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O.C. Mops Up as More Rain Moves In

Weather: Runoff undermines sections of Santiago Canyon Road, creating a commuters' nightmare. Laguna Beach, Huntington sustain erosion damage. Two more storms are headed this way.

February 18, 1998|DAVID REYES | TIMES STAFF WRITER

LAGUNA BEACH — The storm that pounded Orange County over the holiday forced the closure of a major thoroughfare, caused a hill to slip and send boulders tumbling toward a landmark restaurant in Laguna Beach, and devastated the county's wilderness hiking trails.

And in Huntington Beach, where storms believed generated by El Nino have been damaging the shoreline, crews are working to protect bluffs and clean beaches littered with seaweed, tennis shoes, plastic and other trash.

Almost 19 inches of rain have fallen so far this season in Santa Ana--more than twice the norm. And more is on the way, with new storms expected late Thursday and Saturday.

"This system is racing across the ocean, and it's going to dive right down" into Southern California, said Jeff House, a meteorologist for WeatherData Inc., which provides forecasts for The Times. "It'll probably rain Thursday afternoon and Thursday night, and maybe into Friday," he said. That will be followed by a storm on Saturday, House said.

"We don't know yet how strong that one will be."

But for the moment, Orange County is still trying to recover from last weekend's precipitation.

The rain caused a commuters' nightmare by forcing the closure of Santiago Canyon Road, an artery linking numerous canyon communities with the rest of Orange County. Runoff undermined sections of the road, and officials say it won't reopen until Friday.

Canyon residents were able to reach their destinations only through long detours.

"This is going to be a mess, because all the traffic will have to go to El Toro Road," said Gabriel Castorena, at the Silverado Canyon Market. "This is going to be a major detour also for those people living in Portola Hills area who use Santiago to go to work in Orange and Anaheim Hills. It's a mess for them."

Longtime Silverado Canyon resident Sherry Meddick needed to do some banking Tuesday afternoon. But because of the closure, she was forced to head south to El Toro and use a bank branch there rather than a bank in Orange.

"When I got to my bank [in El Toro], they couldn't handle what I needed," Meddick said Tuesday. "So I got two hours ahead of me [today] to go to the bank in Orange. First I have to go south to El Toro, then to the freeway and drive all the way around."

"No one is isolated," said Lonnie Curtis, general manager for the Santiago County Water District, which services the canyon communities. "But residents only have one [driving] alternative."

The problem is a large sinkhole under Santiago Canyon Road about half a mile west of Silverado Canyon Road. A storm drain erupted when the ground failed, Curtis said.

The road will be closed between Live Oak Canyon and Jamboree roads, with only local traffic admitted to the area, county road officials said.

Meanwhile, at Tivoli Terrace, where Laguna holds the Pageant of the Masters and other art festivals, workers were clearing out the restaurant while fire crews and geologists evaluated when the 41-year-old landmark can reopen.

"We're carrying cakes, cats and computers out of here," said Stephanie Flynn, a spokeswoman for the Laguna Canyon Road restaurant in whose chapel hundreds of couples have gotten married.

Miss Daisy, the restaurant cat, was evacuated to safety after the earth above the eatery gave way about 8 a.m. and boulders started tumbling onto the site. The restaurant suffered damage to its exterior.

"I've been answering the phones today," Flynn said, "and we have a lot of brides-to-be who are panicked right now. We've survived the floods after the '93 fire, and we'll get through this."

Laguna Beach Police Sgt. Greg Bartz said about 2 1/2 acres are involved, and the hill "could be moving for a couple of days." Electricity and gas lines to the restaurant were shut off.

The storm was also the last straw for nearly all hiking trails in the county's park system. Trails are muddy, soaked or extensively damaged from erosion that has left dangerous drop-offs that will require repair, parks officials said.

About 40% of the county's 200 miles of hiking trails need repair, said Tim Miller, supervisor of county parks.

"Some of our trails we haven't even seen yet because the rangers can't take any vehicles back in there because it's too water-soaked and would cause more damage," Miller said.

Day use and camping will remain open, because those areas are served by paved roads. But all trail and wilderness areas are closed until further notice, he said.

In Huntington Beach, the succession of storms is causing serious beach erosion.

"The problem is coming with each storm," said Ron Hagan, community services director. "There is 7- to 10-foot surf, and runoff water that is causing the beach erosion."

In the last several months, the city's shoreline, especially a mile-long stretch between Seapoint Avenue and Goldenwest Street, has lost 4 inches of bluff because of the heavy surf and runoff, Hagan said.

Just south, at the Bolsa Chica Wetlands, volunteers were being sought to clean up debris that is entangling and endangering thousands of birds and marine mammals in the delicate ecosystem. A cleanup will be held Feb. 28 at 9 a.m. at the bridge just south of Warner Avenue on Pacific Coast Highway.

Times correspondent Julio V. Cano contributed to this report.

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