Relief finally came to Orange County on Thursday when two weeks of unrelenting rain slacked off just enough to let most roads reopen and flooding to wane, but the respite will be brief: More rain is expected Saturday night.
Another strong Pacific storm is expected to lash the county, although forecasters contend it won't be as savage as Tuesday's downpour, which, combined with record rains Jan. 4, has accounted for almost 12 inches since the year began.
"The average for this time of year is 4.94 inches," county weather official Mel Newman said. "This time last year, we had only 1.51 inches."
For today, Newman predicted wet, drizzly conditions but nothing like what it has been. "It'll be a little more than drizzle and a lot less than rain," he said.
Severe flood conditions drew a visit to the county Thursday from U.S. Transportation Secretary Federico Pena, who landed on Main Beach in Laguna Beach in a bright orange helicopter for a firsthand look at the gaping hole torn in the city's boardwalk.
Pena was met by officials from the city and the California Department of Transportation and briefed on the rushing wall of water that swept through Laguna, damaging homes and businesses and closing Laguna Canyon Road for more than a week.
Pena promised that help would come quickly to the besieged oceanfront city, pointing to the quick federal response in the wake of last year's devastating Northridge earthquake.
"We will cut through the red tape like we did in Northridge a year ago," Pena said. "Like then, we will establish a partnership with state and local agencies to lend a hand where it's needed."
Walking along the torn-up beachfront area, Pena found time to joke with newly elected Mayor Kathleen Blackburn.
"Welcome to public service," he said.
The beleaguered county, hit by both a fiscal and a natural disaster in just over a month, already has requested extra help from the state and federal governments in coping with storm damage estimated at $25 million. The figure, which does not include damage to private property, is expected to rise further when cities complete their own flood surveys.
Orange County officials heading the storm repair effort met Thursday with representatives from the Governor's Office of Emergency Services and the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, seeking aid on several fronts.
Bill Reiter, the county's public works operations manager, said the county renewed its request for up to $5 million in advance payments on expected disaster relief money. Without it, he said, the county cannot guarantee its vendors and suppliers that it will be able to pay for needed storm-related repairs.
Reiter said he did not know how quickly a decision might be made, but a spokeswoman for the state office administering the money sounded a hopeful note.
"We're trying to be as helpful as possible and we know that cash flow is a problem there," Sheri Erlewine said. "I think the bottom line is that the flood is causing problems and that between the state and federal government, we should be there for the county. We should not penalize individuals who are suffering because of the fiscal problems."
Meanwhile, the pace of flood repairs continues to be slowed by the reluctance of many regular contractors to extend credit to the county in wake of the bankruptcy, Reiter said. While some other vendors have offered to step in, county officials said they would prefer to work with their regular contractors as much as possible and are hoping "upfront money" from the government will enable them to do so.
The county is also seeking help from the Corps of Engineers, Reiter said, including an unspecified amount of money to buy materials for flood repairs.
In addition, Reiter said, county officials learned Thursday that a program administered by the Corps may allow that agency to pick up the tab for one of the most expensive storm projects: the repairs to badly damaged Beach Boulevard and the flood-control channel that runs under it near 11th Street in Buena Park. Reiter said the county may receive an answer on whether it qualifies for that program as early as today.
In Laguna Beach, merchants and residents on Thursday continued to battle the effects of two weeks of flooding.
Sitting at an elegant black marble desk amid inch-thick mud, Peter J. Heiderich, co-owner of Peter J's Laguna Showcase, said he had sustained $40,000 in flood-related damage but managed to evacuate almost $500,000 worth of art.
At the GTE building a few blocks away, Raymond Layne, 30, was sealing windows. Workers already had barricaded two doors with steel plates, sandbags and caulking to protect them from a concrete channel near Beach Street that allowed waters to rage out of control and leak into the building Wednesday.
"If that doesn't work, I'll tell you, I don't know what will," Layne said.
At Main Beach, Tyler Wallace, 35, painted a picture of the lifeguard tower, a watercolor he hoped to sell.
The transient artist said he hitchhiked to Laguna from Monterey on Wednesday, unaware the town had been inundated from flooding until he arrived.
"I came here to paint," Wallace said. "I have 15 cents to my name, so I have to paint a picture."
Elsewhere in troubled Laguna, motorists got a bit of good news. Caltrans officials planned to open one lane of Laguna Canyon Road on a trial basis during rush hour Thursday afternoon.
"We'll give it a try," Deputy District Director Joe Hecker said. "If it proves to cause a problem (creating traffic jams), we'll cut it short."
Hecker said work crews would wait until Saturday night's anticipated storm passes before clearing two lanes of the busy canyon roadway. The storm undermined a 350-yard section of blacktop, which is being replaced with rock and gravel.
Only three other roadways were expected to remain closed today besides Laguna Canyon: Beach Boulevard in Buena Park; Western Avenue at the 11th Street bridge in Buena Park, and southbound Pacific Coast Highway from Warner Avenue to Golden West Street in Huntington Beach.
Throughout the county, residents and public officials were heartened by today's forecast, which promises both drier and warmer conditions until the fading hours Saturday.
Today "in Orange County looks like scattered showers that, for the most part, will taper off. The main band of your heavy weather will remain in central and northern California," said Dean Jones, a forecaster with WeatherData Inc., based in Wichita, Kan. Today "should be dry, with partly cloudy conditions and the same for most of Saturday, though by Saturday evening, the next in a series of storms is headed your way."
Even so, Saturday's threatened rain is not expected to carry the same impact as its predecessors.
"It looks like it's moving a lot faster than the storm that dropped five inches of rain on Los Angeles alone a couple of nights ago," Jones said. "With faster movement, it should not produce as much rain but could still produce heavy rain--at least an inch in some areas Saturday night and Sunday."
County workers took advantage of Thursday's improved weather--which included a brief glimmer of afternoon sunshine--to shore up the county's battered network of flood-control channels.
"We're making mad dashes to get the work done," said Rick Schooley, a spokesman for the public works operations division. "We're grateful for any sunshine we get. We really need a couple days of drying out; we can only work so long on the wet channel slopes before they become too soft to get the trucks through any more."
Times staff writers David Reyes and Rebecca Trounson and Times correspondent Jeff Bean contributed to this story.
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(BEGIN TEXT OF INFOBOX / INFOGRAPHIC)
Orange County's rainfall is already five and a half inches above the norm for January. Metereologists predict another storm will hit the Southland late Saturday. Thursday's rain totals at 4 p.m.
City Inches Anaheim 0.34 Dana Point 0.30 Laguna Beach 0.05 Lake Forest 0.24 Newport Beach 0.37 Santa Ana 0.50
Year to Date
Jan. total: 9.60"
Jan. normal: 3.26"
Last year: 1.70"
Source: WeatherData Inc.