Powerful Storm Pounds State : Thousands Evacuate Homes, Scores Rescued : Weather: Helicopters pluck stranded homeless from Ventura River bottom. One body is found. Entire towns are isolated in Northern California.
Barreling across California, a powerful Pacific storm Tuesday dumped more than half a foot of rain on Ventura County, driving hundreds of residents from their flooded homes and claiming the life of a homeless man believed to have drowned in the Ventura River.
The deluge forced a day of dramatic helicopter rescues, plucking river bottom dwellers from the torrential river that breached its banks in several places and unleashed a roiling, muddy current across all eight lanes of the Ventura Freeway. And more rain was predicted for today.
As the waters receded late Tuesday, authorities discovered the body of an unidentified 31-year-old homeless man wrapped in a brown sleeping bag entangled in the reeds.
“We wouldn’t be surprised if we found some more bodies,” said Ventura Fire Capt. Mike Maher. Rescue workers plan to resume their search today.
Ventura County was not alone in suffering from flooding at the end of a weeklong series of brutal rainstorms: More than 10,000 people left their homes in the rural area around Sacramento, 50 of them via rooftop rescues by safety officials.
Parts of urban San Jose were also under water. And one of the most dramatic demonstrations of nature’s fury occurred in Santa Barbara, where broad sections of town were swamped after seven inches of rain fell between noon Monday and Tuesday--an all-time record.
In Ventura County, the day’s events tested local residents and emergency workers:
* Residents of Casitas Springs and other communities along the Ventura River were forced to evacuate as floodwaters rose. Some neighborhoods in El Rio, Santa Paula and Fillmore and the Ventura Avenue area in west Ventura also suffered flooding that drove some people from their homes.
* The Red Cross opened five shelters to accommodate hundreds of displaced people. At nightfall, volunteers continued to bring more evacuees into the centers for hot showers and hot meals at the National Guard Armory in Oxnard, DeAnza Middle School in Ventura, Nordhoff High School in Ojai, the Santa Paula Community Center and the Veterans Memorial Building in Fillmore. “I’m looking at about 200 people so far, and it is fast rising,” said Richard Rink, director of disaster services.
* Ventura County became a virtual island, separated from Santa Barbara on the north and Santa Clarita to the east by flooded roads. The California Highway Patrol shut down the Ventura Freeway at the Ventura River for most of the day, finally opening the southbound lanes mid-afternoon. Flooding and mudslides crippled the county’s transportation system most of the day, closing dozens of highways and main city streets.
* Metrolink also suspended commuter service to Oxnard, Camarillo and Moorpark for today because the bridge over Arroyo Simi has become unstable. The Simi Valley station will open today on schedule. The Oxnard Airport remained open during the day; however, Amtrak suspended service indefinitely while Southern Pacific crews clear mud from tracks and use 60 truckloads of boulders to shore up the railroad bridge that spans the Ventura River.
* The Hill Canyon Wastewater Treatment Plant, which handles sewage from all of Thousand Oaks, became swamped with rain runoff and was forced to release about 1 million gallons in partly treated sewage into the Arroyo Conejo. “Some of it we just can’t handle,” said Supt. Jack Dudley. All the water released will be chlorinated, he said, and should not pose a health hazard.
* Storm-driven waves tossed logs and other debris against the Ventura Pier, knocking lose another 10 wooden pilings. City officials expected more damage through the night from the high surf. The Port Hueneme Pier, sagging badly from a beating it took last week, miraculously survived without any additional damage.
* Educators closed schools in Ventura, Ojai, Santa Paula and near Oxnard, instructing 17,000 students to stay home because of hazardous road conditions. The county’s special education schools were also shut down for the day. School officials expected classes to resume this morning, unless the county is hit with more flooding.
* The County Board of Supervisors declared a local state of emergency, the preliminary step to tapping state disaster assistance. If granted by the governor, public safety agencies would be eligible for reimbursement from the state. It also enabled the county to be counted as part of a federal disaster area declared late Tuesday by President Clinton, which makes owners of flood-damaged property eligible for federal disaster loans and other aid.
* Authorities rescued more than 35 people, including 14 people from the Ventura River. Two of them were rafting. The sheriff’s helicopter was hopping through the day, collecting seven residents stranded in their homes along Old Creek Road in Oak View and at least 16 people from inundated homes near Todd Road west of Santa Paula.
The most dramatic rescues were in Ventura, where threatened homeless residents were rescued by helicopter in scenes eerily reminiscent of the sky-born rescues of tourists from the Ventura RV Resort in 1992.
But this time, the manager of the RV park took the precaution on Monday of evacuating all residents of the motor homes in the park, which lies in the mouth of the Ventura River.
It was the homeless who ignored warnings of an imminent flood on Monday. Indeed, sheriff’s deputies reported that homeless men made obscene gestures when they flew over the riverbed in a sheriff’s helicopter Monday night to urge river bottom dwellers to abandon their encampments for their own safety.
That same helicopter returned Tuesday to lift sodden, bedraggled homeless men to safety, as they clung to the tops of trees that poked above the roiling brown river. Ventura officials said late Tuesday they will increase police patrols in the area to keep the homeless from returning.
County flood control officials said the Ventura River crested about 10:15 a.m., when it broke the levy at Casitas Springs. County officials measured 52,000 cubic feet per second flowing between the river’s banks and classified the storm as an event that should occur only once in every 50 years.
Dolores Taylor, flood control’s senior engineer, said that she has never seen such a rapid rise of floodwaters in her 24 years with the county.
“We need a break,” said Taylor, exasperated as rains continued mid-afternoon on Tuesday. “We need time to clean up the mess.”
Rain gauges measured 19 inches of rain in the Ventura River watershed since the series of storms began Jan. 3. Eight of those inches of rain fell Tuesday.
In the nearby Santa Clara River, storm waters also reached levels associated with storms expected every 50 years. With the wide riverbed full, the river covered an access road and was poised to cut a swath out of Oxnard’s Bailard Landfill.
Calleguas Creek also topped its banks, flooding hundreds of acres of farmland at the base of the Conejo Grade and threatening the closure of the Point Mugu Navy base.
Rushing floodwater spilled over the dam at Lake Sherwood in Thousand Oaks, breaking apart a cement flood channel and threatening two nearby homes. The runoff ripped apart the back yards as residents filled sandbags to try to prevent the houses from slipping into the Potrero Valley Creek.
Resident Bill Krauss marveled at his misfortune, explaining that he rented the house while crews repaired earthquake damage to his Woodland Hills home. He said he had left an earthquake-scarred home only to end up in a flood and wondered if he and his family are catastrophe-prone.
Up the creek, pieces of Potrero Road collapsed into the flood channel, exposing water and sewer pipes that lead to Sherwood. City officials hoped to secure the pipes before any more storm damage. If the sewer pipe were to rupture, officials said raw sewage would flow down the channel into Westlake Lake.
The fire-scarred hillsides above Newbury Park and Lake Sherwood grew increasingly unstable as the rain continued to fall Tuesday, but they held.
Among Ventura County’s communities, the river and creek-side hamlets of the Ojai Valley may have fared worst.
Dozens of streets were blocked by mudslides or flooding, including California 33 up Wheeler Grade and Creek Road, where homeowners were trapped between three or four mudslides, county flood officials said.
Elderly residents in the Arroyo Mobile Home Park, just seven feet from the raging Ventura River in Casitas Springs, were evacuated late Tuesday morning.
“I’m just taking me and my lipstick,” said Kay Hollingsworth, a retired office worker. “What else do you do when you have 100-years-worth of things and you have to carry it away on your back.”
Upriver on Santa Ana Boulevard, Kelley Hargett stood knee-deep pulling debris from a clogged drain that had created a lake in her front yard and flooded part of her home.
“We go through this every year,” she said, “but it has been a long time since it has been this bad.”
At the Rancho Arnez boarding stable, owner Sharon Rice and friends evacuated about 25 dripping horses from flooded corrals.
“They are up to their knees in water,” Rice said. “We’ve got some in the barn and others that are stuck in the pastures.”
Dozens of Fillmore streets were closed because of flooding and mudslides.
And with the closure of both California 126 from Santa Paula and of two-lane California 23 from Moorpark, the city became an island unto itself.
Hundreds of truckers and travelers stranded by the road closures sought refuge at fast-food restaurants.
Caltrans closed the narrow, winding California 23 early Tuesday after mudslides in Grimes Canyon made the road impassable.
“The water and mud just kept coming down,” said bleary-eyed Caltrans worker Jay Lewis. “We couldn’t keep up with the slides.”
Santa Paula also was cut off from its neighbors as floodwaters engulfed California 126 in both directions. The Ojai-Santa Paula Highway was closed and South Mountain Road submerged in mud again. At least six families were evacuated.
Tuesday’s rain hammered row crops and pushed the Calleguas Creek and Revolon Slough over their banks to flood an estimated 2,000 acres of farmland near Camarillo State Hospital and Oxnard.
“Along with the flooding, the strawberries are getting hit hard, the celery’s getting hit hard, the leaf lettuce is getting hit hard,” said Earl McPhail, the county’s agricultural commissioner. “We were in pretty good shape until midnight, when the hard rain started coming down.”
Across the state, the swath of destruction and damage was awesome, especially since the rain is expected to continue at least through today. Thousands of homes statewide were evacuated, and the state Office of Emergency Services said initial reports put damage at $41 million--a figure with nowhere to go but up.
Gov. Pete Wilson, who spent the afternoon touring devastated Northern California communities by air, has declared 18 counties disaster areas in the past week.
About 100,000 homes and businesses in central and Northern California were without power Tuesday, according to PG&E; officials, and another 90,000 Southern California customers were in the dark for part of the day.
James Bailey of the state and federal flood operations center in Sacramento called the storm system a “1,000-year precipitation.”
In the southern half of the state alone, flash-flood warnings were in effect from Riverside to Santa Barbara, a 200-mile stretch. Flooding was reported in virtually every area.
Two people were reported dead Monday and Tuesday in Northern California, both when trees toppled by the storm fell onto their cars.
The storm moved inland from north to south, with Northern California bearing the earliest and most severe onslaught.
But the storm was no less damaging to central California. Santa Barbara’s record rainfall turned the city’s quaint streets into raging rivers. Teen-agers rode boogie boards down Santa Cruz Boulevard and others went kayaking on lower State Street.
The First Presbyterian Church served as one of the city’s shelters, and there Senior Minister Robert Pryor said it was “raining buckets.”
“People are running from their homes with literally nothing,” he said. “They are still reeling from the shock.”
At the beach in Malibu, the hillsides that have somehow stayed together despite a week of debilitating rains began to give way. Rushing brown water and boulders coursed down creeks and roadways alike, turning all into a roiling mess.
Thirty homes were ordered evacuated, and into the afternoon the broiling Las Flores Creek threatened to wash away both homes and a local landmark, Cosentino’s nursery.
As a brigade of family members and friends rushed antiques, baskets, flowerpots and curios out of the building, Joie Cosentino passed out lilies, purple daisies and sunflowers to bystanders, who then gathered to watch the destruction with curiously colorful bouquets in hand.
“What else are we going to do with them?” asked a weeping Cosentino.
In nearby Topanga Canyon, residents compared the storm to a cataclysmic weather system in 1990, when portions of area roads were washed out.
At the Inn of the Seventh Ray, an organic restaurant and canyon landmark, the patio was completely under water and owner Lucille Yanet chanted furiously to try to stop the rain. Pacing back and forth on the rooftop in full rain gear, she chanted, “Out, out, stop the rain.”
“What I’m doing, by the way, is calling to the elementals to stop the rain,” she said. “I am not freaking out.”
* LEVEE SCHOOL--A forestry official is giving prison inmates a lesson in patching levees. A17
* LESSONS FROM ’92--Better equipment, larger staff made for earlier warnings this year. B1
* DAMAGE AFIELD--Prices for avocados, strawberries, broccoli and oranges are likely to go up. D1
* ADDITIONAL STORIES, PICTURES, GRAPHICS: A16-17, B1-5, D1, D3