VENTURA — Raging flood waters closed the region's main rail line and busiest freeway, isolated the Ojai Valley for hours and forced thousands of Santa Paula residents to flee their homes Monday as heavy rain swamped Ventura County in the wettest February in local history.
Steady showers for 24 hours dumped up to 9 inches of rain on the waterlogged county--prompting siren-screeching Santa Paula police to scour the city's southeast corner and warn 2,000 residents to pack up and leave.
"My boyfriend called me, freaking out, and told me to get out of town," said Sina Arellano, 28, as she pushed her belongings into a minivan.
But by late afternoon, as rains eased, the Santa Paula Creek was receding and its banks were holding firm.
The same could not be said for the Metrolink commuter rail line washed out near Camarillo and the Union Pacific trestle undermined by the surging water of the Ventura River.
That main coastal train route will not reopen for weeks, and Amtrak service between Los Angeles and Seattle has been halted indefinitely, officials said.
The Ventura River washed over the Ventura Freeway, closing its northbound lanes for most of the day and its southbound lanes for several hours. Mud and water along the Rincon closed the freeway in both directions again late Monday.
The Ventura River and its tributaries overflowed their banks in several places--flooding 25 homes in east Ojai near Thacher Creek. Dozens of San Antonio Creek residents were forced to higher ground, and Ojai Valley roads were closed for part of the day.
"Wow. Big chunks of the mountain are coming down," said Sheri Connelly, manager of the Camp Comfort RV park near Ojai, as 72 permanent campers evacuated the creek-side camp about noon.
At its mouth, the Ventura River washed over the freeway for most of the afternoon--cresting around 2 p.m. with flows close to those in the floods of 1992 and 1995.
By midnight, the county's largest river--the wide and powerful Santa Clara--was expected to overflow its banks in Oxnard, at McGrath State Beach, and in Fillmore, at the sewer plant, with flows higher than any since the massive floods of 1969.
"This was close. We had a big scare today," said county hydrologist Dolores Taylor as stream waters receded late in the day. "The worst scare was Santa Paula Creek. We had the highest flow we've seen there since 1978."
And, around the county, "I think there will be an awful lot of damage here and there--to the roads and the flood channels and the infrastructure," she said.
Erosion of farmland along the Santa Clara River is also certain to add to $19 million in losses that farmers have sustained from storms this month, she said.
In all, the county toll from this month's storms was $36 million--prior to Monday's damage, officials said.
Monday's storm knocked out electric power for 24,000 customers, including 3,300 students who were sent home early from schools in Fillmore and Piru. Ventura High lost power but held classes without lights.
Still, emergency officials could not help but think that things could have been much worse.
"The story was the same all over the county today--if God had kept it raining another hour or two we would have had some real trouble," said Sheriff's Deputy Ed Tumbleson. "There's a levee in the Ojai Valley that was getting ready to breach, and in Santa Paula and in Piru. But the rain stopped just in time."
Rainfall analysts put the February storms in historical perspective: Never has the city of Ventura in its 131-year history received more rain in a single month than the 20 inches that has fallen in February, climatologist Tom Johnston reported.
The same intense, El Nino-boosted storm raked all of California with torrential rains and wind-driven snow, triggering mudslides and floods that blocked roads and cut off rail lines.
In Northern California, near San Francisco, storm-driven waves cresting up to 17 feet gnawed away oceanfront bluffs, leaving several homes in Pacifica dangling precariously over the sea.
In Lake County, where the overflowing waters of Clear Lake have forced the evacuation of at least 500 homes, Jim Brown, a spokesman for the county's Office of Emergency Services, said the water was continuing to rise, threatening additional homes.
"The water is at its highest level since 1909," Brown said.
Snow fell throughout the day in the High Sierra, with 2 feet expected above 7,000 feet in the Lake Tahoe area and 3 feet forecast for Mammoth Mountain. Chains were mandatory on Interstate 80 over Donner Pass. A snow emergency was declared in Reno, sending thousands of workers home before noon.
Heavy snow was forecast for the Tehachapi, San Gabriel and San Bernardino mountains at altitudes above 6,000 feet. In Los Angeles County, Pacific Coast Highway, Topanga Canyon Boulevard and Malibu Canyon Road were blocked by flooding and mudslides, largely cutting off Malibu to the east and north and forcing cancellation of classes at Pepperdine University.