November 14, 2003, Friday Late Edition - Final

Section A Page 16 Column 1 Desk: National Desk Length: 1000 words




Rain and Hail Deluge a Slice of the Los Angeles Basin


By JOHN M. BRODER; Chris Dixon reported for this article.




Some say the world will end in fire, some say in ice.


Two weeks after the most destructive wildfires in state historyblackened the skies over Southern California, a freak storm delugedLos Angeles on Wednesday night and left piles of hail more than afoot deep in some parts of the city.





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


''I haven't seen anything like this in all my years,'' said TyroneWright, 52, cleaning up the mud around his tiny home on AlvaroStreet. ''It's like the Lord said, 'I'm going to take Watts and makeit snow.' ''


National Weather Service officials said 5.3 inches of rain fell atEast 96th Street and Central Avenue in South-Central Los Angeles inless than three hours on Wednesday evening. Mark Lenz, a forecasterwith the Weather Service's office in Oxnard, Calif., said rain inthat amount typically fell on Los Angeles once every 50 or 100 years.


''As far as hail goes, it's definitely unusual to get thatamount,'' Mr. Lenz said.


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


Violent weather swept into the Midwest and East as well onThursday, felling trees, flooding roads and cutting power to nearly amillion customers. Waves reached 16 feet on Lakes Erie and Ontario,and hundreds of flights into and out of New York were delayed forseveral hours. In Victor, N.Y., near Rochester, a large tree fell ona car, killing a 37-year-old woman.


Occasional rainstorms are not unusual this time of year inSouthern California, but this one behaved more oddly than most. Itcame in from the southeast after sitting off the coast for severaldays collecting moisture, then parked itself over South-Central LosAngeles, particularly Watts and the nearby cities of Compton, SouthGate and Lynwood and the community of Willowbrook.


The torrential rains were accompanied by the percussion of thunderand rapid-fire lightning strikes, which took down some power pylonsand cut power to as many as 115,000 customers on Wednesday night.Wind gusts forced the temporary closing of the Los AngelesInternational Airport, about five miles west of what was the centerof the storm.


Firefighters rescued more than 100 people from cars and floodedstreets.


Mr. Lenz said some parts of South-Central Los Angeles got morethan five inches of rain, while only a half-inch fell on downtown LosAngeles, less than 10 miles away, and only a trace was recorded atthe airport.


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


''This storm stayed over a five- to eight-mile radius and thosecolumns of rain were just pounding down on that one area,'' Mr. Lenzsaid.


In Watts, on East 114th Street just west of Central Avenue, whichwas narrowed to one lane by piles of pearl-sized hail, children inT-shirts molded balls of ice and threw them at each other and atpassing cars. Damarie Fawcett, 13, shoveled out a neighbor'sdriveway. A gawker in a slow-moving car shouted, ''Oooh, Christmas!''


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


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


When she arrived home, her entire block was dark, she said. Theelectricity was still out Thursday morning. Power had been restoredto most homes by Thursday evening.


Across the street, Pierre and Cheryl Frisson took their childrento play in the piles of hail on East 114th Street. Their school wasflooded and closed. Mr. Frisson said he had seen a school busfloating down the street the night before.


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


After the wildfires ravaged 750,000 acres across SouthernCalifornia late last month, officials worried that winter rains wouldset off damaging mudslides on denuded hillsides. But while the stormbrought as much as six inches of snow to some Southern Californiamountain peaks, the fire-damaged hills were largely spared the heavyrains.


The first significant rains of the season came on Halloween night,effectively killing the wildfires that erupted a week earlier. Butthe region has still suffered from below-average rainfall for twoyears.


Leonard Cash, 24, said he was in his car in Compton during theWednesday storm and opened his door and a slurry of rain and hailpoured in.


''I was walking in it, and I couldn't feel from my knees down,''he said.


But by this morning, only a trace of the hail remained in his yardon Alvaro Street in Watts, melted by the sun in the 60-degreeweather.


''You don't expect this here, especially not in Watts,'' Mr. Cashsaid. ''But this morning it was looking good out here. It was a Wattswonderland.''



Images: Photo: On a rare day in Los Angeles, children like thesein Watts can engage in iceball fights after a storm left more than afoot of hail in some areas. (Photo by Ann Johansson for The New YorkTimes)