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Season's First Big Storm Blows Into Southland : Weather: Showers were less severe in Orange County, where cities reported up to two-thirds of an inch of rain.

December 29, 1991|STEPHANIE CHAVEZ and MARK A. STEIN | TIMES STAFF WRITERS

Some took to the mountains, braving the miserable prospect of wrestling with tire chains. Others headed to the beach for a chance to surf waves reaching eight feet in Santa Monica Bay, despite warnings of high bacteria levels from storm-drain runoff.

And then there were all those motorists on Saturday, banging into each other on the freeways, creating traffic nightmares throughout the Los Angeles Basin.

In short, weather ruled the day as a series of frosty northern storms marked the season's first big rain, bringing with it cheers and jeers.

In Orange County, the storm struck less severely than in other parts of the state, with most cities reporting one-half to two-thirds of an inch of rain Saturday and winds reaching 12 m.p.h.

By late Saturday, the National Weather Service said 1.06 inches of rain had fallen on the Los Angeles Civic Center. Santa Barbara was pelted with 2.80 inches and Woodland Hills with 2.02. Long Beach received 0.94 of an inch while Newport Beach got only 0.47.

A second storm is expected to hit Los Angeles early today, carrying with it just as much rain, if not more.

And a third is waiting in the wings, which could make a lot of folks in Pasadena unhappy because it is supposed to arrive on New Year's Eve or early New Year's Day--just in time for the Rose Parade.

Rain or shine, officials vowed, the parade will go on.

In the local mountains--high above the flooding, mudslides and power failures--ski-area operators were positively giddy. Because of the state's enduring drought, it had been ages since so much snow--roughly a foot--had fallen during what is traditionally the resorts' busiest week. The operators were glad to be making money, and the skiers didn't seem to mind spending it.

"Hey, I can't ski on rain, so I left it behind and came to the snow," said Bob Miller of Bellflower while zipping his parka in the parking lot of Mountain High, a ski area in nestled 7,000 feet in the San Gabriel Mountains.

"There are hits everywhere," gushed snowboarder Micah Stepanian of Wrightwood. "Hits are jumps. You can jump off things."

"It's like another world up here. It's such a getaway," added Lynn Cullough of Palmdale, who said that earlier in the week she was in a frenzy, selling jewelry to last-minute shoppers at a J.C. Penny. "Now I feel like going home to a Christmas tree and turkey."

Skiers were not the only ones taking advantage of the storm. Los Angeles County lifeguards said surfers were shredding excellent storm-churned waves, despite county health department warnings that the rains were pushing bacteria-tainted runoff out of storm drains and polluting coastal waters.

Lt. Mickey Gallagher said Saturday's storm-stoked surfers "just shined us on" when they were warned that they should stay on the sand because of the pollution potential in Santa Monica Bay.

"Most of them are aware of it and they'll take their chances," Gallagher said. "They want to get the ultimate wave."

Tracy Van, manager of The Sand Castle restaurant, which sits practically on the beach in Malibu, said people were dropping in all day to savor a drink and the view. "It was fantastic--all the waves crashing in. . . . It's beautiful, as long as you're not outside."

On the roadways and freeways, there was no getting away from the inevitable crashes and tragedies.

Six cars and three trucks--two of them loaded with highly flammable cargoes--piled up in a crash Friday night on the Long Beach Freeway in Compton.

Intermittent rain also caused a flurry of fender-benders around Los Angeles County, including six minor accidents involving 12 cars on the Ventura Freeway in Calabasas.

"We've had more accidents, a tremendous amount more than normal," CHP Officer Steve Munday said. "I ran a log last night . . . and we had 44 accidents just in one hour. I'm sure we had at least a couple hundred over the night. We were running about 40 an hour over the first couple of hours."

Still, authorities blamed most accidents on poor driving, not extreme weather.

"The rain was the original cause (of the Ventura Freeway accidents), but, as usual, people were going too fast," said Capt. Doug Silgen of the Los Angeles County Fire Department. "Somebody skidded into one car, which slammed into another, and then somebody hit the center divider. Then a couple of looky-loos spun out down the road."

Said Sgt. Martin Dailey of the Los Angeles County Sheriff's Department: "It doesn't rain in California, so people are just inexperienced at driving in inclement weather, and whenever we have a good rain it seems to bring out the worst."

Throughout the area, roads were a wet, muddy mess. For a time, authorities were forced to close westbound traffic on Pacific Coast Highway between Malibu Canyon and Kanan Dume roads because of mudslides and flooding.

Rain also flooded several streets and some lanes of the Harbor Freeway in South-Central Los Angeles, with water levels high enough in one spot to float a car off its wheels.

Tow trucks raced to accidents, with no time for rest. "They've had a pretty heavy day today," sighed Leilani Talanoa, who was answering the phone at B & H Tow in Inglewood.

In Ventura County, California 33, a state highway leading to popular campgrounds in the Los Padres National Forest, was closed by snow above Wheeler Grove, the CHP reported.

In addition to road floodings and bad driving, there also were power failures throughout the region.

"Some outages lasted for a few minutes, others for a few hours," said Lucia Alvelais of the Los Angeles Department of Water and Power. "Some hit two houses, others hit 800 customers."

Times staff writers Eric Lichtblau and Josh Meyer contributed to this report.

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