15-Foot Waves Pound Beaches
A storm in the central Pacific generated 10- to 15-foot waves Friday that pounded Orange County’s coastline at high tide, spraying water above oceanfront rooftops in Capistrano Shores, forcing temporary closure of Seal Beach, Aliso and San Clemente piers while bulldozers raced to fortify a sand berm protecting Seal Beach homes.
The powerful ocean swells that hit Hawaii two days earlier and generated 50-foot waves on the North Shore were expected to subside today as a rainstorm moves in, but there will be 6- to 10-foot breakers on beaches and dangerous surf conditions.
With the ocean’s fury on full display, there was hardly any area of the Southern California coast that escaped the wrath of the El Nino-influenced swells. San Diego reported 15-foot waves and issued warnings to stay off the beach, while in Ventura County, 18- to 20-foot breakers damaged a dozen homes, flooded streets and battered the landmark Ventura Pier, which was closed for the weekend.
“We warned our residents about a week ago to expect the big waves, so most people put up shutters, filled sandbags and got ready,” said Grant Larson, community services director for the Del Mar Lifeguard Service.
Old Highway 101 was temporarily closed near Encinitas on Friday because of 10-foot-high waves hitting sea cliffs, battering beach-front buildings and flooding low areas. The closure was the fourth this week.
Today’s rainstorm is expected to dump 1 inch to 1 1/2 inches of rain and as much as 2 to 3 inches in the foothills and mountains as the second of three storms strikes the county, said Bill Reiter, county flood control director. The third storm is due Monday.
With the high surf and tides subsiding, the threat of additional coastal problems may be minimized, but Reiter cautioned that one can never be sure with the weather.
“With rain added to the mix, we could probably see more problems get even greater,’ Reiter said.
At Capistrano Shores, a north San Clemente enclave of 90 mobile homes and cottages built on the sand, severe flooding occurred after giant waves began crashing through storm shutters and picture windows of several homes an hour before the 10:13 a.m. high tide.
“This has been the most water we’ve had here in seven years,” manager Tony Louch said as wave after wave exploded off a new, 600-ton rock revetment installed in November to protect homes as part of the community’s El Nino preparation.
“These rocks really helped a lot,” resident Barbara Lundberg shouted. “When we woke up this morning, it was to a roar as the waves crashed against our front window, shaking and rattling it. We had to get it boarded up quickly.”
Though Lundberg’s home was spared, waves caused severe damage inside the home of Tom Johnson, 75. On Monday, waves battered Johnson’s home before breaking three top transom windows, allowing sea water to flood the living room and damage carpeting, a television and VCR. On Thursday, waves took out a 5-foot-tall glass wind screen.
On Friday, Johnson spent the morning crossing his fingers as breakers continuously broke just a few feet in front of his home, sending a wall of water over his roof and flooding his patio.
“I had my storm shutters up, but the waves damaged them. I had to put up half-inch plywood panels on my windows with 2-by-4 reinforcements,” he said.
Louch said that of 90 homes, 32 suffered minor damage and 10 had more serious damage from waves crashing through front windows. A damage total could not immediately be obtained.
Johnson and other homeowners said an eroded beach added to the problem.
Resident Neil Olsen, whose large picture window on his home was shattered by the ocean’s intensity, said that when he first bought his residence in 1978, “you could step from my back door to the sand. Now, it’s more than an 11-foot drop.”
Residents voiced concern that today’s waves may again be large and could combine with rain runoff to cause additional damage.
Emergency officials were kept busy with high tide damage such as flooding in parking lots at Capistrano Beach and Aliso Beach parks, which were temporarily closed while workers mopped up the water.
San Clemente, Aliso and Seal Beach piers were temporarily closed at high tide as a safety precaution. San Clemente’s Pier, which lost wooden cross members, was partially reopened; Aliso Pier will remain closed through today. Seal Beach Pier will remain closed indefinitely until an assessment of its safety is made by structural engineers, lifeguards said.
In Seal Beach, hundreds of curious onlookers jammed the pier in the morning to watch the ocean’s ferocity until the closure order was given. Meanwhile, city work crews employed three bulldozers during a midmorning battle against the rising tide to push sand back on a protective berm, which held despite some leaking.
“We’re lucky we got the berm up as high as we did,” Seal Beach Police Capt. Gary Maiten said from a command post at the base of the pier that bustled with police volunteers. It was 10:10 a.m., three minutes to the peak of high tide, and Maiten was starting to relax. “This is as bad as it’s going to get today,” he said.
Lifelong resident Jeff Earle, 45, marveled at the work of a bulldozer operator toiling in front of him, in the precarious position between the onrushing waves and the berm he was trying to reinforce.
“He already had a wave break over him,” Earle said. “They’re doing a great job.”
Four wooden cross beams near the end of the city pier were damaged by churning waves. Maiten said the pier would remain closed at least 24 hours until engineers could evaluate the damage.
Jennifer Beaver, manager of Ruby’s Diner at the end of the pier, said her 18 or so breakfast customers were unfazed Friday when officials ordered the restaurant evacuated about 9:15.
“They just wanted to hang out. It was funny,” she said. “Everybody finished their breakfast. They wanted more coffee. We were like, ‘You just need to leave.’ ”
The closure didn’t discourage onlookers from jamming onto the open portion of the pier for a look at one of the highest tides anticipated for the year. Water pooled behind a natural sandbar that is normally part of the wide beach but had become a perch for surfers on their way out to the big waves.
“It’s unbelievable. Look, that breakwater is completely covered,” said Helen Mason of Garden Grove, pointing to a distant jetty. “And we’ve noticed the waves are coming from all different directions. We walk here all the time, and I’ve never seen anything like it.”
Along the beachfront, many homeowners and renters had stacked sandbags around their doors, but the small amount of water that spilled over the berm didn’t reach any of them. Assured that their belongings were safe, many walked over to the pier for a look at the wave action.
“It’s exciting,” said Karen Morin, who wheeled her 18-month-old son, Frederick, in a stroller from her second-floor beachfront apartment. “We had to postpone moving in last fall because of storm damage, but I don’t think we’ll have any trouble this time,” she said. “We’ve got everything up on cranes in the garage just in case. I’m not worried. I’m from Canada, and I’ve seen a lot of blizzards. This is nothing.”
Lifeguards were kept on alert up and down the coast as hundreds of surfers took advantage of the Hawaiian-sized waves.
“This is one of the biggest swells to hit California in quite a while,” said San Clemente lifeguard supervisor Richard Chew. “We got a scare here earlier. This swell is chewing up surfboards, and while on patrol we were finding noses and tails and pieces of boards on the shoreline. We scooped them up and now have to put the pieces together, to make sure nobody’s still out there.”
Chew said the city prepared by carting away picnic tables, trash cans and other items that could have been swept to sea. Even so, lifeguards were not prepared for a giant wave that struck their lifeguard headquarters on the beach.
“One wave blasted open the side door and broke the door right off the hinges and flooded our exercise area,” Chew said. “These waves are so big that TV news helicopters were filming surfers on our west reef, a giant wave and local secret spot that only breaks on huge swells.”
Surfer Ryan Howell, 15, of Tustin spent the morning dodging big sets at the Trestles, south of San Clemente in northern San Diego County, where the waves were estimated at double overhead, roughly 12 to 15 feet high. Howell then visited his family’s weekend residence in Capistrano Shores only to find flood damage inside.
“Now I’ve got to go and find some place that sells a shop vacuum that picks up water. You know of any around here?” Howell asked.
Times staff writers Nancy Cleeland and Steve Carney and correspondent Julia Scheeres contributed to this report.
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Southwest winds combined with a storm cycle from the Northwest on Friday to create 10- to 15-foot waves along the county’s coastline. Some places where large surf was observed:
Seal Beach: Offshore break at low tide reached 16-plus feet.
Huntington Beach: Relentless wave sets as big as 10 feet.
Newport Beach: 10- to 12-foot waves at “the Wedge”; bigger surf was recorded at adjacent beaches.
Dana Point: Waves broke over a sea wall at Dana Point Harbor.
Capistrano Shores: Homes were damaged as waves broke over a rock retaining wall, pounding houses.
Waves today could reach 13 to 18 feet. Beach-goers and surfers should use extreme caution along the shoreline. Only very experienced surfers, bodyboarders and bodysurfers should attempt to surf. It also is important to stay off rocks and jetties during this storm swell.
Sources: City of Huntington Beach, Surfline/Wavetrak and Times reports