Cleanup Continues After Fatal Mudslide in La Conchita, CA

Tue January 25, 2005 - West Edition

LA CONCHITA, CA (AP) A huge mudslide crashed down on homes in a coastal hamlet with terrifying force Jan. 10, killing ten people and leaving more unaccounted for under the debris as a Pacific storm hammered Southern California.

“It lasted a long time. It was slow-moving. The roofs of the houses were crashing and creaking real loud and there was a huge rumble sound,” said Robert Cardoza, a construction worker who was clearing debris from a nearby highway.

As rescuers combed the debris, geology experts with air horns watched the hillside above, ready to sound an alarm if it moved. But as a driving rainstorm pounded the area, authorities decided it was too dangerous to continue searching through the mud and debris, which had piled up 30 ft. (9 m) high.

“We’re having to tug pretty hard on some of our people to get them to stop the search,” said the fire department’s chief investigator, Keith Mashburn. “Because they know they feel if there’s people under there, they want to help them. And not knowing positively until you have ’em out if they’re alive or dead, they don’t want to stop.”

The storms sent rainfall totals to astonishing levels, turning normally mild Southern California into a giant flood zone.

The hillside in La Conchita cascaded down like a brown river as authorities were evacuating about 200 residents from the area. Trees and vegetation were carried away, leaving huge gashes of raw earth on the bluff.

Some residents made their way from the area clutching pets, luggage or clothing as the huge mass of mud bore down. Some huddled together or cried as they talked on cell phones. Fifteen houses were crushed by the slide.

Rescuers dropped listening devices into the rubble to try to locate victims before another downpour of up to 2 in. (5.1 cm) of rain was expected before dawn on Jan. 12.

La Conchita is a slip of a town pressed between a highway and a towering coastal bluff. Several houses were damaged by a mudslide here during powerful storms in the 1990s.

The destruction at La Conchita was the worst disaster of the storms to date, but mudslides and flooding were reported throughout the region, blocking road and rail travel and forcing a shutdown of interstate petroleum supply lines.

Elsewhere, avalanches killed two people in Utah and one in Nevada –– a 13-year-old snowboarder who was swept off a ski lift to his death. Also in Utah, a man was presumed dead after rushing water swept him off his vehicle.

Several mountainous areas in Southern California had recorded more than 20 in. of rain, including more than 27 in. in the San Gabriel Mountains northeast of Los Angeles.

The heavy rain and snow also produced flooding along the Ohio River that has affected communities in West Virginia, Ohio, Kentucky and Indiana, covering riverside roads and forcing some residents to evacuate.

Flooding Affects

Nevada, Utah

A snowy morning slowed traffic and closed schools on Jan. 11 in western Nevada and the Sierra while rain pushed creeks and rivers over their banks in the southern part of the state.

The Virgin River flooded homes in Mesquite and rising waters were threatening southern Nevada towns downstream including Glendale and Overton, authorities said.

As many as 15 homes were damaged in Mesquite as desert washes ran full and rivers turned from lazy trickles to rain-swollen torrents.

“The Virgin River looks like the Columbia today,” Dorothy Higgins, administrative assistant to Mesquite Mayor William Nicholes, said on Jan. 11, referring to a powerful river in the Pacific Northwest.

With rain continuing to fall, Higgins said she found water lapping at the doorstep of a neighbor’s house, but her own home was spared.

“Water was everywhere. Crews were down there sandbagging,’ she said. “We’re damp, cold but OK.”

Mesquite is a community of about 14,000 residents on the Utah-Nevada border about 80 mi. northeast of Las Vegas.

The sandbag brigade of volunteers and firefighters filled and stacked at least 7,000 bags while flood waters rose, Clark County spokesman Eric Pappa said from a county emergency operations center in Las Vegas.

Flooding also was reported overnight in Glendale, a farming community in the Moapa Valley about 50 mi. northwest of Las Vegas.

Emergency management officials ordered 250 people to evacuate low-lying homes in Overton, along the rising Muddy River.

“The flooding hasn’t really arrived yet,” Pappa said. “But the height of the river’s increasing. For the safety of the residents, we have to evacuate.”

In northern Nevada, chains were required to cross the mountains on both Interstate-80 and U.S. 50. And chains or snow tires were needed on U.S. 395 for the commute between Reno and Carson City.

Washoe County schools were closed and Carson City canceled classes as well.

Since the storms began just after Christmas, Washoe County and the cities of Sparks and Reno estimate they have spent a combined $1.7 million to clear streets and help the Washoe County School District clear its parking lots and bus routes.

Money for the cleanup has paid for staff overtime, supplies and hiring contractors. Each government declared a state of emergency, which let it tap state and possibly federal relief funds.

Carson City has spent about $120,000 for overtime and contractors, Finance Director Tom Minton told the Reno Gazette-Journal.

Throughout the Reno area people were urged to remove their cars from covered carports that are popular at apartment complexes. The snow caused many to collapse, crushing several vehicles.

Officials at the Comstock Hills and Hillview Terrace apartment complexes in southeast Reno told residents damage was estimated at $500,000 for about 35 carports that collapsed Jan. 9, trapping several cars beneath. The company’s insurance covers replacing the carports only.

Reno Mayor Bob Cashell said the city had received hundreds of calls to its information line complaining about the lack of snow removal on residential streets, but he said the focus had to remain on keeping the emergency routes open.