Towering Waves Damage Homes, Flood Streets
Crushing surf riding a morning high tide pounded the Ventura County coastline Friday, damaging 11 homes, flooding streets and battering the Ventura Pier--but leaving county residents feeling they had dodged nature’s bullet, at least for now.
Officials said 15-foot tidal swells that splashed second-story windows are expected again this morning as a winter storm drops 1 to 2 inches of rain onto saturated county hillsides.
The rain could heighten the chance of flooding by Tuesday, when an even larger storm is expected to arrive.
“I would say we were threatened, then spared, by Mother Nature,” said county Fire Department spokeswoman Sandi Wells, as cleanup crews bulldozed a crumpled garage door from the front of two damaged houses at Faria Beach.
“Now we’re looking at the weekend,” she said, “not so much at the tidal surges, but preparing for possible flooding all over the county.”
It would be hard, however, to convince homeowners in the beach communities of Mussel Shoal, Faria, Solimar and County Line that Friday’s crashing surf was such a blessing.
They compared the thunderous morning surges--which cracked windows with flying ocean rocks, crumpled wooden decks, slammed into cars on Pacific Coast Highway, swamped a few living rooms, and tore a wall from one Faria house--with the huge waves from the winter of 1982-83.
At the Solimar Beach home of wine dealer Benton Lane, for instance, a wave so large it cleared a huge rock sea wall struck a sliding glass door hard enough to break the lock.
After three more huge waves rushed in, Lane and his wife, Marilyn, counted their losses, beginning with a soaked couch and love seats and a Tibetan rug worth $10,000.
“Helpless,” said Lane, summarizing the couple’s feelings.
Like many others who bore the brunt of the storm, the Lanes were philosophical about the risks of living in the oceanfront dream house they built 15 years ago.
“People say, ‘Would you leave?’ ” said Benton Lane, 63, after getting off the phone with his insurance company. “No. It’s just too beautiful here.”
His wife, her sweatshirt caked with mud, was almost cheerful as she mopped.
“In an hour or two, the ocean will be calm and beautiful,” she said. “You’ll never know what happened, except for a little wetness.”
Although damage from Friday morning’s waves was not substantial, the mammoth breakers did knock four pilings off the newly reinforced Ventura Pier and prompted closure of several roads.
A five-mile stretch of Pacific Coast Highway between Ventura and Mussel Shoal was closed from 9 a.m. to 11 p.m. The roadway was so littered with rocks, boulders and shards of wood that it was a virtual obstacle course until county bulldozer crews were able to clear the road.
Streets were also closed in Ventura’s Pierpont area and Oxnard Shores, where street flooding left some residents frolicking down thoroughfares in rafts.
The communities of the Rincon coast took the worst beating, many homes catching the 10-foot waves directly as they rolled in atop a 6-foot high tide that peaked about 10:30 a.m.
In Mussel Shoal, large windows facing the ocean were broken in three houses and an unoccupied duplex was flooded.
In Solimar, the Lanes’ house was swamped, and the decks and outside furniture at a neighboring house were damaged.
Two houses on the southern end of Faria Beach took the worst pounding. The homes were the only residences along a 20-house stretch of west-facing beach not protected by a tall, thick concrete sea wall.
Both homes--each worth at least $550,000, according to county records--are owned by family trusts. The back wall of one collapsed and ocean water was still rushing through the house and out the front door, with the waves striking 45 minutes after high tide.
At least one of the houses was occupied.
An unidentified couple living on the second floor of a stilted house at 3386 Pacific Coast Highway fled to a Ventura motel after waves tore through the structure’s first-floor garage, leaving a white garage door crumbled at roadside.
“The wife was quite upset, so the husband made some arrangements at a hotel,” Fire Capt. Kenny Bigger said.
“I haven’t seen it like this here since the early ‘70s,” Fire Department spokeswoman Wells said. “It’s like a washing machine churning.”
Just down the street from the damaged Faria homes, the Thomas family marveled at the unsettling spectacle that was their Friday morning.
“We’ve seen it come over the sea wall and slam against the patio doors, but we have never seen it this wild,” said Ron Thomas, who owns the Inn on the Beach in Ventura.
His wife, Judy, said she stood staring through her home’s floor-to-ceiling windows, transfixed by the size of the waves.
“Then all of the sudden these big waves just smacked into these windows and the windows upstairs, about 20 feet up,” she said. “I started moving things, taking things down. I thought with all that shaking--like an earthquake--they would all be broken.”
On their back deck, the Thomases pointed to the damage at neighboring houses--two crumpled wooden decks, a broken ladder to the beach, a ruined spa. And six houses away--the two homes with the most damage.
“Those people didn’t want the sea wall,” Ron Thomas said. “The price for all of us was about $35,000 to $40,000. And we paid it.”
In Ventura, the city’s historic pier will remain closed through the weekend after 18- to 20-foot swells crashed upon the pier surface and uprooted four 70-foot pilings from the sea floor.
Fire officials cleared fishermen and others from the 126-year-old wooden structure with the first reports of damage about 8 a.m.
“It’s amazing just how huge the surf is and what it does,” said Kent Elder of Ojai, one of more than 200 spectators who stared in awe along the pier promenade. “Just look at the pier.”
For the pier, Friday’s minimal damage was just another notch on the wooden landmark’s storied past, which has included at least two fires, a steamship crashing through its center and millions of dollars in wave damage in recent storms.
More recently, in 1995, similar western swells lopped 425 feet off the end of the pier--a storm that prompted city officials to commission a $600,000 piling replacement and steel-bracing job to shore up the vulnerable structure.
The work was completed in December. Without it, officials said, the estimated $20,000 in damage would have been far worse.
“The pier has been upgraded to the point where it can take the beating that it’s taking,” Ventura Mayor Jim Friedman said.
Two of the uprooted pilings washed ashore. The other two remained lost into the early afternoon.
The high surf also damaged four townhouses at Whaler’s Village, a small beach enclave on Pacific Coast Highway near the Los Angeles County line. Ventura County firefighters assessed the damage to the homes, and helped residents line their decks with sandbags.
“These units are taking some big hits from the surf,” Capt. Mark Karr said. “The storm doors collapsed in four of them--you don’t want to be inside when that happens.”
Unfortunately, Sally Spalatin was home Wednesday and Friday when a wall of water crashed through her living room windows.
“I was sitting at a table in front of the window on Wednesday, writing a letter home about how big the surf was getting, and a wave shattered all the glass and threw me up against the back wall,” she said. “I got up and there was blood and glass everywhere.”
Bruised and bleeding, Spalatin tried to call 911, but her phone was dead. Neighbors helped her clear the damage and clean the mess. On Friday morning another wave exploded on her deck and ripped the storm door off its moorings. Spalatin, who wasn’t injured in the second incident, spent the morning on the telephone with her insurance company.
Neighbors gathered in walkways that shook as waves struck. Retreating waves sucked at the pilings beneath the houses.
“It’s like living in a bomb shelter,” said Mimi Winters, a two-year resident of the complex. “When you’re inside with the storm door rolled down, it’s dark, and you’re all just huddled in there, listening to the waves. That’s the price of living at the beach, I guess.”
Times correspondents Veronique de Turenne, Richard Warchol, Nick Green and Dawn Hobbs contributed to this story.
* AWESOME SHOW
Furious storm puts on a show for coastal dwellers. B1