Countywide Storm Damage Estimate Is Placed at $15 Million : Weather: Residents' hesitancy didn't significantly increase the cost of responding to the La Conchita landslide disaster.

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Failure by residents to immediately heed warnings to evacuate the landslide-prone La Conchita community did not significantly increase the cost of responding to the disaster, which has soared to $3 million and probably will climb higher, county officials said Wednesday.

Meanwhile, as yet another Pacific storm bore down on Ventura County, storm-damage estimates countywide topped $15 million, including the price of fixing pock-marked roads, eroded flood-control channels and waterlogged county buildings, Public Works Director Arthur E. Goulet said.

"It's a lot of money, and a lot of time," he said. Repairs "can go from the simple to the very complex."

Road and flood-control repairs await maintenance crews at hundreds of sites around Ventura County, Goulet said. Workers are identifying new wreckage almost daily, he said.

Most of the disaster-relief expenses are reimbursable by the federal government, under emergency declarations made by President Clinton.

But the county government, already facing a 1995-96 budget deficit of more than $40 million, could incur serious cash-flow problems because the Federal Emergency Management Agency often takes years to repay local disaster costs, said Wendy Haddock of the Office of Emergency Services.

"Ordinarily, the (reimbursement) system works fine," she said. "But now that we have so many disasters stacked up together, it's just getting unmanageable."

Over the past two years, Ventura County has endured wildfires, floods, landslides and earthquakes that caused tens of millions of dollars in damages. Local officials are still waiting for federal reimbursements on many of those expenses.

For now, individual county departments are bearing their own costs in answering emergency calls and repairing damage wrought by this season's late-winter storms. But the cash may be running out.

"There is no disaster-relief fund, so this is coming from their ordinary budgets," Haddock said. "More and more departments aren't going to be able to handle it internally, so they'll go before the board (of supervisors) and say they need more money to get things done."

Flood-control officials, who watched dozens of drainage channels overflow their banks in this month's storms, said they have been overwhelmed trying to keep up with repairs.

"It's not cheap," said Dolores Taylor, the county's flood-control engineer. "In a lot of cases we have to buy rock, haul material out and find a place to put the dirt."

Taylor said her department began the year with a $15-million surplus--money used to pay for emergency repairs. But the reserves have been cut by two-thirds, with a carry-over of only $5 million, she said.

"It's a fairly good logistical nightmare."

Nearly $2 million has been racked up by sheriff's deputies patrolling the streets of La Conchita, where more than 600,000 tons of rubble collapsed onto the beachfront community March 4.

Despite geologists' early warnings to La Conchita residents that the hillside would crumble under heavy rain, scores of homeowners refused to leave.

Any extra costs related to the residents' refusal to leave are minimal, however, a Sheriff's Department official said.

"We just respond to the need, save lives and protect property as best we can and worry about the bills later," said Chief Deputy Ken Kipp, who said 24-hour patrols will continue through spring. "You can't put a price on human loss."

As for the upfront costs to the already cash-strapped department, Kipp said, "We're coping with it. We're doing as much creative management as we can."

Forecasters said the Pacific storm expected to drop about an inch of rain on Ventura County on Wednesday night would taper off by this afternoon, with no more rain in sight.

"It should be dry through the weekend," said Rob Krohn, a National Weather Service meteorologist based in Oxnard.

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