Hurricane Weakens, but Threat Still Strong

TIMES STAFF WRITER

Record-breaking Hurricane Linda weakened off the Baja California coast Saturday, and meteorologists predicted it will shrink to a tropical storm but still pack lashing rains that could mean devastating landslides and flooding in Southern California.

If Linda follows the expected course, its tropical-storm-force winds could be centered 75 miles southwest of San Diego by midday Tuesday, according to the National Hurricane Center.

And if it roars into the arid, mountainous Southland, it could be very destructive, they said.

"There is a potential for a major catastrophe from rain from a tropical storm that could make landfall sometime Tuesday in Southern California," said James Lewis Free, a research scientist at the Hurricane Center in Miami. "There is a serious threat for loss of life from those who do not prepare for heavy rain and floods that are likely if it makes landfall."

The winds of Hurricane Linda, the most powerful on record in the eastern Pacific, slowed to 150 mph Saturday afternoon, from a peak of 185 mph with gusts of 215 mph Friday, Free said. At 8 p.m. Saturday, the storm was 500 miles southwest of the southern tip of Baja California, according to the Hurricane Center.

It was expected to head northwest until hitting a low pressure trough that is moving down from Alaska into Northern California. That could turn it north toward the California coast, Free said.

"It could be a major rain event," he said.

The hurricane is expected to slow further as it moves out of Baja Sur waters, which are as warm as 85 degrees. In Southern California, sea surface temperatures are just under 70 degrees--still five degrees warmer than normal because of an equatorial current, El Nino, that has pushed warmer waters northward, Free said.

Jon Erdman, a forecast meteorologist with WeatherData Inc., said California authorities probably won't issue a warning until there is a landfall prediction by the National Hurricane Center.

"We think it's going to interact with the coast and will probably make landfall around Tuesday," he said.

"But issuing a warning triggers a tremendous, large-scale response from emergency management," Erdman said. "You issue a warning when you can pinpoint with 80% certainty that it's going to hit a given area. You don't want to alarm 10 million people at once. There's no reason getting people hysterical."

If the storm does approach the California coast, its intensity will be greatly reduced, with winds at an estimated 30 to 55 mph, meteorologists said.

"It is a threat to the U.S. mainland at a much reduced intensity," said Fiona Horsfall, a meteorologist with the Hurricane Center. "The biggest threat would be the rain. It could trigger mudslides, flooding in low-lying regions, the winds could trigger trees down.

"We are concerned about the California coastline," she said.

Horsfall said that given Saturday conditions, the storm would be expected to make landfall in the Los Angeles area, hitting south of Santa Barbara between Tuesday and Thursday.

Mexican authorities have issued a coastal flood warning for hundreds of miles of Mexico's Pacific coast and a warning to fishers to take "extreme precautions" to avoid the storm.

Linda's northwest course appeared to be sparing the Baja resort town of Cabo San Lucas, though it rained there all day Saturday.

"It's not going to turn into Cabo San Lucas," said Wes Etheredge, a meteorologist with WeatherData Inc., which provides forecasts for The Times. "They're going to see some heavy rains, but they're not going to feel the brunt of it."

Etheredge said the hurricane could make landfall anywhere between Point Conception, north of Santa Barbara, or somewhere 50 to 75 miles south of San Diego.

There is apparently no case on record of a hurricane hitting California, according to Erdman.

The last time a tropical storm made landfall in California was in 1939, and 45 people died. The storm hit about 100 miles north of San Diego, Free said.

More recently, in 1976, Tropical Storm Kathleen hit south of Rosarito, Mexico, killing 10 people and dumping more than 10 inches of rain on San Diego County. It washed out roads and caused millions of dollars in damage.

Meteorologists caution that conditions could change by Tuesday and force the hurricane on another course, perhaps out to sea. Hurricanes can wobble, double back, stall, speed up and change course, depending on water temperatures and the surrounding weather systems that steer them.

"Weather can always throw in some surprises," Free said.

Still, some Southland officials were busily preparing for Linda's arrival.

On the 31 miles of beach overseen by the county Department of Harbors and Beaches, workers on Saturday unclogged 140 storm drains and dug trenches to the ocean.

The crews of county workers also pulled back 15 lifeguard towers and began building seven miles of sand berms to guard parking lots, towers and buildings from pounding surf.

"We'd rather be prepared like this than try to do it afterward," said Wayne Schumaker, the department's chief of facilities. "Once the storm hits onshore, because of the erosion, we don't have the sand to work with to construct these berms."

By today, department officials hope to fill 5,000 sandbags to prevent the undermining of boardwalks, bike paths, access ramps and buildings. Schumaker said he is also concerned with an unusually high tide expected Sunday and Monday that could compound the effects of a storm.

"We are seeing the same conditions that happened in '82 or '83," said Schumaker, referring to the pier-breaking storms that hit that winter. "People should be taking this seriously," he added.

Officials at the Los Angeles Fire Department said they were giving out sandbags at local stations but that the threat of a hurricane has been hyped by the media.

"The worse flooding scenario pales in comparison to brush fires," said spokesman Brian Humphrey.

Linda was classified as a Category 5 hurricane Friday, but was scaled down to a 4 by Saturday, Free said. Its winds were expected to weaken to 115 mph by late Sunday and to 58 mph by Tuesday.

By late Saturday, its hurricane-force winds extended 45 miles from the eye, and its tropical force winds were felt 230 miles from the center.

Correspondent Joe Mozingo in Los Angeles contributed to this story.

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