Four stranded hikers rescued from rising floodwaters in California

Posted at 11:31 AM, Mar 02, 2014
and last updated 2014-03-02 23:29:22-05

(CNN) — After more than eight hours of being kept at bay by severe weather and low visibility, helicopter rescue crews found a way to rescue four hikers stranded in a raging Southern California creek and ferry them to a waiting ambulance.

“The Ventura County sheriff’s helicopter was able to break through the weather system, and has successfully hoisted all four of them out,” Mike Parker, a spokesman for the Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department, told CNN’s “New Day Sunday.”

“It was a very very risky rescue. It was quite a remote area. There’s absolutely no lighting there at all. The only lighting that we had was our rescuers with flashlights on their helmets and the ones that they were holding,” Parker said. “In the pitch black, it’s pretty difficult to find them. The creek was swollen and rising, and we were very concerned that they would be drowned where they were.”

The rescue happened around 3 a.m. (6 a.m. ET).

Rising water, slippery surfaces and the sheer rock walls of the gorge made matters difficult, Parker had said earlier.

Before the decisive helicopter navigated through the skies, rescuers in rafts had been “inching” across Malibu Creek in a “high risk” attempt to reach the four, Parker said.

Earlier in the morning, the batteries in the hikers’ cell phone had died, but they were able to communicate that they saw the beams from the rescuers’ flashlights, even though the rescuers could not see the hikers.

About an hour before the rescue, the Malibu Search and Rescue helicopter made it through the foul weather that had delayed it and “immediately spotted” the hikers. They were about 200 yards upstream from the rescue team, Parker tweeted.

In messages sent before their cell phone batteries died, the hikers said they were cold but not injured, Parker said.

Temperatures overnight in the Malibu Creek Gorge were in the mid-40s, and rescuers were concerned that hypothermia might become an issue for the hikers, Parker tweeted.

The hikers, from Long Beach, were believed to be in their mid-20s, Parker tweeted.

Mandatory evacuation orders

Severe rain that soaked much of southern California has subsided in many Los Angeles suburbs, though residents of at least two communities remained under mandatory evacuation orders.

Authorities lifted a mandatory evacuation order for Monrovia early Sunday, but others remained in effect for Glendora and Azusa, CNN affiliate KTLA reported. So far, no deaths have been reported as a result of the rain.

“We’ve got people still evacuated only because we expect those thunderstorms, those high-intensity, short duration type of rainstorms,” Glendora Police Chief Timothy Staab told CNN affiliate KCAL Saturday night. “The hillsides are already soaked right now, and it may not take much to cause those mudslides to just come down out of the hills.”

The hills can’t absorb water because so much vegetation was destroyed in wildfires and drought. Walls of water have gushed into valleys below. They have spewed mud and debris into quiet residential streets, turning them into thick, brown creeks.

“These areas have the highest risk of being impacted by flooding/debris flows from rainfall due to the loss of vegetation from the foothills,” the city of Glendora said in a statement to KABC, also a CNN affiliate.

Little drought relief despite downpour

The storms brought the first rains since the collapse of a powerful, persistent weather system that was keeping California parched, but they won’t do much to alleviate the drought, according to the CNN Weather Center.

A lot of the water is flowing out to sea, and the drought’s effects have been enormous. Water reservoirs are running at minimum levels.

CNN’s Greg Morrison and Ben Brumfield contributed to this report.