SOMIS — It's past noon, yet only three customers have stopped at Underwood's Produce on California 118. Across the street, the Plant Warehouse is faring no better.
"I hope they do something--otherwise we'll all be in the unemployment line," Rick Stewart, the plant store's manager, said only half-jokingly.
Along the storm-damaged highway, this week's flooding is continuing to take its toll.
Merchants scattered along the road are losing business. Truckers forced on to the Ventura Freeway--with its scales and inspections--are upset. And commuters who normally traverse the 118 between the east and west county must navigate time-consuming alternative routes.
State Department of Transportation officials Tuesday closed the stretch of highway between Somis and Tierra Rejada roads, turning a heavily used truck route into a virtually empty stretch of asphalt.
The agency estimates that the closure could last two weeks to two months. That is a big difference to nurseries lining the highway, which do the bulk of their year's business between the end of February and May.
"This is not our heavy month," said Kate Hartley, owner of Sun & Shade Nursery, who was mixing fertilizer. "However, if it's not open until April, I'll be in a really bad pinch."
Caltrans engineers today will continue assessing the damage at a bridge a few hundred feet west of Balcom Canyon Road. They must also check the soil at least 100 feet west and east of the bridge to see if it is solid enough to support the highway.
The 1907 bridge was partially washed out Tuesday when raging waters tore away more than 40 feet of Long Canyon Creek's east bank and more than half of the bridge's cement guardrail.
Because the bridge was so heavily hit, nearly five miles of the highway are closed. The sections west of Sand Canyon Road and east of Balcom Canyon Road are open only to residents, although officials have been letting in motorists bound for roadside businesses.
"For pedestrians, it's great," said Craig Underwood, owner of the produce stand. "You can walk down the center lane on the 118. If we didn't have a business, we'd say, 'Hey, this is great!' "
But for Underwood, who depends on drivers for almost all his business, the closure has meant plummeting sales. Typically, 60 to 70 customers drop by each day for fresh strawberries, honey, nuts and other items. On Wednesday, there were only a handful. Underwood hopes that people hear they can get through to the businesses by driving around the Somis Road barricade.
To ease the impact, Caltrans may consider closing a smaller section of highway, said Vincent Moreno, a spokesman. However, he couldn't provide further details.
The truckers who normally drive the 118 are also exasperated. Now they must detour to the Ventura Freeway using the Moorpark Freeway or Somis Road.
Tony Rutherford, an owner of Oxnard-based Tri-County Truck Co., had about 45 trucks daily using the 118 to ship material across the county.
"It's a little frustrating," he said. "They ought to do something about it. You have scales to deal with and it takes 15 minutes. And every time they inspect you, that's another half-hour."
At the stop points on the 118 Wednesday, officials kept turning back persistent truckers.
"You can call them the nonbelievers," one Caltrans worker said as he watched a trucker make a U-turn after going through the barricade at Tierra Rejada and being turned back at Balcom Canyon.
In Somis, nursery owner John Freeman stood inside a greenhouse tending geraniums, petunias and lobelias while listening to classical music. He said he would worry if the 118 remained closed for several months. For now, though, he said he appreciates the quiet.
"I'm enjoying the peace--no trucks, no trains," Freeman said. The storm also affected the nearby tracks used by Metrolink, Amtrak and freight trains.
For years, the county had tried to shore up the highway's old bridges and expand the 118 for easier access by emergency vehicles. However, the upgrading was resisted by slow-growth advocates who worried that it would bring in too much development, county Planning Commissioner Mike Wesner said.
"It was a problem waiting to happen," he said of the bridge.
As a result, commuters rushing to work must slow down and take detours.
Wesner's wife Susan works at a fabric company in Camarillo. The commute from her Moorpark home took 17 minutes on the 118. Now, she said, it takes about half an hour.
While Caltrans officials assess the damage, Shell Oil Co. is waiting for the agency's approval to remove about 360 feet of gas pipe running beneath the highway. A portion of the four-inch pipe, which carries gas from a Long Beach facility to a Ventura distribution plant, was exposed by rushing waters from Long Canyon Creek.
"They [Shell] could see it was a potential hazard," said Frank Charolla, superintendent for Santa Barbara-based J. L. Stanton, the contracting company for Shell.