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Tornado-Like Winds, Rain Lash Southland

March 17, 1986|TED THACKREY JR. and JOSH GETLIN | Times Staff Writers

Tornado-like winds ripped up parts of Anaheim, torrential rains triggered mud slides in several places, and a 9-year-old boy was swept away in the swift current of the Los Angeles River on Sunday as a powerful and fast-moving storm rumbled through Southern California.

The National Weather Service predicted more rain and wind overnight, but said things should be clearing by this afternoon--with still another storm possible before the end of the week.

Meteorologists declined to call the Anaheim windstorm a tornado.

"Tornadoes are most unusual in this part of the world," a Weather Service official said. "We will investigate the event in Orange County and try to determine whether it was a tornado or not--but at this time we cannot confirm such a phenomenon."

Nonetheless, tornado watches were officially in effect throughout the day for San Diego, Los Angeles, Orange, Ventura, Santa Barbara and three other Southern California counties Sunday.

In San Diego County, thunderstorms accompanied by gusty winds caused sporadic flooding and hazardous driving conditions throughout the area, while heavy snows were recorded in the mountains and a small-craft warning remained in effect amid heavy surf at beaches. Despite the severe weather, officials said damage was limited in San Diego and only one serious traffic accident was reported.

Most residents of Anaheim seemed to agree on what kind of wind hit their town just before dawn.

'We're Calling It a Tornado'

"For want of a better term, we're calling it a tornado," Anaheim Public Information Officer Sheri Erlewine said.

The incident began at 5:30 a.m., when residents in East Street apartments heard loud, rapid explosions and felt heavy winds rattling their windows. Some phoned in fire reports when they saw sparks flying from power lines and bright lights in the sky.

At that moment, officials said, heavy winds bore down on a four-block area of Rose Street between Santa Ana and East streets. The storm smashed in the metal doors of several factories, shattered windows and ripped out chunks of at least eight roofs.

Neighbors awakened by the storm looked out their windows and saw chunks of Styrofoam flying through the air. Erlewine explained that the materials had blown out of containers at the Hitachi packing plant several streets away and blanketed the neighborhood for miles.

Elsewhere, powerful winds snapped an East Street "No Parking" sign in two and hurled it into the street. An apartment door was torn from its frame and blown onto a front lawn 100 feet away. Two large trucks in the Hitachi plant flipped over on their sides.

No major injuries were reported, but city officials estimated that damage could total at least $500,000.

A few hours later, however, authorities said the storm may have claimed its first life.

Police, firefighters and lifeguards were searching for a 9-year-old Compton boy, who was swept into the swift waters of the Los Angeles River.

"He was sitting in an inner tube, and just went sliding down the sloping side of the flood control channel," Long Beach Police Lt. Norman Benson said. "We're hoping maybe he got to the side and got up, but the longer we don't find anything, the worse it looks."

The inner tube was found a mile downstream, but there was no sign of the boy, who was not immediately identified.

Two men and a woman were arrested on suspicion of trespassing later in the day after they made a successful two-mile voyage in Coyote Creek. Lakewood sheriff's deputies and La Palma police arrested the trio as they pulled their inflatable raft from the water at Cerritos Regional Park. Deputies said the rafters said they made the trip as "practice" for a wilderness rafting trip later this year.

Heavy rainfall caused a new slide of mud and rocks onto northbound lanes of Pacific Coast Highway, forcing the California Highway Patrol to close the road between Topanga Boulevard and Las Flores Canyon Road.

In San Diego, officials reported sporadic flooding at flood-prone areas such as Mission Valley and the low-lying streets near the international border.

Area police reported numerous weather-related traffic mishaps, but only one was reported to be serious.

In that incident, a San Diego police officer who was issuing a traffic citation on Mission Boulevard was injured late Saturday when an ambulance veered out of control in heavy rain and struck the officer, pinning him between two cars.

Officer Mike Prutzman, 35, was listed in stable condition Sunday at Scripps Memorial Hospital in La Jolla, a hospital spokeswoman said. His most serious injury was a fractured pelvis, the spokeswoman said.

Meanwhile, police required motorists to have chains on their tires to drive on some snow-covered mountain roads. Heavy snow was falling at elevations above 4,000 feet, and scores of San Diegans were reported to be driving to the mountains to have a look at the snowstorm. More than a foot of snow was expected in high elevations.

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