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‘Perfect Storm’ Soaks County : Weather: In 36 hours, area had more than double the rainfall of the previous five months.

SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

Fed by what water officials called “the perfect storm,” the Santa Clara River flowed to the ocean for the first time in five years Thursday as forecasters predicted even more rain for Ventura County by early next week.

By late afternoon, the mountains above Ojai had been deluged by 5 to 8 inches of rain, with the rest of the county getting 2 to 4 inches. In the 36 hours since the storm began Wednesday, total rainfall was more than double the previous five months combined.

The rainfall was heaviest during the storm’s first 24 hours. Between 8 a.m. and 8 p.m. Thursday, Ventura got about half an inch of rain, the eastern part of the county got quarter of an inch to half an inch, and the mountains outside Ojai received up to 3 inches.

Meteorologists predicted another 1 to 4 inches of rain throughout the county between Thursday night and midday today, with showers tapering off by nightfall.

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Another storm front should arrive early next week, said Terry Schaeffer, an agricultural meteorologist at the National Weather Service in Santa Paula. He said there was an outside chance that a weather system pressing down from Alaska would create “a pineapple connection” that would send a series of subtropical rainstorms from the western Pacific to Southern California throughout March.

The Pacific Coast Highway, closed by mudslides Wednesday night, was open by 5 a.m. Thursday after workers from the California Department of Transportation cleared seven slides between Point Mugu and the Los Angeles County line.

About 20 cars were disabled by falling debris, which included pieces of shale that pierced tires and rocks “the size of car hoods,” said Don Wilhelm of Caltrans.

“Everything was just breaking loose,” said Wilhelm, who assigned a crew to stand by Thursday night in anticipation of additional slides. “We’ve got everything pretty well cleaned up, but it’s still real soupy with the mud.”

Caltrans also closed California 33 in Los Padres National Forest north of Ojai for most of Thursday because of mudslides, a CHP spokeswoman said. The road was reopened by 4:30 p.m. County public works crews also were busy clearing tree limbs and rocks from roads throughout the county.

Dolores Taylor, senior hydrologist at the Ventura County Flood Control District, said the rain came down at less than half an inch an hour throughout the storm, which is a perfect pace for soaking the ground and recharging aquifers.

By Thursday morning, many streams that had been dry rose to as much as 6 feet deep, fed by runoff from the hills and pavement. The Santa Clara River, which had been nearly dry through the Oxnard Plain since 1986, was flowing into the ocean Thursday night.

The United Water Conservation District, in the first real test of the $31-million Freeman Diversion Dam, diverted 1,000 acre-feet from the Santa Clara River to ponds used to recharge ground-water aquifers. By Thursday afternoon, water was spilling over the dam.

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Frederick J. Gientke, the district’s general manager, said the dam may capture 5,000 to 10,000 acre-feet of runoff from the storm. An acre-foot is enough water to supply two households for a year.

“We’re very pleased,” Gientke said of the dam. “Two weeks after it was dedicated we were able to use it successfully.”

The county’s reservoirs also reaped the benefit of two days of rain. By 8:30 p.m. Thursday, Lake Casitas had risen 9 inches, a gain of 1,300 acre-feet of water. Piru Reservoir rose 12 inches and gained 700 acre-feet and Matilija Reservoir, located at the headwaters of the Ventura River and the smallest of the three, rose 8 feet and gained 435 acre-feet.

Rex Laird, executive director of the Ventura County Farm Bureau, said the rainfall would spare growers the need to irrigate for up to a month, but added that it has not eased drought conditions.

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“I don’t want to sound ungrateful or unappreciative of what we received so far, but I haven’t seen anyone lining up animals two by two,” Laird said.

Taylor noted that, even with the latest rainfall, total precipitation for the rain year that began in October is the second lowest on record for this date. The worst was in 1940.

By Thursday night, authorities reported more than 60 weather-related accidents throughout the county. The storm was also blamed in the death of Jose Alfaro, 22, of Port Hueneme, whose car plunged off the Pacific Coast Highway near Malibu on Wednesday afternoon.

Several motorists traveling on remote roads also got stuck while trying to ford creeks swollen by the county’s heaviest rainfall since 2.84 inches fell in Ventura on Feb. 14, 1986.

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Ventura County Sheriff’s Lt. Joe Funchess said a couple from Lockwood Valley became stranded in their pickup truck in Reyes Creek and had to climb into the truck bed. A passerby spotted them and called authorities. The couple were rescued, but the truck remained in midstream.

County Rainfall Annual total and year-to-date rainfall through Feb. 28, in inches at County Government Center in Ventura. Rain year runs from Oct. 1 through Sept. 30 ’91: 4.47* *as of 8:30 p.m.


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