Heavy rain might be a sign of wetter times to come in drought-plagued L.A.

There’s something unusual in the mix in Southern California this weekend, along with the usual rain-caused traffic gridlock and airport delays, according to one climatologist — a sense of optimism.

The storm that moved though the region on Wednesday and Thursday provided a good 24 hours of mostly steady rain, dropping more than an inch in some parts of Southern California.

The rain contributed to nightmare conditions at Los Angeles International Airport, where bad weather, crowded airspace, security scares and construction caused some flights to be delayed or rerouted. The storm also caused the usual share of traffic congestion and accidents.

But in a region that has been hit hard by five years of severe drought, the hope is that this winter marks something of a turning point.

This storm and a second one due Friday that’s supposed to be bigger — are coming from different areas of the Pacific, said Jet Propulsion Laboratory climatologist Bill Patzert.

Unlike last year’s disappointing El Niño winter, which was expected to hit the region but instead was steered north due to a ridge of high pressure, this winter it appears there’s nothing blocking the rain clouds from drenching Los Angeles and the surrounding counties, Patzert said.

A storm that hit Southern California last week was warmer and came from the south, while one due this weekend is coming from the Gulf of Alaska to the north and is heavier, colder and will drop snow at lower elevations.

“It looks like the door is open here,” said Patzert. “This looks like in the absence of La Niña, we’re getting it from the north and the south, which is a good omen for the wet months of January, February and March.”

History suggests that the La Niña phenomenon, which brings an unusually dry winter, follows a wet El Niño year. But so far, this month’s rains have been better than previous Decembers’, Patzert said.

“This is more of la nada than La Niña,” he quipped.

The lack of something, ironically, is what could make this winter into something that could help Southern California’s drought outlook, Patzert said.

“The kind of rain we’re having this week and last week, that’s just perfect,” Patzert said. “It doesn’t come at you like a fire hose.”

Steady, moderate rain over weeks and months this year is what has pulled 15% of the state — all of it up north — out of drought conditions, according to the National Weather Service and U.S. Drought Report. The rains have helped revive reservoirs that feed the two massive systems that move water from the northern Sierra into cities and farmlands.  

But while Northern California has begun to rebound from the drought, Southern California remains dry.

Los Angeles marked a sober milestone earlier this year, when the National Weather Service announced that the last five years were the driest ever documented in downtown L.A. since official record-keeping began almost 140 years ago. Precipitation during that period totaled just 38.79 inches — roughly half of normal.

While Southern California still gets some water from the Sierra, about 50% of its supply comes from local sources such as groundwater and reservoirs.

Patzert said he’s “cautiously optimistic” that the storms this month mean the welcome mat is out for a traditionally wet start to next year.

But with a wet winter will come travel headaches, especially for a region notoriously ill-equipped to deal with the rain.

Officials at Los Angeles International Airport said nearly 230 flights have been either canceled or delayed this week as the first of the two storms caused traffic gridlock and forced authorities to switch flight operations leading into the weekend. Instead of flying west toward the ocean, planes were forced to head east over urban areas due to high winds Wednesday and Thursday, said airport spokeswoman Mary Grady. The switch, she said, “slows things down.”

But that’s not the only issue contributing to the crawl.

“The airport is at capacity,” she said.

Airport terminals were packed with travelers because of the holiday season, Grady said. As holiday travelers flock to the airport, more equipment has been brought in to help with inspections. Daily takeoffs increased from 1,750 to 1,900.

And, if that weren’t enough, lost and forgotten luggage has caused major disruptions.

On Wednesday, police evacuated passengers from three terminals after an unattended package was found.

“As the day went on, it started to back up,” Grady said.

The storm due this weekend is expected to move south from Central California and bring more showers, with periods of heavy rain, on Friday afternoon. But forecasters say Angelenos could get some drizzle ahead of Friday’s storm. By Saturday morning, the rain will turn to showers.

When Friday’s storm arrives, temperatures will drop into the 30s and 40s, winds will increase and snow could drop on the 5 Freeway in the Grapevine area of the Tejon Pass, NWS meteorologist Scott Sukup said.

While temperatures will hover in the mid-40s and 50s across the L.A. basin through Friday, the Antelope Valley will continue to freeze. According to the weather service, Lancaster set a record low Tuesday when temperatures dropped to 10 degrees. The previous record for the day — 13 degrees — was set in 2012.

joseph.serna@latimes.com

For breaking California news, follow @JosephSerna on Twitter.

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