A fast-moving front caught weather forecasters off-guard with its strength Tuesday, producing intermittently torrential downpours and leaving a wide swath of Central California under a tornado watch for about three hours.
The chance of rain is diminishing today, although an unstable air mass means downpours remain possible the next three days, forecasters said. Temperatures will stay cool, with highs in the 60s.
The Tuesday morning rainstorm hit the west county hardest, leading to flooding in the usual low-lying areas and a spate of minor accidents but no major problems, authorities said. Another band of heavy showers brought more rain early in the evening.
"Near the Ventura County Government Center . . . there was a report of one-half inch in a half-hour's time between 10:15 and 10:45 a.m.," said Eugene VanCor, a meteorologist with the National Weather Service in Oxnard. "The one that hit in the Ventura area was about as heavy as we've had reported so far. . . . The amounts were a surprise."
An automated rain gauge in El Rio near Oxnard recorded six-tenths of an inch in 30 minutes.
The weather service issued the tornado watch at 3 p.m. for a large, roughly rectangular area of Central California extending to Ventura County after cool winds rushed into the region atop warm moist air.
"It's the cookbook recipe for tornadoes," VanCor said.
A watch means that conditions are favorable for a tornado or its liquid equivalent, a water spout, but is one level below a warning.
A funnel cloud--a tornado that fails to hit the ground--was reported near Fresno. The tornado watch expired in Ventura County at 6 p.m. but remained in effect through the early evening hours in the San Joaquin Valley.
Tuesday's rain overwhelmed some storm drains, prompting minor flooding in a couple of storefronts in the 300 block of Main Street in downtown Ventura and dozens of accidents as drivers sloshed through the runoff.
"We've got crashes coming out of our ears right now," said Officer George Orozco with the California Highway Patrol about 10:50 a.m. "We're running back and forth handling accidents as best as we can."
A lack of staffing forced the highway patrol to call in several officers a few hours early.
The Ventura County Fire Department was asked to use its rescue tools to extricate people in four separate crashes. The accidents caused minor to moderate injuries, fire spokesmen said.
One flooded southbound lane of the Ventura Freeway north of the California Street exit produced a couple of spin-outs and a minor accident, but nothing serious, Orozco said.
And rain-slicked pavement contributed to a minor-injury accident that prompted the partial closure of the intersection of Madera Road and Wood Ranch Parkway in Simi Valley for about 1 1/2 hours Tuesday afternoon, police said.
Sandbags guarded the front door of the recently opened police storefront in downtown Ventura.
"The water came right up on the sidewalk and right in through the front door," said volunteer Harry Gallagher, 64.
Many more sandbags were in evidence in the seaside hamlet of La Conchita, one mile south of the Santa Barbara County line, where any amount of rain has residents anxiously watching the unstable hillside that looms above them. Most sandbags went unused, although a minor slide led to a stream of water and dirt down the center of Fillmore Avenue.
County surveyor Rod Kimberling endured the rain to make the regular monthly check on the hillside, but preliminary measurements showed no movement, he said.
Steve Kosztics, 73, puttered around his Vista Del Rincon garage at the base of the hill, a large sign adorning his house reading "1995-1996 La Conchita, March 4, one year--Nothing!" in protest of the lack of county action since an initial slide last year destroyed nine homes.
"I think we're pretty stable back here," he said, a couple of blocks from the main slide area. "But you think about it, especially at night when it's raining real hard."
Countywide rainfall totals topped an inch in some spots, but remained well below the amount needed to cause creeks to rise significantly, county hydrologist Dolores Taylor said.
"It's nice for the yards," she said. "Anybody that put their fertilizer out is probably happy."
And for the first time this winter, rainfall totals edged close to normal levels in some places.
The Associated Press and correspondent Stephanie Brommer contributed to this report.
(BEGIN TEXT OF INFOBOX / INFOGRAPHIC)
Here are rainfall figures from the Ventura County Flood Control Department for the 24-hour period ending at 8 p.m. Tuesday . Oct. 1 is the beginning of the official rain year.
Rainfall Rainfall Normal rainfall Location last 24 hours since Oct. 1 to date Camarillo 0.55 9.28 10.49 Casitas Dam 0.91 16.40 18.48 Casitas Rec. Center 1.14 15.20 18.67 Fillmore 0.98 13.56 15.00 Matilija Dam 1.22 19.24 21.18 Moorpark 0.71 11.19 11.44 Upper Ojai 1.06 14.34 18.24 Oxnard 0.47 10.20 11.45 Piru 0.63 10.82 13.41 Port Hueneme 0.35 8.11 11.15 Santa Paula 1.10 12.38 14.07 Simi Valley 0.39 10.52 11.13 Thousand Oaks 0.55 11.02 11.97 Ventura Govt. Center 0.79 11.76 12.71