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Authorities Begin to Tally Toll of Storm : Weather: In La Conchita, officials withdraw most personnel. Major roads reopen. Crop losses are reported heavy.

March 13, 1995|JEFF McDONALD | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

As floodwaters receded and closed roads reopened, authorities on Sunday surveyed wreckage left by the weekend storm that pounded Ventura County--a downpour that seriously damaged crops and further swamped debris-strewn beaches.

In La Conchita, where a precarious hillside has already smothered nine homes and severely damaged four others, sheriff's and fire departments' officials on Sunday withdrew a majority of their personnel.

A large contingent of emergency workers had kept watch over the tiny seaside village for more than a week, but officials said the immediate threat no longer lurked.

"The imminent danger of the mud flow is gone," said Senior Deputy Chuck Buttell of the Sheriff's Department, which led a crew of more than 100 workers, including volunteers. "The threat of the mud coming down continues, but the flows that have happened . . . we've gotten a pretty good handle on that."

Elsewhere, motorists stranded more than 24 hours were allowed on their way early Sunday as the Ventura Freeway opened for the first time since the storm arrived Friday night.

Also, for the second time in as many months, exasperated farmers spent the day inspecting crop damage inflicted by heavy rains.

At Conroy Farms, which grows strawberries on about 200 acres at three fields in western Ventura County, workers scrambled to harvest as many undamaged berries as they could find.

Farm officials were unable to provide precise estimates of crop damage but said it could surpass the $27 million in losses sustained from January's devastating floods.

"The biggest losses are going to be in the berries and vegetable crops," said Rex Laird, executive director of the Ventura County Farm Bureau. "You get silt down in the stocks of celery, and you can't get it washed. That makes it unmarketable."

Grower Mike Conroy said that he might lose as much as 60% of his strawberry crop.

"Two weeks ago, I would have said if we had no further rains, the ranches all looked good and had the potential for a strong year," he said. "But our production has not been there because of the rain."

Forecasters are not expecting any more rain this week. "It's all clear on the southern front," meteorologist Curtis Brach said. "We're really not expecting any more rain in the foreseeable future."

While strawberries and other row crops appeared to suffer the worst, heavy precipitation also damaged orchards and tree crops throughout Ventura County.

Carolyn Leavens, whose family farms about 900 acres of lemons, avocados and other crops in the county, said runoff water damaged some of her fruit trees.

"The little creek that went along the orchard suddenly goes through the orchard," she said. "I don't think there's anybody who hasn't had some damage."

During the 48-hour period ending at 3 p.m. Sunday, nearly six inches of rain fell in the Upper Ojai, where a series of mudslides and floods closed California 33 north of Wheeler Hot Springs and other roadways.

The storm dumped another four inches of rain in Ojai, and more than three inches at the Ventura County Government Center, flood control officials said. Camarillo reported a little more than three inches in the same two-day period, and Thousand Oaks received 2.56 inches.

Laird said the ground is so saturated that some drainage ditches were overtopping their banks, creating more problems.

"It doesn't take much," he said.

At La Conchita, residents continued to fear a massive landslide that officials estimate could be twice as severe as the one that occurred March 4. Geologists have likened the bluff to a tripod that has lost one of its legs.

Most of the homes nestled against the leaky hillside already have been evacuated, but others are still occupied.

Despite Sunday's withdrawal of scores of emergency workers, crews will continue to monitor the mountain around the clock for the next two or three months.

Workers on Sunday installed a chain-link fence along a half-mile stretch of the highway fronting the beachside community to keep out looters and other unwanted visitors.

"We need to maintain a presence in order to provide security for this community," Senior Deputy Patti Dreyer said. "There are still a lot of vacant homes here."

A portion of the Ventura Freeway, closed late Friday because of thick mudslides and flooding, was reopened about 9:50 a.m. Sunday, allowing motorists stranded more than 24 hours to get on their way.

David Chapman, Caltrans area superintendent, said Sunday that most Ventura County roads had been reopened to traffic, except California 33 north of Wheeler Hot Springs and California 150 between Meiners Oaks and Carpinteria.

"We scraped them all off with graters and plow trucks, then hosed down the roads as best we could," Chapman said. "But there was a lot of water."

Tons of mud, rocks and wood were washed ashore this weekend along the county's beaches, where huge piles of driftwood and other debris collected during the January rainstorm.

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