December 18, 2008

Unusual snowstorm closes three major Southern California freeways

Snow covers Joshua trees in the Antelope Valley desert Monday afternoon.

I-5, I-15 and the Antelope Valley Freeway are shut down, stranding thousands of motorists. Some try to catch Metrolink trains and others bed down in motels. The storm is blamed for at least one death.

By Alexandra Zavis and Jennifer Oldham
Los Angeles Times

An unusually strong arctic blast dumped snow over a large swath of Southern California mountains and high deserts Wednesday, shutting down some of the state's busiest freeways, stranding thousands of motorists and cutting off several communities.

The storm's combination of frigid air, powerful winds and heavy precipitation dropped the snow level to an unusually low 2,000 feet, with at least 20 inches of snow in Wrightwood, 5 inches in the hills above Malibu and 6 inches or more in Palmdale, where all major routes from Los Angeles were blocked.

Forecasters expect the cold temperatures to continue today as the storm moves out, and another storm is expected to hit the region Sunday night.

Snow and ice shut down three of the region's key north-south routes -- Interstate 5, Interstate 15 and the 14 Freeway -- along with numerous mountain roads and desert highways.

The closures caused traffic nightmares for drivers trying to get in or out of Southern California. The severity of the storm caught many by surprise, leaving them stranded on the side of freeways, at rest stops and trying to stay warm inside their cars along snow-packed roads around Big Bear.

It had already started to rain when Garcia Ignacio of Lancaster drove off early Wednesday with his wife, Hortencia, to a kitchen remodeling job in Woodland Hills. But he never expected the drops to turn into sheets of snow. The couple spent the rest of the day trying to find a way home as authorities shut down one freeway after another. They finally gave up and checked into a La Quinta Inn in Santa Clarita.

"My 20-year-old and my 16-year-old are stuck home in Lancaster, and my wife and I are stuck here in a hotel," said Ignacio, who owns Aaron's Construction in Lancaster. "But I'm not worried about them, though. I called them already, and they were playing in the snow."

The storms brought steady rain to many parts of the Los Angeles Basin, and major street flooding was reported in Palm Springs. The opening night of the 100th annual Newport Beach Christmas Boat Parade was called off by organizers because of choppy seas caused by the storm.

Forecasters said the Las Vegas Strip could receive 3 inches of snow overnight. The weather caused some flight delays at the city's McCarren International Airport, which doesn't have snowplows.

The storm was blamed for at least one death, which occurred when a helicopter installing power lines crashed near Bouquet Canyon in Santa Clarita, killing a mechanic on the ground. The cause of the crash is under investigation, but it's believed a strong gust of wind hit the aircraft as it hovered just after liftoff, said Ian Gregor of the Federal Aviation Administration. The craft's tail broke off and a rotor blade struck the man on the ground, he said. The pilot suffered minor injuries but refused medical treatment, said Inspector Ron Haralson of the Los Angeles County Fire Department.

By about 1:30 p.m., traffic had ground to a halt along the northbound 14 at Sand Canyon Road as frustrated motorists tried to exit the shuttered freeway or pull onto the shoulder. Palm trees were doubled over in the lashing winds, and drivers wrestled to keep their vehicles in lanes.

A cluster of nearby restaurants and gas stations was jammed with people trying to figure out whether to wait out the storm or abandon their vehicles in the parking lot and take a train home. Some fretted about pets left outside in the cold. Others said they could not understand why the roads were closed, when they had stayed open in worse storms in the past.

Littlerock resident Deborah Deckert left her job at Warner Bros. in Burbank at 9:30 a.m. hoping to beat the freeway closures. Sitting at a Bergie's steakhouse, where high desert residents stood watching weather reports on big-screen TVs, she said it took her three hours to travel several miles on the 14 between the Sand Canyon and Soledad Canyon Road exits. She tried back roads as well but was forced to turn around. By the time she got off the 14 and pulled up in front of the restaurant, she was almost out of gas.

"I drive a clutch," she said. "I kept thinking to myself, as I was stuck in my car, 'At least this is good for my calves.' "

Stranded commuters jammed train stations, trying to get home. Metrolink agreed to honor bus passes from the Antelope Valley and Santa Clarita through this morning. But trains were running up to an hour late because of snow on the lines and poor visibility that made signals hard to see from the Via Princessa station in Santa Clarita to Lancaster, said Metrolink spokesman Francisco Oaxaca.

Motorists searched in vain for a parking spot at the Via Princessa station as the northbound 4:30 p.m. train approached. Lines at the ticket machines were at least 50 deep, and dozens more waited in rows alongside the tracks.

"Santa and all the nurses had to leave the Christmas party early," joked Debbie Ramirez, a nurse at Facey Medical Center in Santa Clarita, as she stood next to a passenger in a Santa suit. She rarely takes the train and had to ask other passengers which direction it came from.

Some commuters told of waiting in the freezing rain for 2 1/2 hours to buy a train ticket and then enduring another hour wait on the platform because the train was late.

Others took the weather in stride. A steady fall of big, wet flakes in the Antelope Valley community of Quartz Hill meant one thing to Kevin Vogel: snow day. He called a buddy and they made plans to go four-by-fouring in the fresh-fallen snow.

"It will be like a little sleigh ride out there," Vogel said.

His only concern was for his 8- and 9-year-old children, staying with grandparents in Las Vegas, who could get stranded as they try to make their way home today. "I wish they were here," he said. "I want to make a snowman, and for once they are not here."

Some businesses saw opportunity in the lack of bus service caused by the snow. Keith Bastedo, owner of Palmdale's High Desert Taxi Transportation, said business was up 100%, largely from commuters stranded at bus and train stations. Workers at two Palmdale tow-truck companies said they were too busy even to talk on the phone.

The Hampton Inn and Suites in Palmdale was sold out by 2 p.m. "This is usually our slow week, because of the holidays next week," said assistant manager Melissa Magallenos, one of two hotel administrators on duty when the deluge of customers began about noon.

The rain caused accidents and slow traffic on freeways around Southern California. In Palm Springs, Whitewater Wash overflowed, sending the runoff into the streets. San Diego firefighters and lifeguards evacuated 21 people along the overflowing Tijuana River. About 50 horses were also evacuated, but three others drowned and one was euthanized after tripping on barbed wire.

Steven Van Horn, a meteorologist with the National Weather Service in Oxnard, said the combination of moisture swept in off the coast and cold temperatures made this storm unusually snowy.

"Moisture has been pumping into the Antelope Valley all day and the temperatures have been cold enough, so we are getting a lot of snow," he said. "This is a fairly unusual storm. We don't usually get a cold storm like this until January. But this is our cold, rainy season so every once in a while you can get a storm like this."

The snowfall is expected to ease overnight, but frigid temperatures are predicted into today.

Another storm could strike as soon as Sunday night or Monday morning, Van Horn said. But it is not expected to bring as much cold or snow.