Storm, Winds Batter Area in Anaheim

Times Staff Writer

A powerful pre-dawn storm that may have been a tornado swept through an Anaheim neighborhood Sunday, ripping down power lines, flipping over trucks, uprooting trees and scattering muddy debris over homes for several miles.

"For want of a better term, we're calling it a tornado," said Sheri Erlewine, Anaheim public information officer. She noted that the unusually heavy winds had blown away portions of 12 factory roofs on Rose Street, an industrial area four miles north of Disneyland.

National weather forecasters could not confirm that the freakish storm was a tornado. However, they posted an unusual tornado watch Sunday from 10 a.m. to 9 p.m. for Orange, Los Angeles, San Diego and five other Southern California counties.

Mud Slides Triggered

"This kind of weather is highly atypical for our area," meteorologist Mark McKinley said. The tornado-like conditions are created when warm and cold air masses converge and the sudden updrafts from thunderstorms play havoc with wind currents, he said.

The powerful and fast-moving storm brought torrential rains that triggered mud slides in several places, and an 9-year-old boy was swept away in the swift current of the Los Angeles River. The National Weather Service predicted more rain and wind overnight but said things should be clearing by this afternoon, with still another storm possible before the end of the week.

No major injuries were reported from the Anaheim disturbance, which lasted about five minutes, but city officials estimated that damages could total at least $500,000.

The incident began at 5:30 a.m., when residents in nearby apartments said they heard loud, rapid explosions and felt heavy winds rattling their windows. Some phoned in fire reports when they saw sparks flying from power lines and bright lights in the sky.

At that moment, officials said, gale-force winds bore down on a four-block area of Rose Street between Santa Ana and East streets. The storm smashed in the metal doors of several factories, ripped out large chunks of their roofs and shattered rows of windows.

Dusty Switzer, an East Street resident who said she was standing outside her apartment when the storm picked up, recalled a "dark cloud . . . like a large, shaking balloon" descending over the neighborhood.

The winds "threw me to my knees," while shingles torn from nearby roofs rained down on her courtyard and electric power lines swayed back and forth, Switzer said.

Across the street, an 18-inch-thick tree was ripped from its roots and blown against a car parked in Jose Marin's driveway. The winds shattered his bedroom window and "scared me very badly. . . . I have never heard such a sound," Marin said.

"It was like a gun going off, bam, bam, bam, and then very strong winds," resident Alex Meza added. "You never forget that kind of sound."

Other neighbors awakened by the storm looked out their windows and saw chunks of styrofoam flying through the air. Erlewine said the materials had blown out of containers at a Hitachi packing plant several streets away and blanketed the neighborhood for miles.

Elsewhere, powerful winds snapped an East Street "No Parking" sign in two and hurled it into the street. An apartment door was torn from its frame and blown onto a front lawn 100 feet away. Two large trucks in the Hitachi plant flipped over on their side.

Anaheim police and fire officials, who spent the morning trying to clean up the four-block area, expressed relief that no one had been seriously hurt. The only reported injury was to Andrew Moroneso, 61, an Anaheim Plastics Inc. employee who was inside the Rose Street firm when the storm hit. Although he was shaken up, Moroneso was not badly hurt, police said.

Red Cross officials planned to set up an evacuation center for residents but canceled those plans when the storm's damage turned out to be less severe than expected, according to spokesman Harry Huggins. Power was fully restored to the area by noon, said Anaheim Lt. Marc Hedgepath.

The news was not so encouraging, however, for several Rose Street businessmen. As the rain continued to pour down Sunday morning, they glumly inspected the damage to their factories.

"Just look at this mess . . . this is terrible," said A. J. Fieri, owner of Anaheim Plastics Inc., as he checked out the site. Heavy winds had blown out large sections of his roof and plastic sheets had been draped over machinery to protect it from the rain.

Fieri said his firm, which manufactures plastic coat hangers and other products, had sustained "heavy losses" and could face $80,000 to $100,000 in damages.

Across the street at the Reliable Bumper Co., owner Dennie Dyer stared at the rain falling from a hole in his roof onto the factory floor. Dyer, whose firm manufactures and recycles automobile bumpers, said he had taken "special steps" to keep the vats of corrosive, toxic chemicals inside from overflowing.

"I can't believe this happened, that a tornado could hit Southern California," the owner said. "When I got here, it looked more like a bomb had hit the place than anything else."

Dyer, stepping gingerly over a small lake of rainwater on the floor, said his company could be facing damages of at least $175,000.

Anaheim officials said that, apart from the industrial damage, the freakish storm had given residents and businessmen a good scare. The notion that a tornado could touch down in Southern California was highly unusual, they said.

"I moved here from Colorado because you don't have such crazy weather here," said Switzer as she surveyed the styrofoam chunks blanketing her lawn like newly fallen snow. "I mean, who ever heard of a tornado in Anaheim?"

A few hours later, authorities said the storm may have claimed its first life.

Police, firefighters and lifeguards were searching for a 9-year-old Compton boy who was swept into the swift waters of the Los Angeles River.

No Sign of Boy Found

"He was sitting in an inner tube and just went sliding down the sloping side of the flood-control channel," Long Beach Police Lt. Norman Benson said. "We're hoping maybe he got to the side and got up, but the longer we don't find anything the worse it looks."

The inner tube was found a mile downstream but there was no sign of the boy, who was not immediately identified.

Two men and a woman were arrested on suspicion of trespassing later in the day after they made a successful two-mile voyage in Coyota Creek. Lakewood sheriff's deputies and La Palma police arrested the trio as they pulled their inflatable raft from the water at Cerritos Regional Park. Deputies said the rafters said they made the trip as "practice" for a wilderness rafting trip later this year.

Several lightning strikes were reported elsewhere in the Southland--though none appeared to have caused injury or major damage--and heavy rainfall caused a new slide of mud and rocks onto northbound lanes of Pacific Coast Highway, forcing the California Highway Patrol to close the highway between Topanga Boulevard and Las Flores Canyon Road.

Heavy rainfall caused a new slide of mud and rocks onto northbound lanes of Pacific Coast Highway, forcing the California Highway Patrol to close the road between Topanga Boulevard and Las Flores Canyon Road.

Reservoirs Overflow

In Glendale, water overflowed from the Melwood and Campbell reservoirs after a broken water main caused a power pole to collapse, triggering a local power outage that crippled pumps at the two small reservoirs.

Glendale police spokesman Chris Loop said two hillside homes on Ridgeview Drive were evacuated after they were damaged by mud and water, and three on Cielito Drive were evacuated as a precautionary measure.

About 2,000 1,000 Department of Water and Power customers in the Eagle Rock and West Los Angeles areas were without power for several hours as a result of the storm, and the Southern California Edison Co. said about 2,000 customers in the Lake Arrowhead area were blacked out because of tree branches that fell on a major transmission line.

Flight operations at Los Angeles International Airport were slowed for a time when storm activity in the area caused air controllers to change the direction of takeoffs from west to east. Several pilots elected to stay on the ground until conditions changed and they could take off over the sea again, an airport spokeswoman said.

The Grapevine area of Interstate 5 was closed by light snow for a few minutes early Sunday, and California Highway Patrol officers escorted vehicles through the area for another 20 minutes before the snow melted.

Times staff writer Ted Thackrey Jr. contributed to this story.

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