December 17, 2014 / 6:32 PM / 3 years ago

Mudslide triggered by rain blocks half of Southern California highway

LOS ANGELES (Reuters) - A rainstorm in Southern California triggered a mudslide that blocked part of a freeway on Wednesday, snarling traffic for miles and forcing motorists to endure up to three hours of delays, a Highway Patrol spokesman said.

The slide came during the latest in a series of rainstorms to hit Southern California in the past two weeks that put a promising dent in a severe drought entering its fourth year even as officials said a water shortage remained far from over.

In the slide, which struck before dawn, a thin layer of mud flowed down a hillside and blanketed about 400 feet (120 meters) of State Route 91 east of the Orange County community of Anaheim Hills, said California Highway Patrol spokesman Tino Olivera.

Authorities closed all eastbound lanes of the highway, backing up traffic for more than 2 miles (3.2 km), Olivera said.

Several cars got flat tires and were stranded in the slick mud and small rocks, and some motorists behind them sat for three hours in the resulting gridlock as workers cleared debris from the road, he said.

The hillside that sent mud flowing onto the freeway recently experienced a wildfire that stripped it of vegetation needed to hold soil in place, according to local media. Once the mud was cleared, workers installed barriers to prevent further debris from reaching the road, Olivera said.

Since October, storms have dumped more than 20 inches (50 cm) of rain in Northern California, raising the precipitation level to 145 percent of normal as of Wednesday, said Doug Carlson, a spokesman for the state Department of Water Resources.

But wetter than normal weather, on a magnitude of 150 percent of average, would have to persist through the winter to provide substantial relief from a drought that has plagued the state for three years, according to the Water Resources Department.

Downtown Los Angeles received half an inch of rain (1.2 cm) in the latest downpour, which began on Tuesday evening, and parts of the suburban communities of Torrance and the San Fernando Valley saw flooding, National Weather Service meteorologist Carol Smith said.

Los Angeles could receive light rainfall on Wednesday night, Weather Service meteorologist David Sweet said.

Reporting by Alex Dobuzinskis in Los Angeles and Sharon Bernstein in Sacramento, Calif.; Editing by Bill Trott and Peter Cooney

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