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Cities and Growers Gird for New Storm

SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

As another storm hovered offshore Friday, area growers and city officials were battening down for flash floods and high surf along the Ventura County coast today and as much as 12 inches of snow in the mountains.

Growers--who have already reported millions of dollars in losses in such high-dollar crops as lettuce, strawberry and celery--were busy cleaning ditches and culverts to divert as much as two inches of rain the new storm could bring.

But with the soil reaching the saturation point in some areas, there could be a runoff problem on the Oxnard Plain if the rain comes fast and hard, said Rex Laird, executive director of the Ventura County Farm Bureau. “We’ll just have to wait and see if it does come in as forecast,” Laird said Friday. “It’s not just the amount of water, but how it arrives.”

Meanwhile, city officials in Port Hueneme and Ventura who were busy trying to repair storm-damaged piers dreaded the prospect of predicted eight- to 10-foot surf.

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In Port Hueneme, a calm sea allowed a contractor to make good progress Friday in shoring up the municipal pier, which lost a 200-foot segment and as many as 34 supports in this week’s high surf, City Manager Richard Velthoen said.

Velthoen said the city was grateful to the Oxnard Harbor District and the Naval Construction Battalion Center for offering to supply pilings to reconstruct the ravaged pier. But with no firm damage estimate and an uncertain city funding picture, Velthoen could not say when the pier would reopen. He said it could take city crews a week to get replacement estimates alone.

“It’s a very fluid situation,” Velthoen said. “At best, we’re talking several months before it can be repaired--if in fact it can be repaired that quickly.”

In Ventura, crews plan to work through the weekend to replace loose and broken pilings. If the surf is as high as predicted, “it will not only hinder the process; it’s going to make it impossible to work out there,” said John Betonte, Ventura city maintenance services manager.

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Betonte estimated about 15 pilings are now slated for replacement, but high surf this weekend might jolt loose even more.

The high-surf prediction puts a possible damper on the success local officials have had in finding spare pilings. Officials had worried that they might have to order supports from lumber companies, which would have taken months.

But Betonte said Friday that officials in British Columbia and at the port of Long Beach have assured him they could send pilings rapidly, which would mean the pier could reopen in a couple of weeks.

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Ashore, growers are girding for flooding, concerned that crop losses could increase if more rain hits the saturated soil. A two-day storm dumped more than five inches of rain on the Oxnard Plain and soaked communities across the county. Flooding was reported from Simi Valley to El Rio.

Some residents had barely finished bailing out their flooded home when they began filling sandbags for the deluge expected today.

County officials could not provide damage estimates and have not yet sought a “state of emergency” proclamation that could clear the way for federal assistance. “We haven’t applied , but we’re considering it,” Chief Administrative Officer Richard Wittenberg said.

On Friday, Gov. Pete Wilson declared a state of emergency in Los Angeles and Orange counties.

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Bad as the storm damage was, the National Weather Service said Friday it could have been worse without the aid of its Doppler Weather Radar antenna on Ojai’s Sulphur Mountain.

In a news release issued Thursday, the weather service credited the system with preventing loss of life.

Todd Morris, area manager for the National Weather Service office in Oxnard, said the system allowed staff to issue warnings three hours before the first heavy rains were reported.

He said flash-flood warnings for mud and debris flows in the Topanga/Malibu area allowed emergency officials to close down Las Flores Canyon and one lane of the Pacific Coast Highway before 2-foot-deep water and debris started flowing over the road. The highway was later closed.

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But others questioned the effectiveness of the antenna.

Dale Givner, attorney for a coalition of Ojai residents that has filed a lawsuit to move the tower, said the weather service has frequently delivered incorrect forecasts since the system was installed last March.

And Rea Strange, owner of Pacific Weather Service, a private weather forecaster in Montecito, said Wednesday the system was only accurate for extremely short-range forecasts. “By the time you get the prediction out, as far as the public is concerned the event is just about over,” he said.

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Morris acknowledged that the new system is most accurate within a six-hour range, but said even that narrow window could help in cases such as the 1992 Ventura River RV Resort disaster, where dozens of motor homes were destroyed in an unexpected flood.

Weather service technician Bill Hoffer said this morning’s expected heavy rains will turn to showers in the afternoon, with the snow level dipping from Friday’s 6,000-foot level to 3,500 feet. He said gusty winds could cause problems in mountain areas.

A high-surf advisory is in effect for the entire Southern California coast through the weekend.


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