El Nino storms that are battering the coast with record amounts of rain and pounding surf have littered almost every beach in Southern California with tons of debris and are washing away sand and creating rip currents that could make this one of the most dangerous swimming seasons in years.
"I've been lifeguarding for nearly 30 years," said San Clemente state lifeguard Mike Brousard, 47, "and this is the worst water danger I've seen."
Storms have sent mountains of debris down from rivers and streams. Two uprooted 60-foot eucalyptus trees made their way into the surf at Trestles, the famed surfing break in northern San Diego County. Car parts are scattered along the beach in Ventura. Kitchen appliances and rattlesnakes are washing up on Los Angeles County shores.
Worse, the season's huge waves have washed away beach sand, leaving bare rock in some places and holes just offshore where rip currents abound. Already, two swimmers have died in accidents.
In San Diego, Lifeguard Chief B. Chris Brewster summed up the potentially deadly combination of warm water and roiling rip currents: "There's no question in my mind that this spring, rescues will be among the highest in our history. No question."
Last year, there were 52,000 ocean rescues and 50 drownings in California, figures considered low, given there were 116 million beach visitors in 1997. Of the deaths, only eight occurred while lifeguards were on duty.
The two drownings so far this year have already shown the lethal impact of El Nino-powered surf and rip currents.
On Feb. 14, Christopher Fankhouser, a 27-year-old Utah college student, died after being trapped in an offshore hole while swimming at Calafia Beach County Park, the south Orange County beach that Brousard patrols. In mid-March, Paul Korber, a 46-year-old Ventura Harbor patrol officer, was killed while attempting to rescue three people caught in a rip current at Ventura's South Jetty Beach.
"We're looking at a hellish spring down here because of the inshore holes and the channelization that's going to cause the rip currents," said Los Angeles County Lifeguard Lt. Jon Moryl.
The strong swells of winter storms traditionally raise havoc along the coast by dredging the sand. But this year's storms have hit California with an unusual vengeance.
So much beach sand has been washed away that lifeguards have been unable to answer some emergency calls because they can't maneuver their rescue vehicles in the narrow space left between surf and sea walls. Adding to the peril, storm drains and pipes that empty into the ocean cause a scouring action that creates holes where swimmers can get caught in rips.
San Diego's Mission Beach, near an amusement area, is one stretch where limited access poses a problem for lifeguard vehicles.
"Essentially, we're forced to go up on a street with our lights and sirens, and for lifeguards, that's dangerous because we lose sight of the swimmer," Brewster said.
Ocean water temperatures that usually dip into the 50-degree range this time of year have instead been considerably warmer. Pleasant water temperature is expected to attract even more swimmers this summer.
"We really think we're going to get 70-degree water this spring," Brousard said, "and if we get some warm weather, we'll probably have lots of people going to the beach and it definitely is going to be a lot of trouble."
There has already been trouble.
Fankhouser, the Utah student, waded into the water and immediately got trapped in a hole gouged out by the storm-tossed surf.
"He was facing [toward] shore, and the two witnesses who saw him said he did make a call for help," San Clemente state lifeguard Steve Long said. "Those two friends attempted to wade out to help, but they were fully clothed. He was in deeper water, and [then] a wave washed over him. That's pretty much it. They couldn't see him after that."
The victim's body washed ashore a day later.
In Ventura, Korber dived from a Harbor Patrol boat to try and save a mother and her two children who were caught in a powerful rip current.
Korber "was apparently injured during the rescue," said Harbor Officer Merv Larson. "The lifeguards managed to grab the victims and take them to the boat safely and when they turned around he had disappeared under the water."
Bouncing along the San Clemente beach in his pickup, Brousard complained profusely about the El Nino year.
"The sand has gotten so soft here I've got to watch it because we've been getting stuck," he said, deftly gunning the truck over a rise. "We've got trees in the surf line, trash, and lobster cages everywhere. With this year's heavy rains and storms, each day you pull out here, it's another surprise."
In Los Angeles County, officials this season have built a long sand berm on parts of the coastline to help hold back the surf and safeguard property.
Preparations for spring break crowds include pulling lifeguard towers out from behind the protective berm and putting them in more prominent positions. But moving the towers closer to the surf could make them vulnerable to late-season storms.
"This year, it's going to be quite a balancing act," Moryl said. "We're going to pull some towers out from behind the berm but keep a real close eye on them. Because if another El Nino storm hits, we don't want to lose a $20,000 tower."
Los Angeles County tractors are hauling away the debris that storms have washed onto the beaches from rivers and streams, said Wayne Schumaker, chief of facilities and property maintenance for the county Department of Beaches and Harbors.
"We have crews working seven days a week, and we've found anything and everything on the beaches," Schumaker said. "We've found couches, a refrigerator, sinks, beams from houses that collapsed in Malibu, even rattlesnakes."
The snakes get washed out to sea and then float back on the tides.
"Our work crews see them when they pick up wood; [the snakes] usually hide under the wood. You hear the rattle," Schumaker said. "But we call Animal Control, and they come out and remove them." No workers have been bitten.
Since Dec. 1, Los Angeles County maintenance workers have collected more than 2,000 tons of debris from 31 miles of county beaches. When the season is over, officials expect more than 4,000 tons to have been removed, compared to an average year of 2,500 to 3,000 tons per year, Schumaker said.
Smaller beach cities have chosen to clean what they can. With small municipal budgets, beach cleanup can be difficult. Some coastal cities are waiting for El Nino to make its exit, which could be as early as next month, before ordering cleanup tractors on the beach.
For Brousard, dealing with a beach full of litter ranks low among his concerns. Brousard's face turned grim when he thought about Fankhouser's drowning. "That was the ugliest day of winter," he said.