California Rain Shuts Down I-5 Grapevine, Strands Hundreds Of Drivers In Mudslides

Coburn Palmer

Severe thunderstorms and flash floods trapped hundreds of drivers on California roadways late Thursday, forcing emergency crews to rescue 14 people from mudslides and forcing others to find safety on top of their cars.

The I-5 over the Grapevine, California's major north-south artery is expected to remain closed all day Friday as repair crews work to remove up to five feet of mud from the highway.

Gabby Vasquez, who was driving on the Grapevine during Thursdays mudslides, told USA Today the mudslides were a frightening experience.

"Boulders were just coming down the mountain and we were just like, 'We can't see' and it was just really crazy."

State Route 58 in Kern County near Mojave was also closed Friday after major mudslides covered the road in 20 feet of mud and buried 200 cars, forcing drivers to escape out their windows. The California Department of Transportation told drivers to expect a long-term closure of the highway.

Shelters have been set up to provide aid to drivers who were still being pulled from their cars Friday morning. A number of smaller side roads were also covered in mud, making them impassable for drivers seeking alternate routes.

Homes in the Elizabeth Lake area were also covered in mud after Thursday's flash floods, forcing emergency crews to conduct a house-to-house safety search. Residents in Lake Hughes and Palmdale in Northern Los Angeles County were pummeled with golf ball-sized hail during Thursday's storm, and a pregnant woman had to be rescued through her sunroof because flood waters were too high to open the car door.

The Kern County Fire Department received the emergency call about 4:40 p.m. and sent emergency crews to rescue the woman. Before finding her, however, the rescuers discovered two other cars full of people who required assistance after their cars became trapped in the flood. Rescuers were forced to pull them out through the windows.

Crews went on to find the woman who was eight months pregnant, but they needed to rig a makeshift hoist to pull her out through her sunroof, reports 23 ABC News.

The El Tejon school district shut down for the day at 8:30 a.m. after first announcing a two-hour delay. Students are advised to stay home for their safety. Mojave schools are also closed Friday.

After repair crews remove the wall of mud covering the Grapevine, a geologist will check the stability of nearby hillsides to ensure they remain safe before drivers are allowed to use the road again, a Department of Transportation spokeswoman told the San Francisco Chronicle.

"There could always be more slide that comes down onto the road. Our engineers are always very careful so they make sure in a flood situation, any hillside is secure."

There's no relief in sight, however, as more rain is expected. A flash flood watch is in effect Friday, and residents are preparing for the possibility of continued flash floods and more mudslides. The storm is expected to move east through the desert over the weekend.

The expected rainfall from the large El Nino is expected to drench Southern California residents first before moving north this winter, where experts hope it to fill depleted reservoirs. Despite the massive rainfall expected over the winter, experts say the state won't recover completely from the massive four-year drought.

Although the much-needed rain will help fill empty reservoirs the state's water levels are simply too low to fill in one winter.

[Photo by David McNew/Getty Images]