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County in Race to Finish Flood Repair : Safety: Debris basins are being cleared while public agencies brace for winter.


Already clobbered by an early storm, Ventura County is racing to complete its mammoth repair job in the wake of this year's deadly floods before the full force of winter hits.

With 36 projects totaling more than $31 million, the county's Flood Control District is cleaning debris basins, clearing out flood-prone streams and restoring river banks.

Public safety agencies are also bracing for winter's onslaught.

Since the raging rivers and streams killed one man and trapped dozens last winter, both the sheriff's and fire departments have established specially trained, swift-water rescue teams.

And while fire stations across the county have stocked up on sandbags, the Sheriff's Department has upgraded communications systems at its emergency operations center and fine-tuned its disaster response plans.

Unless heavy rains douse the county in the next few weeks, county officials say they will be ready for winter's wet wrath.

"We still have some soft spots where we haven't completed our repairs," said Art Goulet, director of the county's Public Works Agency. "But if the weather holds, that is if the [latest storms] are the worst we get for now, we should not have any trouble."

Meteorologists are predicting a normal winter for a change, thanks to the absence of El Nino, the weather pattern that brought heavy rains in January and March.

"We will still have our share of storms I'm sure," said Rob Krohn of the National Weather Service in Oxnard. "But we will probably not have a situation where we get into one debilitating storm after another."

Some of the damage from last winter's storms--including a sewer pipe rupture in Thousand Oaks--was repaired immediately. Some projects--such as fixes to Ventura's Main Street bridge and California 150--won't be completed for several months. And some--such as the Ventura Pier--were repaired only to be damaged again in the first storm of the season.

As another winter approaches, county residents give local government mixed reviews for its help in cleanup and flood-control work after the January and March disasters.

Casitas Springs residents who live along San Antonio Creek applauded the county's decision in November to enlarge the silt-laden mountain stream, which flooded properties earlier this year.

"The county has worked well with us," said Darleen Hall, a 66-year-old Creek Road resident and one of about 30 homeowners in the area. "I would say [county officials] are on our side."

But environmentalists and some regulatory agencies have questioned the proposed $1.15-million project's impact on the waterway's ecosystem, which includes a steelhead trout population. Any delay might threaten the availability of a special federal emergency grant, jeopardizing the project and leaving residents fearful that strong rains could cause more flooding.

"If [the creek] is let go, it is going to wash out Creek Road and no one will be able to get out," Hall said.

The U. S. Army Corps of Engineers is expected to decide Monday whether the project needs additional environmental review.

Mark Capelli, executive director of Friends of the Ventura River, said county officials are moving too fast on the project just to meet a funding deadline. Concerned about possible damage to the environment, Capelli also argues that the project will be ineffective, because the sediment will soon return to the stream bed after the work is completed.

"The property owners will not get the level of protection they have been told they will get," Capelli said.

In La Conchita, where a 600,000-ton landslide crushed residences and filled streets with mud in March, residents believe the county has not done all it can to help them find a way to stabilize the collapsed hillside.

Since the disaster, county officials have sought more than $300,000 from the Federal Emergency Management Agency--so far without success--to conduct a study to determine how to shore up the sagging hill. A minor mudslide occurred north of the seaside community after a storm Wednesday, eroding residents' hopes that any work will begin before the storm season.

"[County officials] have washed their hand of us," said 57-year-old La Conchita resident George Caputo, whose three-story house was flattened by the March 4 slide. "The county does not know there is a La Conchita. They wish we would go away."

But county officials counter that they have done all they can for the residents by pressuring FEMA and pleading for help from officials and politicians from Washington to Sacramento.

"I think people in La Conchita are incredibly frustrated and I am incredibly frustrated as well," said Supervisor Maggie Kildee, whose district includes the community. "We keep trying to find out from FEMA what it is we need in order for the money to free up and we just keep getting a blank or a no but nothing that says a maybe or a yes."

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