In the storm-battered reaches of Northern California, where thousands suffered through another muddy day Thursday under the imminent threat of yet more rain, preparation was foremost on everyone's mind.
Outside Sacramento, the Rio Linda district fire chief ordered two more boats and 60 life jackets from a nearby Air Force base, the better to be ready for another onslaught expected to blow in from the Pacific. Earlier this week, Rio Linda officials used five boats to rescue 100 people from floodwaters.
"With all the saturation, another big storm could bring the water level up a lot faster," Guy Rutter said. "We want to be geared up for that."
A new storm was expected to dump substantial rain on Northern California today, raising river levels and adding to the misery of those trying to drain water and shovel muck from their homes. Several feet of highway-clogging snow was forecast in the High Sierra.
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 northern neighbors.
Across California, the hard work of recovery continued, even as the government's disaster machinery kicked in:
* Water receded in the northern sections of the state hardest hit by flooding in recent days, but in some areas drinking water still needed to be boiled, utilities were spotty and sandbags were being furiously filled.
* U.S. Transportation Secretary Federico Pena announced a $5-million down payment of federal relief to pay for repairs to roads and bridges. 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 4,000 calls for assistance from 24 counties.
* The dank scent of seaweed hung over Santa Barbara, a city of contrasts as the sun shone in bright blue skies while residents trucked mud, water--even frogs--from homes. In Malibu, a crucial link to the outside world was re-established as the bridge over Cross Creek was opened for limited use by residents. In western Ventura, officials warned residents to boil tap water because of fears that floodwaters had infiltrated the city's water system.
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.
Damage estimates were slow in coming as local officials concentrated on recovery. 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.
Separately, in estimates that were not fully reflected in the state figures, Los Angeles County reported nearly $27 million in damage, Santa Barbara County $20 million and Sacramento County at least $50 million. Caltrans quintupled its initial estimate of road damage to $10 million, and a spokesman said that figure was expected to rise.
Statewide, 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.
Initially, requests for federal aid were being handled through a telephone line because some areas remain impassable. For the hearing-impaired, the number is (800) 462-7585; for others, it is (800) 462-9029.
"It's easier for people to use a telephone than get in their cars and drive to a center," said FEMA spokesman Russ Edmonston in Los Angeles.
Wilson's moves to relax normal building regulations mimicked his actions after last January's Northridge earthquake. Then, the quickened pace of reconstruction allowed the Santa Monica Freeway to be rebuilt in 64 days, long before its planned completion date.
The governor also asked President Clinton to waive the federal Endangered Species Act to hasten the rebuilding of the damaged Malibu bridge. The bridge, built in 1935, was already scheduled for demolition and rebuilding this spring, but work was stalled to protect the Tidewater gobey, a fish that swims in the area, Caltrans officials said.
The scope of the devastation broadened statewide as floodwaters receded in many areas.
Humboldt County officials called in the National Guard to help collect the rotting carcasses of sheep and cattle floating down the Eel River.
At 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.
There also was a staircase that Steve Wilkinson swore he saw floating past his house in Duncans Mills a few days before.
Wilkinson, 45, one of a dozen or so scavengers working the beach under leaden skies Thursday, said he recognized the staircase as one built by a neighbor.
"I know the stain he used," Wilkinson said. He was searching--without success--for a couple of small boats swept away when floodwaters rose to within an inch of his front door.
"We make it a point to come down here after every flood to look for the stuff we lost," he said.
Floods are a familiar part of life along the Russian River, so much so that movie theater owner Suzi Schaffert says she will never run a river movie in January or February. Bad enough that when she bought the place several months ago, she said, the movie playing was "A River Runs Through It." Lately, she had postponed a current film: "The River Wild."
It didn't help: Although it has been drained since, the theater was home to six feet of water Monday.
Upriver in Guerneville, perhaps the hardest hit of California's towns, the last of the evacuated residents straggled back home. Except for the mud, the piles of soaked debris and the pools of olive-brown water left standing when the Russian River returned to its banks, things looked remarkably normal.
Traffic was brisk and most downtown shops were back in business. Rain held off until afternoon, and for a while it was easy to believe that all the trouble was over. But later in the day, forecasters renewed flood warnings for the Russian River.
To the east in Rio Linda, no one was taking anything for granted. The fire chief brought in a state communications van for use in potential rescues; the parking lot of the water district was filled with a steady stream of trucks bringing in sand for sandbags. About 200 tons of sand were expected to be distributed by nightfall by teams of Girl Scouts and Air Force personnel from nearby McClellan Air Force Base.
Rio Linda sits astride a flood plain at the low end of Dry Creek. The creek absorbs much of the runoff from northern Sacramento County and the Sierra foothills and in normal times empties into a drainage canal that feeds the Sacramento River.
But when the canal fills, as it did earlier this week, Dry Creek backs up and floods everything in its path between Roseville to the north and Rio Linda.
More than 600 homes in the area were flooded earlier this week, and 20 state crews were on hand Thursday to help clear debris from creek beds before the next storm.
"That's our highest priority," said Placer County spokeswoman Anita Yoder. "Stream debris creates dams that add to the flood problems and damage buildings."
Area officials said they were preparing for the worst. But for many, all the preparations in the world did not matter. If the floods come again, they probably will inundate Dave Clark's house in Roseville. But there's nothing left to ruin.
"Everything is junk," Clark said.
In Santa Barbara, one could have been forgiven for believing that nothing was wrong, what with the blue sky and wispy white clouds over the mountains. But everywhere there was mud the consistency of chocolate pudding.
Near the corner of Ortega and Bath streets, where Mission Creek had jumped its banks and taken down cars, refrigerators, television sets and everything else, Marlo Mandell pondered her fate. She went to Hawaii on Monday, got an emergency call to come home and found upon her return rooms filled with four inches of mud--and untold frogs.
"I think a fire would have been worse. At least some of this stuff I can wash off," she said. "It's just stuff. But still. . . ."
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.
Elsewhere, most of PCH was opened to residents, but only one lane of traffic was allowed in each direction and the road was subject to temporary closure because of rockslides. Las Virgenes-Malibu Canyon Road and Kanan Dume Road, the main cross-mountain roads, were reopened, but Caltrans crews worked to replace a large slab of road that was washed away on Topanga Canyon Boulevard. It remained closed to traffic from Mulholland Drive to PCH.
The storm expected Saturday night in Southern California was described by forecasters as weaker than the one that hit early this week, but still capable of dropping half an inch of rain along the coast and up to two inches in the foothills and mountains.
The National Weather Service said 0.37 of an inch of rain fell at the Los Angeles Civic Center in the 24 hours ending at 4 p.m. Thursday, raising the total for the season--which runs to June 30--to 11.58 inches. The normal season's total for the date is 5.93 inches.
Contributing to this story were Times staff writers Tina Daunt, Cathleen Decker, Carl Ingram, Eric Malnic and Rich Simon.
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