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Rain, Rain Pounds Away at the County

Weather: Constant downpour scuttles events, floods roads. More is expected in the coming week as two more fronts approach.

February 15, 1998|SCOTT MARTELLE and ROBERT OURLIAN | TIMES STAFF WRITERS

DANA POINT — It was too wet even for the whales.

The latest in a series of El Nino-strengthened storms doused Orange County with rain Saturday, causing scores of crashes, forcing police to close some flooded roadways and leading organizers of Dana Point's 27th annual Festival of Whales to cancel the opening day parade.

And it made life miserable for last-minute shoppers hustling to buy Valentine's Day gifts.

Rainfall ranged from 1.3 inches in Brea to 2.8 inches on Santiago Peak in the previous 24 hours as a cold front moved through Saturday before giving way to scattered showers in the evening. Remnants of the front could lead to additional showers today and Monday, with temperatures barely creeping into the 60s. Yet another storm is expected to make landfall late Monday, with a fresh front lined up behind it, forecasters said.

Saturday's storm lashed the area with persistent rains, spinning cars out of control on freeways, making some roads and ramps impassable and flooding streets from San Juan Capistrano to Fullerton.

By night, dispatchers for the California Highway Patrol in Santa Ana fielded more than 1,400 calls, about double the load for a Saturday, according to one harried dispatcher.

"We're being deluged, and I really can't talk right now because more calls are coming in," an unidentified dispatcher said.

As storms go, however, Saturday's rains were less disruptive than earlier onslaughts.

"Our facilities are doing quite well," said Bill Reiter, director of the Orange County Storm Operations Center. "We're having the usual mud problems, with mud on the highways. We're doing a little sandbagging here and there. But for the amount of rain we've had and as wet as everything is, it's not too bad."

Runoff and flooding led officials to close Laguna Canyon Road between the San Diego Freeway and El Toro Road, and one lane of Pacific Coast Highway in Dana Point. Another stretch of PCH was closed in Huntington Beach between Warner Avenue and Golden West.

In Buena Park, a nonworking pump forced police to close Beach Boulevard in both directions where it passes underneath the Santa Fe Railroad overpass, said Police Sgt. Phil Dascenzi.

"For some reason, the pumps were not working," he said. "Caltrans came out and turned them on and it kind of solved the problem. But there was a lot of water on the road."

Elsewhere in Southern California, on a rain-slicked mountain road near the ski resort of Wrightwood, four victims of a head-on crash on Highway 138 died at the scene, authorities said. Eight others were injured, four of them seriously, and were taken to local hospitals.

The afternoon crash forced officials to close Highway 138, a two-lane road connecting San Bernardino to the popular resort town, well into the night.

Although investigators had not determined the exact cause of the accident, wet weather appeared to have played a role, said California Highway Patrol spokeswoman Arlene Brannon.

In Ventura County, when a rain-soaked hillside gave way, a pipeline ruptured, sending about 8,000 gallons of crude oil flowing into the Pacific and severing a natural gas line that sparked a spectacular 100-foot flame.

In Northern California, the fast-moving weather system dumped up to a foot of snow in much of the Sierra and threatened levees and homes.

As residents across the state were battling the bad weather, U.S. Labor Secretary Alexis Herman announced a federal emergency grant of as much as $25 million to help Californians whose jobs have been lost or scaled back because of the season's flooding.

The grant will allow as many as 2,000 workers to be hired for $6- to $10-an-hour jobs cleaning up public or private nonprofit facilities and property damaged in storms that have pounded the state this winter.

State officials updated their damage tallies Saturday, estimating the loss so far this season at $300 million in 22 of the 31 counties that Gov. Pete Wilson has declared disaster areas. Damage estimates for the others were not available.

In Dana Point, most of Saturday's Festival of Whales' opening activities--including a parade--were canceled, dampening the start of the two-week celebration of migrating California gray whales.

"The rain kept a lot of people away," said Stanley L. Cummings, president of the Orange County Marine Institute, where only indoor festival events were not washed out. "But we always contend with the rain and we typically have one weekend rained out. So if this is the one rained out, the next one will be better."

Rough waters forced the cancellation of the institute's Marine Mammal Exploration Cruises aboard a 72-foot boat, and owners of Dana Wharf Sportfishing chose not to hazard the heavy surf advisories issued by the National Weather Service.

"The parade was canceled, the artists went home and there isn't much walk-through traffic," said Jim Noon, a volunteer who works on the Pilgrim, a tall-masted whaling ship that is part of the Marine Institute.

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