The water supply to almost half the city of Ventura was declared unsafe Thursday, and officials closed many Ventura schools and some of the county's beaches and oceanfront campgrounds because of rising health concerns in the aftermath of this week's flooding.
Bacteria-laden river water infiltrated water supplies for west and central Ventura, prompting officials to warn roughly 70,000 residents to boil tap water before drinking it and avoid bathing or showering until further notice.
Educators quickly shut off school water fountains, broke out bottled water from earthquake-preparedness supplies and ordered two-thirds of the city's schools closed today.
Ventura's water crisis arose as public work crews and private homeowners across the county struggled through another muddy day--clearing roads, scooping out muck and drying flood-damaged furniture and carpets.
About 200 homes and 50 mobile homes suffered some damage, county officials said. The preliminary toll for damage to roads, flood control channels and other county facilities was placed at $4.7 million and expected to climb. Most cities had yet to forward their estimated costs for storm cleanup to the county's emergency services office.
In Northern California, thousands of residents prepared for a new storm expected to dump substantial rain today, raising river levels and adding to the misery of survivors trying to drain water and shovel muck from their homes.
Southern and central California were expected to be hit by moderate rain Saturday night and Sunday morning, but overall will get more of a break than their sodden neighbors northward.
In Ventura County, health officials advised the public to avoid touching the water in Calleguas Creek or the Pacific Ocean near Point Mugu, which were contaminated by the release of nearly a half-million gallons of partially treated sewage.
The Hill Canyon Treatment Plant, which processes sewage for Thousand Oaks, became so swamped with floodwaters that it was forced on Tuesday and Wednesday to release overflow into the Conejo Creek. The creek drains into the Calleguas Creek on its way to the sea.
State parks officials closed McGrath State Beach in Oxnard, Emma Wood and San Buenaventura state beaches in Ventura and Carpinteria State Beach because of flooding, huge piles of storm debris and unhealthful bacteria in the water.
"The public may be in for an unpleasant surprise if they walk through the area," maintenance supervisor Mike Wimmel said. "Everything from live rattlesnakes to medical wastes such as syringes is probably mixed in with the driftwood."
In Ventura County as in other storm-battered California communities, the hard work of recovery continued, even as the government's disaster machinery kicked in:
* Caltrans and county road crews continued to work 24 hours a day, even though much of the county was pelted with another half-inch to three-quarters of an inch of rain Thursday morning. California 23 between Fillmore and Moorpark has yet to be cleared of debris, and California 150 remains closed on the stretch that connects Ojai to Carpinteria. The West Main Street bridge over the Ventura River also remains closed until it is inspected for structural damage. "We have numerous closures on county roads, said California Highway Patrol Capt. Mike Porrazzo, commander of the Ventura County office. "I don't see that abating until this rain lets up."
* Thousand Oaks officials believe they can stop the leaks that plague the city's $64-million Civics Arts Plaza by attaching gaskets along the seismic joint that lets in most of the rain. "We're looking at simple solutions," said building supervisor Ed Johnduff."We don't want to take apart the building."
* American Red Cross officials reported that 232 people spent Wednesday night in their shelters, a mixture of longtime homeless and the temporarily displaced. The Red Cross shut down its shelter in Santa Paula on Thursday night, but left those open at De Anza Middle School in Ventura and the National Guard Armory in Oxnard.
* Food Share Inc., the county's regional food bank, made a plea for donations to help an additional 10,000 people needing assistance in coming months. It reported that storm damage to crops would toss 2,000 more workers into unemployment lines. "Many families who are already living on the financial edge will be forced to ask for emergency food boxes," said Food Share Director Jim Mangis. One bright spot was a promise from the Department of Defense to send 3,000 blankets next week.
* Ventura's beach maintenance budget falls far short of what is needed to haul away the mounds of driftwood and other debris that washed down the Ventura River and onto city beaches. City maintenance crews probably will not start removing the debris until March or April, when the winter's storms are over, said Ventura Public Works Director Ron Calkins.
* U. S. Transportation Secretary Federico Pena announced a $5-million down payment of federal relief to pay for repairs to roads and bridges in California. Gov. Pete Wilson suspended state regulations to speed rebuilding efforts in flooded areas. And in the first 24 hours of operation, a Federal Emergency Management Agency hot line took in 2,640 calls for assistance from Ventura and 23 other counties.
* County officials urged FEMA to open a local disaster application center for flood victims seeking low-interest loans and other relief. "We've been told that more than likely, next week is the soonest we'll see a disaster center open," said Wendy Haddock, the county's assistant emergency services director.
Ventura police decided to run round-the-clock patrols today to prevent homeless people from returning to their makeshift dwellings in the usually dry Ventura River bed.
For now, an emergency disaster order makes the river bottom off-limits, Police Capt. Randy G. Adams said. When that order is lifted, he said, anyone entering the area will be arrested for misdemeanor trespassing.
"We really want to prevent any loss of life down there," Adams said, noting that floodwaters this week and in 1992 have claimed the lives of homeless men. "Part of the reason that the area has flourished so much in the past with the homeless encampments is because we've basically tolerated them and haven't taken a posture of zero-tolerance."
Late Thursday, a Ventura County sheriff's helicopter was dispatched to the Ventura River bottom near Oak View to rescue two teen-age rafters who became stuck briefly on an island in the river, said Lt. Gary Markley.
The teen-agers managed to wade to the river's bank without assistance.
"I can tell you that they got a good yelling at," Markley said. "We're still deciding whether they will be cited."
Throughout the day, police turned back homeless who wanted to enter the riverbed to collect their belongings.
One homeless man said he and others plan to fight the city's new policy and said they have contacted attorneys at the ACLU.
"We're ready to go to court if our backs are against the wall," said Al Sanders, 45, who lived in the river bottom until Tuesday's flood waters flushed him from his shanty. "They think they are dealing with a bunch of drunks and drug addicts who don't have brains. But some of us have college degrees. We don't like to be pushed around."
Ventura County has no ACLU office. And the ACLU's offices in Los Angeles and in Santa Barbara said they have not been contacted.
Ventura Mayor Tom Buford said city officials began discussions with the county and the Red Cross to find long- and short-term solutions to the homeless crisis.
First, he said, the city wants to move the homeless people from the temporary shelter at the De Anza Middle School gym to the armory in Oxnard. He suggested the city might help defray costs of the shelter with donations to the Red Cross to keep a shelter open.
"I'm pretty confident we won't be having a break in service," he said. Meanwhile, residents of the hardest-hit neighborhoods continued to push away tons of mud and debris from in and around their homes.
Ken Walker, a retired engineer, spent Thursday dragging out the mud-soaked carpets from his Fillmore home and preparing for weeks of repairs.
"We essentially had a mud avalanche," he said, surveying the damage to his two-story, 1920s-era home. "The very high ridge behind us slid, and we got hit with a wave of mud and water."
Walker said he had just completed repairing damage his house suffered in last year's Northridge earthquake, which didn't compare to the estimated $20,000 in flood damage.
So far, 34 California counties have been declared state disaster areas, and President Clinton has awarded federal status to 24. The others are expected to be added to the federal list shortly.
The state Office of Emergency Services said $110 million in damage has been reported thus far, a figure expected to at least double when reports are complete.
Throughout the state, the number of residents housed in shelters dropped to 1,642 by morning as residents were allowed back into their homes. Thousands were still staying with family and friends, a state emergency spokeswoman said, and the Salvation Army reported helping 8,725 people with basic necessities.
The scope of the devastation broadened statewide as floodwaters receded in many areas.
In the Sonoma County town of Jenner, where the swollen Russian River that flooded several communities empties into the Pacific, the beach was covered by a gargantuan mound of trash: logs, propane heaters, pieces of boats, wine barrels, a dead sheep, an all-terrain vehicle.
Portions of Santa Barbara were still covered with mud the consistency of chocolate pudding.
In Malibu, the Pacific Coast Highway bridge over Cross Creek reopened, but residents faced long commutes--even by Southern California standards--into town. One lane was open to residents in each direction, but those who could were ordered to take a longer route over the mountains and through the San Fernando Valley.
Caltrans officials said they were restricting traffic across the bridge--which was passable only after waits of up to an hour--because of concern that heavy traffic could further damage the structure.
Contributing to this story were Times staff writers Tina Daunt, Cathleen Decker, Carl Ingram, Eric Malnic, Richard Paddock, Rich Simon, Constance Sommer, Mary F. Pols and Daniel Weintraub, and correspondents Jeff McDonald and J.E. Mitchell.
* For current temperatures and the latest forecasts from Santa Barbara to Palm Springs, sign on to the TimesLink on-line service and "jump" to keyword "weather."
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