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Floods Leave Broken Lives in Tijuana

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TIMES STAFF WRITER

Fourteen years after arriving in Tijuana from Guadalajara, Gildardo Velasquez had a good job assembling lighters at the Japanese-owned Scripto Tokai plant, one of hundreds of maquiladoras that over the past decade have brought prosperity to this border town.

But Velasquez’s life was forever changed early Thursday morning as he was working his shift. A four-foot wall of floodwater crashed down on his house in the Colonia Obrera barrio not far from the plant, drowning his 33-year-old wife, Maria Eugenia, and his 4-year-old daughter, Roxana. His 7-year-old son narrowly escaped.

The mother and daughter were two of the 14 deaths caused by the floods, the worst in Tijuana’s history. Another 4,000 Tijuana residents were left homeless. Most are being put up in 59 temporary shelters around the city. Eight colonias , or neighborhoods, of the 27 hardest hit were evacuated over the weekend in anticipation of more rain this week.

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On Sunday, tons of donated food, clothes, bedding and cleaning materials poured into the city’s central collection center, the Municipal Auditorium on Boulevard Diaz Ordaz.

The U.S. Coast Guard reported that, since the flooding began, it has rescued 80 Mexicans with helicopters based in San Diego. Most rescues were of ranchers in the Valle de las Palmas area 30 miles south of Tecate. In anticipation of more rain, the Coast Guard said it is deploying an additional rescue helicopter to San Diego from San Francisco.

Mexican officials said Sunday that a bridge had washed out on Highway 1, the Transpeninsular Highway, about 190 miles south of Tijuana, making the road impassable.

As Tijuanans continued to dig out from the mud and debris left by the floods--and await the onset of a new round of predicted storms--the scope of the tragedies suffered by Velasquez and other families came to light.

“The water washed three cars into my house, collapsing the cement wall on top of my wife and the girl,” Velasquez said as he gathered with family members at Funerales San Gabriel, a mortuary here. He will take the bodies today to the Guadalajara area for burial.

Velasquez’s aunt, Maria Ribera Venega, said the woman had rescued her son and a cousin from the rising waters and had gone back to grab her daughter when the wall collapsed on top of her and the child.

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“It happened so fast you couldn’t do anything,” Ribera said. “The water was above a meter high and there was wood and other debris collecting on top of where the house had been.”

In the Colonia Gabilondo area near Tijuana’s downtown bullring, Jose Ramirez Navarro, his neighbors and family were trying to recover the bodies of his parents, Miguel Angel, 73, and Graciela Angel, 66, believed still buried under the tons of mud inside and outside their house.

Navarro, his sister and brother worked with shovels while a Caterpillar scooped up tons of mud that had collected in the street. Their house was on a low-lying avenue that received the brunt of the flood that raged down from Piedrera Canyon, one of Tijuana’s most devastated areas.

Poor drainage and overpopulated canyons were blamed by Tijuana city officials for the flood damage. Arturo Saldana, director of communications for the Tijuana mayor’s office, said the two inches of rain that fell Wednesday and Thursday proved disastrous for the 27 hardest-hit colonias .

“For Miami, two inches is not much,” he said. “But it is here.”

There is still no official count of the number of houses destroyed by the raging waters, he said.

The victims still seemed to be reeling from the lethal speed of the flash flood.

“It all happened so fast,” Ramirez said, pointing to the debris. “My brother was talking to my mother around 11:30 p.m. Wednesday night on the telephone, and an hour later it was like this.”

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His parents had been overtaken by the floods while trying to escape their house, he said. He has asked the Tijuana police for the use of specially trained dogs to help recover his parents’ bodies.

At the homeless shelter in the offices of the political party Partido Accion Nacional in the La Mesa section of the city, 72 people left homeless waited for more rain while making plans to rebuild their lives.

Typical of the victims were Susana Cedano and her eight children, who lost every possession they had in the 20 minutes it took for the floods to fill their house.

Despite the foot of mud in her house and the danger of continuing mudslides in the canyons above what remains of the home, she plans to return with her family today to begin the cleanup and rebuild.

“My kids have to go to school,” she said. “Life goes on.”

Yolanda Maldonado also seemed stunned. Ten minutes after she noticed the water was rising about midnight Wednesday, she was scrambling to get her two children onto the roof of her house in the San Jose del Rio area of Tijuana.

By the time she climbed down from the roof and looked inside, “everything was floating--the furniture, the refrigerator, the dining room table,” she said. “We lost everything including our two cars. All the sacrifice of cleaning houses for 10 years to pay for it all, and in one moment, finished.”

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Tijuana Deputy Mayor Luis Bustamante, who is managing the collection center for donated goods at the Tijuana Municipal Auditorium, said the city has received three tons of clothes and six tons of foods and other goods. About 80% of the donations have come from the United States, including several truckloads of food from King Taco of Los Angeles, Bustamante said.

As more than 100 Boy Scouts and other volunteers sorted donated clothing and materials for distribution to the needy, Bustamante said there is a critical need for bottled water, food, hardware, blankets and cleaning and building materials.

“Everything except clothes,” he said. “We have enough clothing now to fill the need.”

As a light drizzle fell outside the auditorium, a precursor to the larger storm forecast for later this week, Boy Scouts were unloading plastic bags full of donated goods from a bus that had pulled up in front of the auditorium. The goods had been collected by the Mexican consul’s office in San Diego.

Although forecasters had predicted heavy rains that could have brought additional damage to Southern California and Baja California on Sunday, the storm quickly fizzled. With just a light drizzle falling Sunday morning, the National Weather Service lifted its flash flood and urban flood watches for the region.

Snow was reported between the Tehachapi and San Jacinto mountains, with as much as four to six inches expected to fall in higher elevations. But between midnight Saturday and 4 p.m. Sunday, downtown Los Angeles received just 0.27 inches of rain. There were 0.42 inches in Santa Barbara, 0.29 in El Toro and 0.06 in San Diego.

“It just pretty much zipped out of the area and weakened as it was going,” said Steve Burback, a meteorologist with WeatherData Inc., which provides forecasts for The Times. He said another tropical storm near Hawaii is expected to hit Southern California by Tuesday afternoon and predicted that it “might be a little more potent.”

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Beaches from Pacific Palisades to the Palos Verdes Peninsula remained closed Sunday, two days after 4 million gallons of partially treated sewage flowed into Ballona Creek. Still, about 30 die-hard surfers ignored the warnings in Santa Monica to take advantage of heavy surf, said Lt. Robert Schroeder of the Los Angeles County Lifeguards.

“They just shine us on and go in anyway,” Schroeder said.

Times staff writer Jesse Katz contributed to this story.

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