Storm Is Just a Prelude for L.A.

Times Staff Writers

A powerful storm battered Northern California with torrential rains and widespread flooding Saturday, and a second strong front was in line to push through the state and soak its southern regions today.

The latest storm was expected to linger through Tuesday, with the heaviest rains tonight and into Monday morning, virtually assuring the first wet Rose Parade in 51 years. Skies are expected to clear in time for Wednesday's Rose Bowl game.

On Saturday, emergency crews waded through waist-deep water and dropped into flooded areas from helicopters to rescue several stranded residents in submerged vehicles and homes in Northern California. Few injuries and no deaths were reported, but some residents in hard-hit areas said they experienced extensive property damage.

Widespread flooding stretched as far east as Reno but was most serious along Northern California's Russian and Napa rivers. There, rising waters flooded homes and businesses and triggered evacuation of hundreds of residents.

In Napa, furniture store owner Pieter Kloos said he lost much of his inventory of fabric, futons, tables and chairs from two warehouses after water rose 5 to 6 feet in the area.

"Downtown is like a war zone," Kloos said. "It's a big blow -- one of the most stressful things a person can experience."

In Sonoma County, a Sheriff's Department helicopter rescue team lifted six people to safety in a harrowing 90-minute stretch Saturday morning. Among those rescued was a man with hypothermia stranded on a bridge in Geyserville and three elderly people who were plucked from flooded homes in Schellville and airlifted to safety.

Sonoma County Sheriff's Lt. Roger Rude, who supervises the helicopter rescue unit, said the storm "just hosed us." His team rushed to lift people to safety, "doing [pickups] and then reconfiguring for the next one. It was one, to the other, to the other."

The National Weather Service said today's storm could cause "significant and widespread" flash flooding tonight in areas burned last year by wildfires in Los Angeles, Santa Barbara and Ventura counties.

"We had the fires two years ago in the Lake Arrowhead and Ventura County areas, and those are the places we are really going to keep an eye on as this heavy moisture moves in," said National Weather Service meteorologist Kathy Hoxsie. "Even Burbank, which had mudslides earlier this year, is going to be an area of concern."

Hoxsie said a low-pressure system from Alaska and a warm moisture plume from Hawaii converged over California to produce the first storm's ferocious rainfall over the northern regions. As the moisture plume moves down the state, Southern California will bear the brunt of the second storm, she said.

By Saturday, the storm had dumped between 3 and 5 inches of rain throughout the state in a 24-hour period, setting daily records in some areas of Northern California, she said.

Along the Russian River, which cuts through Sonoma and Mendocino counties, residents scrambled to prepare for the worst.

In Monte Rio in Sonoma County, Faye Massie, 63, cleared out the lower floor of her home, where she operates a small antique business. Lugging her vintage sewing machine and other collectibles upstairs, she said she would stay through the night to deter looters.

At the Rio Theater across the street, owners Don and Suzi Schaffert showed "Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire" on Friday night. By midday Saturday, the power was out in their stretch of town. Volunteers streamed in to help the couple unbolt their 243 theater seats and lug them up to the balcony.

"Everything below the counter has to come out," Don Schaffert said. "The mud is highly toxic, full of septic waste and lead."

In Guerneville, farther east in Sonoma County, basements were flooded near the Russian River. Residents in trailer parks evacuated to higher land. Closer to the river's mouth, giant logs, fragments of decking that had broken loose from homes, riderless kayaks and other debris surged with the current. Ranchers moved their cattle to higher ground.

Several of the region's vineyards along the river were close to flooding by mid-Saturday. But officials said they did not expect widespread losses because most growers had already harvested their grapes.

Officials were strongly encouraging residents throughout Sonoma County to leave their homes, but they stopped short of calling for a mandatory evacuation.

More than 30 miles southeast, the Napa River continued to rise. Napa County officials ordered the evacuation of approximately 350 residents of Edgerly Island, about eight miles south of the city of Napa, and of 230 people in St. Helena. The county opened a shelter in Napa High School gymnasium, said Lynn Perez, a county spokeswoman.

Volunteers flocked to the river area to help shore up protection for both mansions and fishing shacks perched above the river.

"Water was going over the top of our pier, which is usually 5 feet above the water. Our sailboat is high up in the air above our house," said Terry Abblett, a volunteer. "A neighbor had two boats tied side by side, and the current ripped the pilings out of the mud. The pier and the boats broke off. Earlier I saw a refrigerator float by."

Marin County, just north of San Francisco, also reported serious flooding and mudslides that damaged a few homes. County officials deployed 100 emergency workers for rescue, evacuation and cleanup operations.

San Anselmo, a small town near the center of Marin County, was particularly hard hit, as 4 1/2 feet of water surged into the downtown area, flooding as many as 70 businesses. The Police Department moved its dispatch system to another location, and one of the town's two fire stations was inundated with water and shut down.

At least two people rescued from rising water were hospitalized with hypothermia, according to Debbie Stutsman, town manager.

"In several low-lying areas, cars were swept away and crashed into one another. We have some serious cleanup to take care of," she said. "The downtown is bustling with people cleaning up."

Evacuation centers were also established in Petaluma and Sebastopol in Sonoma County.

Farther east, the Truckee River swamped the basements of an undetermined number of buildings in Reno -- including the Washoe County courthouse annex and Masonic Lodge -- after cresting there early Saturday afternoon at roughly 13.6 feet, 2.6 feet above flood stage. While Reno casinos remained open Saturday, all four downtown bridges across the Truckee were closed.

The river also flooded an undetermined number of businesses downstream in the Sparks, Nev., industrial area. Some of the area's 900 properties reported up to 4 feet of floodwater. The crest was close to levels achieved during a New Year's Day 1997 flood that caused $1 billion in damage to northern Nevada.

A mudslide shut down a portion of Interstate 80 near the California border, about 25 miles west of Reno.

Officials said the major corridor would be closed for at least two days and cost about $5 million to clean up, California Department of Transportation spokesman Mark Dinger told the Associated Press.

Throughout California, the storm closed roads and highways. The California Highway Patrol reported dozens of road closures and detours throughout the Greater Bay Area, including the westbound lanes of Interstate 80 near Fairfield, about 45 miles northeast of San Francisco.

The coastal route, California 1, was also closed by mudslides or flooding in several places near the border between Marin and Sonoma counties and north of Jenner in Sonoma County.

In the Los Angeles area, officials intermittently closed the on- and offramps to the eastbound 105 Freeway from Sepulveda Boulevard in Hawthorne and connectors between Pacific Coast Highway and the eastbound 10 Freeway in Santa Monica. The number of traffic accidents more than tripled Saturday, compared to the same day last week, according to CHP Officer Vince Ramirez.

Heavy rains and wind caused flight delays at San Francisco and Los Angeles International airports.

More than 600,000 Pacific Gas and Electric Co. customers from Bakersfield to the Oregon border experienced power outages during the storm, said company spokeswoman Claudia Mendoza.

About 171,000 remained without power Saturday night, mostly in Humboldt, Alameda, Sonoma and Napa counties, she said.

In Southern California, Los Angeles firefighters rescued a man Saturday as he clung to vegetation in the rain-swollen Los Angeles River.

More than 100 personnel, including a helicopter crew and three swift-water rescue teams, were sent to the area just south of Los Feliz Boulevard. The man, who is about 60, was believed to be transient living around the flood-control channel.

Otherwise, officials were reporting only minor problems.

In Playa del Rey and Venice, where public works crews had built sand berms to protect low-lying neighborhoods, water still seeped into homes and restaurants.

But a flooded wine cellar and rear dining room could not deter customers from New Year's Eve dinner at Chloe restaurant in Playa del Rey. Even as crews were sopping up the floodwaters, owner Tedde Shaffer greeted arriving guests Saturday evening.

"It's not going to stop us," she said, adding that they would turn up the heater to prevent mildew.

In Pasadena, Tournament of Roses officials said business would go on as usual, rain or shine. They said it has rained nine times on the 116-year-old event, the last time in 1955.

"The reality of the situation is we prefer sunshine, but sometimes things are different," said Bill Flinn, chief operating officer for the Tournament of Roses. "We've been living pretty good the last 50 years. But even in the past when it rained, the parades still went on."

Although some float builders worried that the water-based glue they used would run and weaken once soaked by rain, many volunteers seemed upbeat.

Inside the Rosemont Pavilion, a cavernous warehouse the size of a jumbo jet hangar next to the Rose Bowl, more than 100 workers went about the painstaking task of gluing thousands of roses, carnations, orchids and daisies.

As the rain fell on the roof and dripped through cracks in the wall, Michelle Gendreau yelled to her crew, "We're floating."

Gendreau has worked for one of the event's leading float builders, Phoenix, for 25 years and said the sour weather could not dampen her excitement.

"This is nothing," she said about the rain. "I expect it to be a lot worse" Monday.

"Until it rains on the parade, we're keeping our hopes up," said Jim Jennings, a Phoenix builder for 15 years.

Over at Pasadena City College, rain soaked the marching bands that performed for spectators at the school's football stadium. Among the performers were Josh Morrow, 18, and fellow tuba player Carlos Camacho, 17. Soaked and cold, Morrow was still enthusiastic about the parade he spent months preparing for.

"We'll still do it rain or shine," he said.

Times staff writers Jai-Ri Chong, Daniel Hernandez, David Pierson, Stewart Pfeifer, Rone Tempest and Teresa Watanabe contributed to this report, along with the Associated Press.

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