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Drivers' Nightmare : U.S. 101 Closed at Ventura-Santa Barbara County Line by Mudslide, Water From Broken Pipe


LA CONCHITA, Calif. — A river of mud cascaded down a hillside just a few hundred yards north of La Conchita early Monday, cutting off U.S. 101 and causing a traffic nightmare for commuters between Santa Barbara and Ventura counties.

The slide severed a 14-inch steel pipeline about 4:30 a.m., sending more than 2 1/2 million gallons of drinking water down the hillside while workers spent two hours stopping the flow.

The slide, which started in a steep canyon about a quarter of a mile from the highway, unleashed a foot-high wave of mud that oozed through the Pacific Offshore Petroleum refinery, over the railroad tracks and across the road just as commuters were on their way to work.

A few got through before California Highway Patrol officers could close the road; some just barely got through.

Unable to see the mud in the darkness and fog, Jorge Avalos, 28, drove his car--carrying his wife, 2-year-old daughter and young cousin--into the mess.

"I saw some cars ahead of me slowing down, but I didn't see why," Avalos said. "When I did, I hit the brakes."

The car hydroplaned through the mud, nearly spinning out before it smashed into a concrete wall between the road and the beach 20 feet below.

The family made it through unscathed but shaken.

Avalos was on the way to Los Angeles International Airport from his home in Santa Maria to send his vacationing cousin back to Mexico.

"We're not going anywhere now," he said, looking at his mud-encrusted and badly damaged car.

Apart from damage to Avalos' car, the slide spared property in the area, which is still reeling from a slide that crushed nine homes in March.

Crews from Caltrans worked most of the morning to clear the loose mud and open the four lanes of highway.

The CHP tried to divert traffic as far north as Paso Robles and as far south as Los Angeles. An easy alternative route would have been California 150, which runs from Carpinteria to near Ojai--but it remains closed because of heavy winter rains and landslides.

Some adventurous motorists tried to negotiate the roadblocks on the California 150, but most waited it out. U.S. 101 was cleared for southbound traffic about 11 a.m. and northbound lanes were cleared for traffic by about 2 p.m.

Meanwhile, geologists are trying to determine whether the slide severed the water pipeline or the severed pipeline caused the mudslide.

Dick Barnett, an official with the Casitas Municipal Water District, which owns the pipeline, said all indications were that a slide knocked out the water line.

It could take more than two days to repair the water main, leaving about 600 households in the beach communities between the city of Ventura and the Santa Barbara County line without water. Trucks will dispense drinking water at Solimar, Faria Beach, Seacliff, Mussel Shoals and La Conchita while repairs on the pipeline are completed.

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