Rain soaks California causing floods, but won't end drought

By Sharon Bernstein SACRAMENTO, California (Reuters) - A large winter storm brought much-needed relief to parched California on Friday, boosting depleted reservoirs and the Sierra Nevada's mountain snowpack, but officials said the precipitation would be too little to offset years of drought. The heavy rains also prompted flash flood warnings across much of Southern California and posed a particular threat to foothill communities where recent wildfires stripped vegetation from large areas, leaving homes below vulnerable to potential mudslides. Mandatory evacuations were in effect on Friday for more than 1,200 homes in some slide-prone areas east of Los Angeles, where sandbags were stacked around driveways and miles of concrete barriers were lined up along the streets to channel heavy hillside runoff away from houses. The downpours even posed challenges to crews preparing for Sunday night's Oscar ceremony in Hollywood, soaking parts of the newly installed red carpet. California is in its third year of a dry spell that may break all records in the most populous U.S. state, where lawmakers on Thursday swiftly passed a series of drought relief proposals to Governor Jerry Brown for his signature. President Barack Obama has also pledged millions of dollars in aid. Friday's storm, and a smaller band of showers on Wednesday, came as a welcome break in California's relentlessly dry weather but will do little to significantly ease the state's water crisis. "Despite these recent storms, it would still have to rain every other day until around May to reach average precipitation totals, and even then we would still be in a drought due to the last two dry years," said Richard Stapler, spokesman for the California Natural Resources Agency. Brown declared a drought emergency last month and has called on state officials to prepare for water shortages and to develop solutions for potentially long-term dry weather. Officials have said that California farmers facing drastic cutbacks in irrigation water are expected to idle half a million acres of cropland this year in a record production loss that could cause billions of dollars in economic damage. Moderate to heavy rainfall across Southern and Central California on Friday was expected to taper off by Saturday afternoon, the National Weather Service said. The coastal town of Oxnard, just north of Los Angeles, received nearly 2 inches of rain by late afternoon, the highest precipitation measured anywhere in the United States during the day, according to the weather service. ROCK SLIDES AND RIVER RESCUES Rain and high winds caused road closures and power outages across Southern California and brought enough snow that tire chains were required for driving on mountain roads near the Nevada border. In Los Angeles, 14,000 customers were without power by mid-morning. People were soaked as high winds turned umbrellas inside out and drove the rain nearly sideways as they waited for buses and light rail trains. Near Malibu, crews worked to clear debris from the Pacific Coast Highway north of the affluent seaside city after rock slides prompted officials to shut down a 10-mile (16-km) stretch of the scenic road. Patrick Chandler, a spokesman for the California Department of Transportation, said a large wildfire in the area last year had weakened the stability of hillsides in the area. "A lot of times, when you have rain in this area, especially with the drought, you're going to have a lot of loose rocks coming down," Chandler said. Later Friday, the agency closed the Angeles Crest Highway in the San Gabriel Mountains northeast of Los Angeles after another rockslide made the road impassable. Several recreation areas in the Angeles National Forest also were closed. By noon, there had been 158 vehicle crashes in the Los Angeles area, 112 more than the previous Friday, according to the California Highway Patrol. Firefighters rescued two homeless people who had climbed with their dogs into trees to escape swiftly rising water flowing down the Los Angeles River near their encampment, and another man was plucked to safety from another spot along the river later in the day, a fire department spokesman said. Air traffic was also affected at Los Angeles International Airport, where 19 incoming and outgoing flights were cancelled on Friday morning, officials said. In northern California, about 13,000 customers lost power in the San Francisco Bay Area and the wine-making Sonoma County, said Jason King, a spokesman for the Pacific Gas & Electric utility company. Although many of those households and businesses had their power restored by early afternoon, the company expected additional outages to occur on Friday night as the rainy and windy weather continued, King said. (Additional reporting by Laila Kearney in San Francisco and Steve Gorman and Dan Whitcomb in Los Angeles; Editing by Cynthia Johnson, Grant McCool and Lisa Shumaker)