Effort to get homeless safe as storm hits Calif.

Kristin J. Bender and Scott Smith
Associated Press

Los Angeles — The most powerful storm yet in a series of El Nino storms pushed onto the California coast Wednesday as police and outreach teams kept an eye on riverbeds where thousands of the city’s homeless live and would be vulnerable to flash flooding.

Los Angeles authorities have spent days getting the transients from low-lying areas and shuttles were available to bring people to shelters that had room for as many as 6,000 beds, according to Mayor Eric Garcetti.

There was a renewed risk that the Los Angeles River and other waterways could rise quickly as the third of four predicted storms moved in from the Pacific. The latest system is packing colder temperatures, stronger winds and heavier rainfall than the previous ones that have battered the state since the weekend.

Heavy rain drenched San Francisco during the morning commute and sparked mayhem as drivers crashed, trees toppled and streets and streams flooded. The California Highway Patrol estimated there were nearly two dozen weather-related crashes in the region by 7 a.m.

The National Weather Service issued a flash-flood watch for nearly the entire Bay Area. The storm was expected to move south through the Central Coast and into Southern California by midday.

Motorists in mountain areas are warned that blizzard conditions are possible above 4,000 feet — including several inches of snow and wind gusts up to 60 mph.

Flash flooding and flows of mud and debris remain a worry in foothill neighborhoods beneath areas left barren by last year’s wildfires.

The National Weather Service said 1.42 inches of rain fell Tuesday at Los Angeles International Airport, beating the 1979 record for the date by a tenth of an inch.

Los Angeles officials have mapped encampments for the first time in order to contact as many homeless as possible. Garcetti said police are prepared to temporarily detain homeless people illegally camped in and near the Los Angeles River who are in danger but refuse to move.

“We’re not going to charge them with things,” he said. “But we will use the force of law — there is law on the books that they can’t be there.”

Fire Chief Ralph Terrazas said Tuesday that swift-water rescue teams are ready to launch, but he hopes they won’t be needed.

In Orange County, south of Los Angeles, a homeless man in his 40s was swept off his feet by swift waters and washed nearly a mile down Brea Creek in Buena Park before he pulled himself out, county fire Capt. Steve Concialdi said. He was treated at a hospital for scraped feet and arms.

Despite the potential for flooding and mudslides, the wet weather was welcome news for a state suffering from a severe drought. But officials warned against reverting to old water-use habits.

California’s water deficit is so deep after four years of drought that a steady parade of storms like these will be needed for years to come, said Mike Anderson, climatologist for the state’s Department of Water Resources.

The current El Nino — a natural warming of the central Pacific Ocean that interacts with the atmosphere and changes weather worldwide — has tied 1997-1998 as the strongest on record, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s Climate Prediction Center said, citing statistics that go back to 1950.

As much as 15 inches of rain could fall in the next two weeks in Northern California, with about 2 feet of snow expected in the highest points of the Sierra Nevada, said Johnny Powell, a forecaster with the National Weather Service.

The first in the line of storms also drenched the desert Southwest on Tuesday and was aiming for the Gulf Coast, but should weaken to no more than a couple inches of rainfall by the time it reaches the Southeast, Masters added.