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Shoring Up for Effects of El Nino

Weather: Officials across the county, fearing heavy rains and their side effects, are taking and urging precautions now to head off disaster.

September 14, 1997|FRED ALVAREZ | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Facing warnings of torrential rains that could trigger massive mudslides and monster floods, Ventura County officials say they have been working harder than usual to prepare for what is expected to be one of the wettest winters in decades.

As turbulent El Nino weather conditions bear down on Southern California, officials say they have been gearing up to bolster emergency services and prepare plans for assisting residents should fierce winter storms pummel the county as predicted.

"We've been through just about every kind of disaster you can imagine, so we are well-practiced for this winter," said Ventura County Supervisor Frank Schillo, noting that the board recently ordered various county departments to prepare reports outlining their wet-weather readiness.

"I think we're as ready as we can be," Schillo added. "But I think we all know this could be a different winter than we're used to."

Perhaps a precursor of things to come, county emergency officials were placed on heightened alert over the weekend as a powerful hurricane barreled toward Southern California.

Hurricane Linda was weakening off the Baja California coast Saturday, but meteorologists predicted it could still pack lashing rains if it hits the California coast, perhaps by midday Tuesday.

And forecasters predict this could be one of the worst winters on record, with rainfall expected to be as much as 300% above normal during the first three months of next year.

In Thousand Oaks, city leaders already have developed a game plan, installing a new radio system, cleaning all the city's storm drains and preparing to fill 1,000 sandbags.

In Ventura, workers are scrambling to complete a $500,000 repair job on the historic Ventura Pier, racing against time to shore up the storm-battered monument before the effects of El Nino arrive.

And in Oxnard, officials are stepping up efforts to clear out homeless encampments along the Santa Clara River before winter storms strike. Two years ago, storm-generated flood waters washed out a similar encampment along the Ventura River, killing a transient and prompting several rescues.

"With what they're predicting this winter, we're expecting a lot of flooding problems," said Fillmore construction worker Mark Smitley, leader of the county's swift water rescue team. "If we can get any message out, it's stay out of the rivers. Even if you're curious, stay away."

In preparation for the wet winter, about 200 volunteers from across the county trained Saturday with sheriff's deputies at Lake Piru.

Wearing wetsuits and helmets, the rescue team practiced in Piru Creek. Over and over, half the volunteers portrayed drowning victims while the others, who were attached to ropes, went out to save them.

Although the training session is an annual event, sheriff's officials said the teams are pushing harder than usual with an eye toward this winter's storms.

"We're talking, we're training, we're making sure we've got equipment and resources lined up," Sheriff's Capt. Keith Parks said. "We're hoping we won't have to put any of this into practice, but you always need to be prepared."

Ventura County has been battered by its share of storms, including a downpour two years ago that caused major flooding, with mud and debris closing the Ventura Freeway and causing millions of dollars in crop damage.

And during a 1992 deluge, flood waters surged down canyons and creek beds, killing three people and washing several motor homes out to sea.

Faria Beach resident Jack Cantrell remembers the frightening effects of El Nino-induced weather that swept into Ventura County in 1982 and pounded his colony of beachfront homes.

Not taking any chances this time around, Cantrell last week bought flood insurance in case this winter's storms are as bad as everyone is predicting.

"It was like a nightmare out here last time; it's something you'll never forget," said the 27-year Faria Beach resident. "With El Nino coming, it's worth the extra money to have the peace of mind."

El Nino--Spanish for "the child" because the phenomenon occurs near Christmas--is the name given to the interplay between warm currents in the Pacific Ocean off South America and changes in atmospheric temperature, wave patterns and rain levels along the West Coast.

Predicting weather patterns based on that phenomenon is tricky at best. But meteorologists say the odds are about 80% that an El Nino condition will stir an onslaught of wind, water and waves in California.

To be on the safe side, experts say that now is a good time to clear gutters, patch leaky roofs and plant shrubbery on bare slopes to guard against mudslides.

"We have had no appreciable rain in over six months, so it's easy for people to become complacent," said Bruce Rockwell, a meteorologist with the National Weather Service in Oxnard. "But it's better to be prepared."

Across the county, officials are doing a large-scale version of home maintenance to prepare for the wet winter.

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