwellings strung with holiday lights.
They returned Thursday to find as many as 70 homes, some with Christmas presents under the tree, inundated with mud several feet deep.
Leslie Constante burst into tears when she approached her parents' house and saw a red tag slapped on the garage, meaning authorities had deemed it unsafe to enter. Out front, a display with two holiday reindeer was enveloped in mud several feet deep.
"My mom and dad worked so hard for this," said Constante, wearing knee high rubber boots and a rain jacket. The 29-year-old pharmacy technician couldn't get inside to see how bad the damage was to Christmas presents and other belongings.
The storm caused at least $10 million damage to homes, roads, levees and bridges in San Bernardino County alone, said county fire spokeswoman Tracey Martinez. That initial estimate was expected to increase.
As residents surveyed their homes, work crews were busy trying to reopen more than a dozen canyon and mountain roads that were closed by slides and floods. Reopening times were listed simply as "unknown" for most of them.
"There's a lot of road damage," Martinez said. "The whole county received quite a bit of damage."
Ibeth Garcia and her family returned Thursday to a home surrounded by mud 4 feet deep to retrieve Christmas presents and clothes left behind when they fled a dirty torrent.
"We left with just our shoes, cell phones and car keys," said Garcia, 26. "We didn't have time for anything else."
They found just a light coating of mud inside the house and considered themselves lucky, since some of their neighbors' homes were uninhabitable.
Numerous motorists were rescued from swamped cars during the days of rain, but one driver was killed. The body of Angela Wright, 39, of Menifee was recovered from a car that was swept off a flooded road Wednesday near Canyon Lake in Riverside County, the coroner's office said.
While the rain had given way to only partly cloudy skies Thursday, the danger was not over for foothill residents living below wildfire-scarred hillsides.
"The ground is so saturated it could move at any time" and the threat will remain for several weeks, said Bob Spencer, spokesman for the Los Angeles County Department of Public Works.
More than 200 homes were ordered evacuated for more than 24 hours in La Canada Flintridge and La Crescenta, suburbs of Los Angeles below steep hillsides that burned in 2009 and where mudslides inundated homes and backyards in February. Evacuations ended Wednesday night.
The rain also washed trash, pesticides and bacteria into waterways and prompted health warnings. Four beaches were closed in Northern California's San Mateo County, and another 12 miles of beach from Laguna Beach to San Clemente in Southern California's Orange County were off-limits because of sewer overflows.
"It can be very nice the next day and everyone says 'This is great! This is a beach day,'" said Jonathan E. Fielding, director of the Los Angeles County public health department. "It could well be, but we will be monitoring and testing water and we won't recommend people go back there until we're sure it's safe."
Experts normally recommend waiting 72 hours after a storm before getting in the water, though in this case some are saying five days might be wiser. The contamination in some areas could last for weeks because of the especially heavy rains.
"Literally every beach gets an 'F' when we get a rain storm like this," said Mark Gold, president of Heal the Bay, a Santa Monica-based group that monitors and grades beach water quality.
Curtis Duran, 45, and his two children Max and Ava strolled the trash-strewn beach in Long Beach and surveyed debris carried down to the shoreline by the Los Angeles River.
Cans, baseballs, plastic bottles and even a baby's high chair sat on the sand mixed with piles of discarded wood and shards of plastic. Ava, 5, picked up a deflated red ball and showed it to her dad.
"We come down here all the time, and I've never seen so much," said Curtis Duran.
Associated Press writers John Rogers, John Antczak, John Mone, Robert Jablon and Noaki Schwartz in Los Angeles, and Cristina Silva in Las Vegas contributed to this story.