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First Wave of 3 Storm Fronts Causes Flooding, Snarls Traffic

TIMES STAFF WRITER

The first of three storm fronts blowing across the Pacific struck Orange County on Wednesday, causing severe flooding and scores of traffic accidents, including one fatal collision.

The rain left many county streets and freeways virtual parking lots and forced hundreds of commuters to sit in their cars for hours.

“This isn’t necessarily the drought-buster we all needed, but it’s a step in the right direction,” said Daniel Bowman, a meteorologist with WeatherData Inc., which provides weather forecasts for The Times.

Up to 2 inches of rain fell in some parts of the county Wednesday. By 9 p.m., Yorba Linda recorded 2.01 inches, Anaheim 2.05 inches and San Juan Capistrano 1.81 inches.

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But year-to-date rainfall totals remain low. Santa Ana reported 2 inches Wednesday, but that brings its total since July 1 to just 3.21 inches. Last season at this time, it was 6.91 inches. Normally, the city’s the rainfall to date is 9.23 inches.

The California Highway Patrol had a “unbelieveably busy” day, responding to more than 150 county traffic accidents, said Linda Burrus, a CHP spokeswoman.

About 5 p.m., a major traffic collision involving several vehicles occurred on Coast Highway near Emerald Point in Laguna Beach and caused critical injuries to at least one person, who was flown by helicopter to Western Medical Center-Santa Ana. All southbound lanes of the highway were closed for several hours.

A short time later, the CHP reported another traffic accident in which at least one person was killed. The accident occurred on Irvine Boulevard near P Street in El Toro. Details on that accident and the victim were not available.

In another incident, two tow trucks got stuck in the mud trying to free on overturned truck on the San Diego Freeway near the Costa Mesa Freeway, Burrus said. The CHP had to summon a third, larger tow truck to pull the first two free.

“Then, one of our patrol cars got stuck out there too. That’s the kind of a day it’s been,” she said.

The rain caused concern among county public works officials, who ordered the opening of the storm operations center at noon, said Richard Schooley, a public works supervisor.

Flooding closed the slow lane on northbound Interstate 5 near Laguna Canyon Road, the CHP said.

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Authorities also reported flooding on all lanes of the northbound San Diego Freeway north of Jamboree Road about 7 p.m. and posted signs to warn motorists of the situation, but officials did not close the freeway.

Sporadic power outages occurred throughout the county. More than 6,000 residents San Juan Capistrano, South Laguna and Laguna Niguel were left without power for several hours, said representatives of San Diego Gas & Electric, which supplies those areas with electricity.

Residents should gear up today for moderate to heavy rain. Up to 2 inches of rainfall are expected in the coastal areas and 2 to 4 inches in the mountains through Friday, Bowman said.

Snow levels will remain above the 8,000-foot level. Bowman said daytime temperatures will remain in the low- to mid-60s.

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Bowman said that by early today, the first and largest of the three storms is expected to have passed over Orange County. Heavy rain is likely, with an occasional thunderstorm through mid-morning, he said.

“The thunderstorms will be winding down on Thursday. But by Thursday night, another storm is expected to bring another round of rain or showers. In fact, with the third storm hanging out there, our chances for decent moisture are good for both Saturday and Sunday,” Bowman said.

A small-craft advisory from Point Conception to the Mexican border was issued for southerly winds at 10 to 20 knots today.

The forecast for more rainfall meant both good and bad news for growers in the county, said Nancy Jimenez, Orange County Farm Bureau executive director.

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“Strawberries need to be picked on a pretty timely basis. When they peak, they need to be picked. Period. But the rain will delay that for some farms, although we need the moisture,” Jimenez said.

“It’s a temporary setback for us strawberry growers because in the short term we have to delay harvesting. But you’ve got to look at the overall picture because it will help the industry in the long run,” a spokesman at Murai Farms of Irvine said.

Growers also expressed concern that warm weather and intermittent showers with a high humidity could cause the strawberries to get moldy on the vine.

Temperatures are expected to remain slightly warmer than usual, because the storms are arriving on the jet stream’s southern branch, which skirts a warmer area north of Hawaii to the California coast.

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Because of the five-year drought, many of the county’s growers have begun water conservation efforts that have included recycling water, using drip systems, and using reclaimed water.

Additionally, Orange County avocado and citrus growers complained of “leach burn” on the tips of tree leaves that turn brown because of the lack of heavy rains that are needed to wash out destructive salts from the soil.

“We haven’t had any good leaching rains in the last number of years in the county, and it has allowed the salts to build up and that’s detrimental,” said Carl Lindgren, general manager of Treasure Farms of Irvine.

Lindgren and other tree growers hoped that this week’s rain will bring at least 2 inches of rain, which “will go a long way toward helping” the problem.

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At UC Irvine, the rain did prompt organizers of the popular Engineering Week’s Nerd Contest to move its activities indoors.

STORM’S RAINFALL FIGURES*

Anaheim: 2.05"

Yorba Linda: 2.01"

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Santa Ana: 2.00"

Cypress: 1.97"

San Juan Capistrano: 1.81"

Fullerton: 1.77"

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Huntington Beach: 1.73"

Silverado Fire Station: 1.65"

* As of 9 p.m. Wednesday

Source: WeatherData Inc.

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