Flash flood washed out otherwise sound California bridge

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Heavy Rains Collapse California Bridge, Bringing Travel Woes

DESERT CENTER, Calif. (AP) -- The interstate bridge that washed out in the desert between Los Angeles and Phoenix easily withstood its daily load of thousands of cars and trucks, but the pounding of an unusually powerful flash flood scoured away the land where the bridge was anchored, officials said Monday.

Water rushing through a normally dry desert gully eroded the land around the Interstate 10 bridge, causing one side of the eastbound span to collapse and forcing the indefinite closure of the westbound span.

Only one motorist was injured, but the rupture severed a highway vital to the movement of people and commerce between two of the nation's largest cities. On an average day, the interstate carries about 27,000 vehicles in either direction.

See photos from the recent storms:

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California rain and I-10 bridge collapse
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Flash flood washed out otherwise sound California bridge
ANAHEIM, CA - JULY 19: Members of the grounds crew sweep water in the outfield as the game between the Boston Red Sox and the Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim is delayed for rain before the start at Angel Stadium of Anaheim on July 19, 2015 in Anaheim, California. (Photo by Stephen Dunn/Getty Images)
ANAHEIM, CA - JULY 19: Fans with umbrellas sit in the stands as the game between the Boston Red Sox and the Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim is delayed for rain before the start at Angel Stadium of Anaheim on July 19, 2015 in Anaheim, California. (Photo by Stephen Dunn/Getty Images)
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Inspectors fanned out Monday to check all bridges along a 30-mile stretch of the freeway after a second bridge showed signs of damage following the storm Sunday, said Terri Kasinga, spokeswoman for the California Department of Transportation.

No timeframe was given for when either side would reopen as crews were diverted from other projects to examine the site. One driver had to be rescued Sunday from a pickup that crashed in the collapse and was taken to a hospital with moderate injuries, the Riverside County Fire Department said.

When inspectors visited the bridge in March, they found no structural issues, according to Will Shuck, another Caltrans spokesman. The eastbound side was deemed "functionally obsolete," but Shuck said that reflected the fact it was built in 1967, when construction methods were different.

Many motorists speeding through the desert might cross the bridge without knowing. It spanned a shallow desert gully, perhaps just 60 feet wide. Such washes, as they are known, streak the desert floor and flash to life as rains are funneled into them much like tributaries can swell a river.

The bridge, about 50 miles west of the Arizona state line, was washed out as remnants of a tropical storm off Baja California dumped rain at a rate of 1.5 inches an hour. A total of 6.7 inches fell Sunday in Desert Center, said National Weather Service forecaster Ken Waters. Showers and thunderstorms in drought-stricken southern and central California set rainfall records in what is usually a dry month.

In a place of extremes - where it may not rain for months and then rain so much that walls of water change the landscape - the loss of a short bridge was causing long lines and huge headaches.

Clarin Sepulveda, her husband and her 16-year-old daughter were on their way back to Los Angeles from a weeklong vacation in El Paso when the bridge collapsed a mile ahead of them.

They sat on the freeway for two hours before word about what had happened started spreading among drivers. There was no cellphone service along the remote stretch of road. Sepulveda said her family and many other cars began crossing over into the 50-foot median to head back eastbound, some getting stuck in mud as rain poured down.

They spent the next three and a half hours trying to take two alternate state highways, only to be turned back because of flooding. They finally gave up and snagged one of the remaining motel rooms in Blythe, California, about 50 miles away on the border with Arizona.

"It was stressful and extremely inconvenient," Sepulveda said Monday as the family was back on Interstate 10 after having to detour around the closure.

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Associated Press writers Christopher Weber and Amanda Lee Myers in Los Angeles contributed to this story.

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