As Rains Abate, Ventura Finds Water Tainted

TIMES STAFF WRITERS

Although the worst of the foul weather appeared to be over in Southern California for awhile, 10 days of heavy rain continued taking a toll Thursday, bringing Los Angeles County its first storm-caused death and setting off a water contamination crisis in Ventura County.

Bacteria-laden water from a storm-swollen river infiltrated a city of Ventura water purification plant, forcing officials to declare half the city's water supply unsafe. Officials ordered two-thirds of the city's schools closed today because of the water problem and shut down many beaches and oceanfront campgrounds because of rising health concerns.

About 70,000 residents were cautioned to boil tap water before drinking it and avoid bathing or showering in untreated water until further notice.

In the first fatality in Los Angeles County blamed on the string of torrential downpours, Jesse Meza, 26, of Arleta died when his car skidded over the side of the Antelope Valley Freeway early Thursday morning.

Meza was driving north about 3:15 just south of Red Rover Mine Road when his car drifted to the side of the freeway, struck a raised curb and rolled down the embankment, landing on its roof, said CHP Officer Mike Wibele.

His was at least the ninth California death blamed on the rain since the storms began, including five fatalities in the hard-hit northern part of the state and three in Southern California--one each in Ventura, Orange and San Diego counties.

In the San Fernando Valley, freeway crashes averaged 19 a day in the first 11 days of this year, compared to nine per day during the same period last year, according to California Highway Patrol Officer Dwight McDonald, a spokesman for the department's Woodland Hills office.

On a brighter note, Topanga Elementary School, closed for three days because of the storm, will reopen today, school district officials said. All other campuses remained open during the deluge but many sustained leaky roofs and clogged drains.

Southern and central California were expected to be hit by only moderate rain Saturday night and Sunday morning.

But a new storm was expected to dump substantial rain on Northern California today, raising river levels and adding to the misery of survivors trying to drain water and shovel muck from their homes. Several feet of highway-clogging snow was forecast in the High Sierra.

Outside Sacramento, the Rio Linda Fire District chief ordered two more boats and 60 life jackets from a nearby Air Force base 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."

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 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 their 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.

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.

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.

In Malibu, though the Pacific Coast Highway bridge over Cross Creek reopened, residents faced long commutes. 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 still 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.

Coliform bacteria, which come from human and animal waste, was discovered in a portion of Ventura's water supply. If swallowed, water contaminated by sewage can cause illnesses ranging from stomach discomfort to hepatitis, said Steve Kephart, a Ventura County environmental health specialist.

There were no reported cases of illness that could be attributed to the bacteria late Thursday, city and hospital officials said, but residents on the west side of town flocked to grocery stores for bottled water.

Officials said huge quantities of mud and debris from the Ventura River--which supplies drinking water to about 70,000 city residents--may have prevented chlorine from reaching and killing the bacteria.

The Ventura Unified School District announced it would close two-thirds of the city's public schools and send bottled water to the others. Ventura restaurants used paper plates, plastic utensils and boiled water. Some hair salons used bottled water to shampoo their clients.

Ventura health officials also advised the public to avoid bodily contact with Calleguas Creek or the Pacific Ocean near Point Mugu, which was contaminated by the release of nearly a half-million gallons of partly 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, which drains into the Calleguas Creek on its way to the sea.

State parks officials closed McGrath State Beach in Oxnard, and 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," said maintenance supervisor Mike Wimmel. "Everything from live rattlesnakes to medical wastes such as syringes is probably mixed in with the driftwood."

Wilson's moves to relax normal building regulations duplicated 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.

Humboldt County officials called in the National Guard to help collect the rotting carcasses of sheep and cattle that floated 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.

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.

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.

Although precipitation levels varied throughout the San Fernando Valley, between Monday and Thursday an estimated 5.32 inches of rain had fallen in Woodland Hills, compared to none during the same period last year, according to Leslie Staver of WeatherData Inc., a private weather service that supplies data to The Times.

Contributing to this story were Times staff writers Daniel Weintraub, Richard Paddock, Tina Daunt, Cathleen Decker, Carl Ingram, Eric Malnic, Rich Simon, Julie Fields, Constance Sommer and Miguel Bustillo and correspondents Matthew Mosk and Catherine Saillant.

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