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California and the West

Clinton Hears of Storm Toll in Brief Visit to Southland

President: En route to a fund-raiser for Sen. Boxer, he listens to survivors' stories and thanks rescue workers.

March 01, 1998|ELIZABETH SHOGREN and JANET WILSON | TIMES STAFF WRITERS

President Clinton stopped briefly in Los Angeles on Saturday to offer the nation's compassion to the victims of El Nino's storms and help Sen. Barbara Boxer raise money for her reelection bid.

"There is very little that anyone can say at this moment to ease the human loss," Clinton said after meeting with some of the victims of last week's torrential rain and mudslides.

In a small hangar at Los Angeles International Airport, the president listened to several stories, including that of the dramatic rescue of 9-month-old Tiffany Sarabia, who was swept from her mother's arms by a Laguna Beach mudslide Monday night and saved by a stranger who plucked her from the debris of a collapsing hillside. The president appeared moved by what he heard.

"It's important for me to hear this firsthand," Clinton told the group of 14 disaster victims and rescue workers. "I know it's hard for you to be here."

He approached Tiffany's mother, Teresa Sarabia, clasped her hand and said: "Bless you. It will be all right. It will be all right."

Minnie Lee Rodriguez, 83, of West Hills, told Clinton she awoke about 2:30 a.m. because of the heavy rain and looked outside. "I saw this big black hole, and I said, 'That used to be my garage. Where'd it go?' "

Rodriguez said she dragged her husband of three decades, who suffers from Parkinson's disease, down the stairs to safety. The mud and rain severely damaged the house. "We've lost everything," she said. "We have no car, and no home, so I really don't know what we're going to do. . . . We're too old to start over."

The president said that Americans' hearts are with the families of the victims, and offered condolences to relatives of the two California Highway Patrol officers who were killed Tuesday when their cruiser was swallowed by a highway washout.

"I want to encourage them, to tell them their fellow Americans are thinking about them and to pray for tranquil weather in the rebuilding process," Clinton said.

He also offered his thanks to rescue workers and others for their efforts. "I want more than anything else to praise the courage of all those who worked so hard during this disaster," Clinton said.

The president had not planned to meet with victims of the El Nino storms in Southern California, but decided to do so after being advised by James Lee Witt, the director of the Federal Emergency Management Agency, according to White House officials.

Witt, who on Thursday visited Laguna Beach, where two people died and nine were injured in mudslides, told Clinton he thought it was important for him to speak personally with victims and community leaders.

Estimated damage in Ventura, Los Angeles and Orange counties from Monday's storm was $20 million, FEMA staff said, with the total storm damage since Feb. 9 rising to at least $475 million statewide. About 15,000 applications for aid have been filed, said Dorothy Lacey, FEMA's regional coordinating officer. About 3,300 have been processed and $5 million has been mailed out.

White House officials said the aim of the visit was not to announce more government grants, but to learn as much as possible about the impact of the disaster on the people of Southern California.

On Thursday, Clinton had a similar meeting with community leaders in the Bay Area to discuss their El Nino-related troubles, and he unveiled a package of federal assistance for the state.

The Boxer fund-raiser was held at the Beverly Hills estate of Ron Burkle, owner of the Food 4 Less supermarket chain. It was expected to generate $500,000 for Boxer's reelection effort and for other Democratic candidates.

Times staff writer Tony Perry contributed to this story.

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