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Sound and Fury Bring Little Rain : Weather: Thunderstorms surprise several areas. Schools are affected, and lightning causes a power outage over 50 square miles.

TIMES STAFF WRITER

An unusual spectacle of thunder, rain and lightning surprised several Orange County communities Thursday morning and evening, drenching some children dressed in their best clothes for the first day of school.

Double bolts of lightning struck an electrical substation, causing a 29-minute power outage in parts of Santa Ana, Tustin, Costa Mesa and Irvine. Traffic signals were knocked out, office buildings were darkened and elevators and computers were frozen.

The thundershowers moving slowly north across the Southland were widely scattered as they crossed Orange County, frequently hitting part of a city with short-lived fury and leaving adjacent areas bone dry. Overall, little moisture fell.

For instance, only three of the 45 rain gauges that the county Environmental Management Agency monitors--those in Westminster, Fullerton and near the John Wayne Airport--got enough rain to register a reading. The wettest reading was near the airport, where .59 of an inch of rain fell in about 30 minutes, starting at 8:30 a.m.

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National Weather Service meteorologist Mark Rochin said the worst of the storm is over, although clouds will hover over the county today. Gradual clearing is predicted over the weekend.

Rainstorms continued into the night Thursday in South Orange County as the storm moved gradually from inland toward the coast, said Steve Burbeck, meteorologist with WeatherData, which does weather forecasting for The Times.

Some showers were expected to linger this morning, primarily in the eastern portions of the county, Burbeck said. The rain was expected to cease by tonight with virtually no chance of showers on Saturday, he said.

Thursday morning’s rainstorm was very real to Rita Finen, director of transportation for the Newport-Mesa Unified School District, where 4,000 students in kindergarten through 12th grade were starting the new school year.

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“In our area there was rain, thunder, lightning, everything, just when our elementary students were waiting for the bus,” Finen said. The children, she said, had on their favorite new outfits, naturally without raincoats since the first day of school is usually warm and clear. Some parents who were waiting in the rain with their children at the bus stops decided to drive them to school, which she said aggravated first-day traffic jams near school grounds.

Rain was less a troublemaker than lightning, which twice struck a large switching station that Southern California Edison operates in southeast Santa Ana.

The first lightning strike at 8:26 a.m. caused only a momentary interruption of service, but the second bolt at 8:29 caused the substation to fail completely and interrupted service to 51,392 commercial and residential customers, said Brian Bennett, Edison’s regional affairs manager.

A 50-square-mile area was robbed of electricity. It included business parks and John Wayne Airport, which converted immediately to a backup power generator.

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Pat Gibson, the new principal at Turtle Rock Elementary School in Irvine, called the first day of school “unbelievable. . . . It was thundering and children were crying.” She had begun to give a welcoming talk to a group of parents who had gathered in the school’s multipurpose room when suddenly, all the lights went out, leaving them in pitch dark. So they reconvened their meeting on the sidewalk, where it was dry.

“We decided if we could survive this, the rest of the year would be great,” she said.

Police and other city personnel from Costa Mesa, Santa Ana, Tustin and Irvine were sent into the streets to direct commuter traffic when scores of traffic lights went dark or began flashing red because of circuit failures.

Bennett said that within 29 minutes Edison was able to restore electrical service to customers by providing them with power from other county substations.

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He said that as of late Thursday afternoon Edison crews were still working to repair and test the damaged substation, which was expected to be on line by mid-morning today.

In addition, Bennett said, smaller “momentary” power outages related to the storm were reported in Huntington Beach, Seal Beach and Newport Beach.

The thunder and lightning added variety to the county’s usually placid weather, puzzling some natives and eliciting nostalgia from Midwest transplants.

Jan Roberts, director of marketing at South Coast Plaza in Costa Mesa, said the unusual noise outside attracted the notice of retailers at a quarterly meeting in the mall Thursday morning. “Some weren’t sure what it was. But it became obvious it was thunder.”

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Waiting to board a flight to San Francisco at John Wayne Airport, David Thomas, vice president of Irvine-based Strategy Research Corp., heard a clap of thunder, peered at the sky and said, “When was the last time you heard that sound in Orange County? I usually have to fly to the Midwest to see this weather.”

Elsewhere, the storm deluged parts of Kern County. Up to 2 inches of rain fell on the Pine Mountain area, and Riverside and Imperial counties reported potentially damaging winds.

A flash flood warning was issued for northeastern Kern County in the Onyx and Red Rock Canyon areas.

Winds up to 45 m.p.h. lashed the Salton Sea in Imperial County, prompting the National Weather Service to issue a severe weather warning to boaters and campers.

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Times staff writer Jeffrey A. Perlman and the Associated Press contributed to this story.


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