Rare storm dumps rain, hail on L.A.

Lightning strikes, streets flood

nearly 1 million residents without power


LOS ANGELES - Two weeks after the most destructive wildfires in state history blackened the skies over Southern California, a freak storm deluged Los Angeles on Wednesday night and left piles of hail more than a foot deep in some parts of the city.

In Watts, a neighborhood seldom visited by providence, residents saw the lightning lacing the sky, the water cascading down the streets and the hail pounding on their rooftops as some sort of sign.

"I haven't seen anything like this in all my years," said Tyrone Wright, 52, cleaning up the mud around his tiny home on Alvaro Street. "It's like the Lord said, `I'm going to take Watts and make it snow.'"

National Weather Service officials said that 5.31 inches of rain fell at 96th East Street and Central Avenue in South-Central Los Angeles in less than three hours Wednesday evening.

Mark Lenz, a forecaster with the weather service's Oxnard, Calif., office, said rain in that amount falls on Los Angeles once every 50 or 100 years.

"As far as hail goes, it's definitely unusual to get that amount," Lenz said.

The most rain ever recorded in a 24-hour period in the Los Angeles basin was 7.33 inches on New Year's Eve in 1933, he said.

Violent weather swept into the Midwest and East as well yesterday, felling trees, flooding roads and cutting power to nearly a million customers.

Waves reached 16 feet on Lakes Erie and Ontario, and hundreds of flights into and out of New York were delayed for several hours. In Victor, N.Y., near Rochester, a large tree fell on a car, killing a 37-year-old woman.

Occasional rainstorms are not unusual this time of year in Southern California, but Wednesday's behaved more oddly than most. It came in from the southeast after sitting off the coast for several days collecting moisture, then parked itself over South-Central Los Angeles, particularly Watts and the nearby cities of Compton, South Gate and Lynwood and the community of Willowbrook.

The torrential rains were accompanied by the percussion of thunder and rapid-fire lightning strikes, which took down some power pylons and cut power to as many as 115,000 customers Wednesday night.

Wind gusts forced the temporary closing of Los Angeles International Airport, about five miles west of what was the center of the storm.

Firefighters rescued more than 100 people from cars and flooded streets.

Lenz said that some parts of South-Central Los Angeles got more than 5 inches of rain, while only a half-inch fell on downtown Los Angeles, less than 10 miles away, and only a trace was recorded at the airport.

He said the storm was intensified by occasional breaks in the clouds that allowed the ground to heat in some places, creating rising air and greater instability.

"This storm stayed over a 5- to 8-mile radius and those columns of rain were just pounding down on that one area," he said.

In Watts, on East 114th Street just west of Central Avenue, which was narrowed to one lane by piles of pearl-sized hail, children in T-shirts molded balls of ice and threw them at each other and at passing cars. Damarie Fawcett, 13, shoveled out a neighbor's driveway. A gawker in a slow-moving car shouted, "Oooh, Christmas!"

Others in the neighborhood found the storm less amusing. Marina Johnson, 48, said it took her five hours to get home from work, a commute that usually takes 20 minutes.

"Cars were floating by me," Johnson said. "I don't know how my car kept going. It was just unbelievable."

When she arrived home, her entire block was dark, she said. The electricity was still out yesterday morning.

A Department of Water and Power truck rolled by her house. "Turn my power back on," Johnson yelled.

Across East 114th Street, Pierre and Cheryl Frisson had brought their children to play in the piles of hail. Their school was flooded and closed. Pierre Frisson said he had seen a school bus floating down the street the night before.

A trickle of water flowed down the 10-foot-deep storm canal below them. On Wednesday night, they said, the surging water had overflowed the canal's concrete banks, spewing flotsam throughout the neighborhood. Some could still be seen clinging to chain-link fences and the trunks of trees.

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