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6 Missing In I-5 Collapse California Storms Leave Thousands Homeless; 38 Counties Are Disaster Areas

Search teams flew over a flood-swollen creek in central California on Saturday to look for six people missing after a bridge collapsed and their cars plunged into the swirling waters.

One body was spotted before the search was abandoned because of threatening weather.

The 100-foot section of Interstate 5 sank Friday night as California endured another in a series of gale-force Pacific storms that have left at least eight dead, thousands homeless and 38 counties declared disaster areas.

Evacuations continued in Northern California’s Monterey County, where the Salinas and Carmel rivers flooded, cutting bridges and stranding residents in low-lying areas. Rain subsided in the region as the storm moved south.

The I-5 freeway collapse near Coalinga closed a 10-mile section of the main artery through sopping farm land about 50 miles west of Fresno.

Police believe six people were in the first two cars that dropped the 10 to 20 feet into the creek. The driver of the third managed to get out and hang precariously from a tree until he was rescued.

One horrified family tried in vain to stop cars from plunging into the river, said California Highway Patrol spokesman Dave Sigler.

“The occupants said they saw at least one red car … go off in front of them,” he said. “They stopped and tried to flag down two more cars who came up behind, but the others just went by them.”

A car containing at least one body was spotted two miles downstream from the freeway collapse. But searchers couldn’t get into the vehicle, and abandoned the effort for the day when more rain threatened.

“It will take days before the ground is dry enough to get mechanical equipment down there,” paramedic Scott Davis said.

A highway patrol plane and a helicopter had used the closed freeway as a landing strip to survey the roiling, muddy waters of Arroyo Pasajero Creek. A search team in a four-wheel drive made its way along the banks.

Elsewhere, two cross-country skiers caught in a blizzard were found dead Saturday near the Heavenly Valley ski resort near Lake Tahoe on the California-Nevada state line.

The California National Guard earlier called for the evacuation of 400 people from the town of Tehama on the Sacramento River. But Mayor Ron Warner said city officials decided not to evacuate because the river level was dropping.

Officials in Monterey were evacuating hundreds of people from the town of Pajaro, where up to 3 feet of water flowed through the streets.

“It’s not safe for people - some are standing on their roofs,” said county official Rosie Pando.

She said bridges across the Carmel River have collapsed, isolating the community of Carmel Heights. “They have no phones - we don’t know what’s going on up there,” she said.

Pacific Gas & Electric Co. officials said 64,000 homes and businesses remained without power Saturday night in the northern part of the state, and some are likely to remain dark through the weekend.

Other victims of the storm in cluded a person killed Friday in San Luis Obispo County when a car went off a road, officials said Saturday.

In Santa Barbara County, a man killed when a wall of water swept him out of his Sycamore Canyon home was identified as retired federal Judge Edward Schiff, 65, said police Sgt. Brian Abbott. Schiff’s wife held onto the doorway and was rescued.

Elsewhere in the county, authorities Saturday discovered the body of an 18-year-old woman who had tried to ford a creek.

A transient who fell asleep by a flood control channel in Los Angeles was found dead on a San Fernando Valley golf course Saturday morning after water rose and swept him away, police said.

Another person was killed when a car flew off the Pasadena Freeway and plunged into the rain-swollen Arroyo Seco flood control channel early Saturday.

Mudslides inundated large sections of Pacific Coast Highway in Malibu, damaging some roadside homes and blocking access.

Blackouts hit some 17,000 custom ers in the Los Angeles area overnight, but most outages were fixed quickly. Freeway traffic became snarled as low-lying sections of roadway flooded.

Back in Northern California, some areas were recovering - slowly.

About half of 600 evacuees in hard-hit St. Helena along the Napa River were allowed to return home, but many elderly residents of the Vineyard Valley mobile home park weren’t so lucky.

Most of the 233 units remain uninhabitable, said owner Richard McDonnell.

“There is a lot of mud, a lot of silt. It’s slippery. It’s very, very dangerous,” he said.

In Santa Cruz County, 2,700 people were evacuated, most in farming areas around Watsonville. County residents had watched in horror as the San Lorenzo River rose to its highest point since disastrous floods in the early 1980s, but the worst appeared to be over Saturday.

David Keller, who picked a home in Felton along the river because he liked to fish, said he hadn’t expected the fish to end up in his yard.

“I thought I could fish off my back deck every day, but I don’t like to fish this much,” he said.

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