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Huge Waves Cause Wide Destruction : Scores Flee as 25-Foot Breakers Batter Coastline

January 19, 1988|ERIC MALNIC | Times Staff Writer

Massive waves from a powerful winter storm continued to batter the Southern California coast Monday, destroying part of a historic pier, damaging exclusive homes, restaurants and a hotel and forcing scores of beachfront residents and visitors to flee for their lives.

Breakers up to 25 feet high, riding the crest of a tide that peaked near 7 feet at 7:52 a.m., slammed into beaches along a 135-mile stretch from Santa Barbara County south to San Diego County that had already been hammered by a nightlong siege of heavy surf.

It was still too early for any official damage estimates, but unofficial tallies put the total figure at more than $25 million.

Gale-Force Winds

The onslaughts from the ocean were the final blows from a winter storm that had swept into Southern California on gale-force winds before dawn Sunday, killing three people who apparently were asphyxiated in their snow-buried car in the Angeles National Forest and four others in a plane that crashed into a hillside in Newhall during a driving downpour.

Temperatures in downtown Los Angeles dipped to 50 degrees Monday morning as the storm pushed east, leaving behind a clear, bright, sunny day. Meanwhile, police said an unidentified transient apparently succumbed to the cold in a Skid Row alcove--the eighth death attributed to the inclement weather.

The storm dumped heavy snow in the mountains, blocking most roads above 4,000 feet, including Interstate 5, the main artery to the north, which remained closed until Monday afternoon, when Caltrans workers finished clearing away wind-swept drifts.

Los Angeles and Orange counties were pelted with up to 2.84 inches of rain that flooded inland intersections and triggered mudslides as the heavy surf pounded the coastline. Meanwhile, residents in coastal communities braced for another onslaught of high tides expected today.

'Ocean Just Broke Through'

Joanne Stathoulis and her husband, Pakis, were among the guests at the oceanfront Reuben's restaurant in Redondo Beach on Sunday night when the waves began breaking against the building.

"Everyone was cheering and clapping as the waves got higher," she recalled this morning. "Suddenly, there was a noise like an explosion and the ocean just broke through. . . .

"My husband was thrown to the floor and people were thrown on top of him," she said. "No one was cheering then. People just panicked. . . . People were pushing, just rushing around and getting into their cars and trying to get out of there."

Stathoulis said she could see across to the nearby Portofino Inn, where pounding breakers ripped out six guest rooms, collapsed part of the roof and inundated the first floor of the hotel-restaurant complex.

"It looks like somebody used a big, dull knife to cut off the southernmost end," said Lt. Jeff Cameron of the Redondo Beach Police Department.

About 50 guests were plucked to safety, five at a time, by a radio news helicopter.

"Usually, people are apprehensive about getting into a helicopter," the pilot, Bob Tur, said Monday. "But these people . . . they were just happy to get out of there."

City Manager Tim Casey declared a local state of emergency at 4:55 a.m. and later, along with other city officials, estimated damage at $15 million to public property alone. About 25 businesses were damaged as well, he said.

Two Redondo Beach police officers were swept into the water but received only minor injuries. Frank Hubel, an Army Corps of Engineers official, was not so lucky--he suffered a broken leg when hit by a log hurled by the surf.

Boats, Cars Damaged

Seventeen cars--five of them police vehicles--were damaged by the waves in Redondo Beach. Pilings were torn from the Redondo Beach Pier. A 65-foot fishing boat, the City of Redondo, and 11 other craft were ripped from their moorings and smashed to pieces in the surf.

"Debris was coming at us like boxcars," said Redondo Beach Fire Department Capt. Allen Allred, who helped evacuate some of the hardest-hit buildings. "The storm was the worst I've seen. Just shows you Mother Nature is still in control."

In the Orange County city of Huntington Beach, another 200 feet of the city pier collapsed before dawn Monday, joining the 50 feet at the tip--and a two-story restaurant--that had tumbled into the waves about 8 p.m. Sunday.

The End Cafe normally stays open until about midnight, but City Administrator Paul Cook said the owner, John Gustafson, decided to close up early when the pier, built in the 1930s, began to tremble.

Cafe Washed Away

The cafe "is someplace in Newport Beach by now," said Lt. Jack Reinholz of the Huntington Beach Police Department. Parts of the pier drifted even farther south than that. "We had 8-by-8s coming through here like bullets," said Laguna Beach Police Department Sgt. Don Barney. Sections of the same pier--and part of Gustafson's restaurant--were washed away in 1983 when a similar storm pounded the Southland.

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