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Nora Sweeps By, Bringing Rain and Floods

Weather: Storm-fueled waves swamp homes in Seal Beach. Elsewhere, damage is minimal.

September 26, 1997|ERIC MALNIC and TONY PERRY | TIMES STAFF WRITERS

Still-powerful remnants of former Hurricane Nora invaded Southern California from Mexico on Thursday, triggering floods, knocking out electrical power, snarling traffic and generating tide-boosted waves that swamped several homes in Seal Beach.

Nora, downgraded to a tropical storm as it moved inland, still packed quite a punch, dumping as much as two inches of rain in the low-lying Imperial Valley and up to four inches in the mountains of San Diego, Riverside and San Bernardino counties.

Rainfall was generally lighter, but still substantial, in Los Angeles and Orange counties, where the circulating fringes of the cyclonic tropical storm dropped generally gentle but persistent showers throughout the area.

Light sprinkles began falling on Los Angeles shortly before dawn Thursday, ending a dry spell that had lasted a record-shattering 219 days. The 0.45 of an inch of rain that had fallen on the Civic Center by nightfall was the first measurable precipitation since Feb. 17, when 0.02 of an inch fell downtown. The old record--197 days--was set between April 12 and Oct. 27 in 1927.

Nora's diminishing strength spared Southern California the sort of widespread devastation that the storm had wreaked on Mexico's Baja California.

The worst problems in the Southland apparently occurred in the Orange County community of Seal Beach, on the outer fringes of the storm.

Orange County officials said high tides boosted waves generated by Nora and a storm far to the north, sending breakers 20 feet tall crashing into beachfront homes in low-lying areas of the city.

Three houses were seriously damaged and 45 others received minor damage as water gushed through garages and patios.

Dave West, who lives on 12th Street, bolted out of bed at 4 a.m., thinking, at first, that an earthquake had occurred.

"I heard a rush of water and felt a pounding," West said. "I looked outside and the water was streaming across the street. . . . By 6 a.m. I had two feet of water in the hallway," West said.

Kathleen Nelson, who lives on Ocean Avenue in a neighborhood hard-hit by flooding, said the experience was "scary."

"Standing in the alley, you could see the waves coming at you," she said.

Sleepy residents and barefoot surfers scrambled to fill and stack sandbags, while bulldozers hastily constructed a sand berm that stretched for six blocks in front of the flooded area.

Lifeguards closed the beach at 9 a.m. to keep people from being injured by heavy machinery, but surfers were allowed into the extraordinarily large surf.

"These are the best waves these guys have seen in years," said Fire Authority spokesman Dennis Shell.

Residents of Yuma, Ariz., where the storm entered the United States, had prepared for the worst, piling up more than 75,000 sandbags to divert what many had predicted would be a devastating flood. School was canceled, city employees were put on emergency alert, and residents in 240 homes in the farm community of Somerton, near the Mexican border, were evacuated to a Red Cross shelter.

The flooding came, but it was confined mostly to streets and low-lying vacant lots. By midafternoon, the rain had stopped and workers were able to rest.

Said Roger Brooks, an official with the city/county emergency response team: "We've been preparing for the worst, but the worst didn't happen."

The same sense of relief was evident in California's nearby Imperial Valley. Streets were flooded, 35,000 sandbags were deployed, and minor structural damage was reported in Heber, Seeley and Salton City, but Nora was not as wicked as predicted.

"We were lucky. The rain was steady but it didn't have those sudden bursts that can cause so much trouble," said El Centro Fire Capt. Steve Wilson. "It was just a steady warm rain. It was like being out in a shower."

However, agricultural officials in Imperial County, which provides a large share of the nation's winter produce, estimated that the storm did $4 million in crop damage, mostly to lettuce, carrots, broccoli and cauliflower. That damage could increase if mold sets in, the officials said.

Almost two inches of rain fell in Palm Springs. The runoff flooded several streets in that desert resort city and in nearby Indio, but there were no reports of major damage in the Coachella Valley.

In San Diego, a few streets flooded, but, again, there apparently was no major damage.

The long dry spell had allowed grease and oil residues to build up on Southern California's streets and freeways, and Nora's sprinkles turned the roadways into tropical skating rinks during the morning rush hour.

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