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VENTURA COUNTY NEWS

Residents Told of Plan to Reinforce Casitas Dam

Safety: Reaction is mixed to project that will temporarily weaken the structure. Officials downplay the risk but urge people to be prepared.

April 20, 1999|GARY POLAKOVIC | TIMES STAFF WRITER

A plan to reinforce Lake Casitas Dam met with mixed reactions from residents who received their first full briefing of the project and a planned flood-warning system during a public meeting Monday evening.

Government officials say that without a substantial overhaul, the dam could fail during a major earthquake--one 6.5 magnitude or greater. In that worst-case scenario, flood waters could kill 400 people and inundate much of west Ventura and downtown, where 14,000 people reside.

To avoid that, the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation is poised to begin a $42-million project to reinforce the dam. Work is scheduled to begin in June and end in December 2000.

A major problem is that the dam will be considerably weakened during part of the construction period. An early-warning system of eight sirens along the Ventura River to warn of a collapse will be installed in May, according to the bureau.

Government officials emphasize the risk is low. But some residents found little comfort in those reassurances.

"It's spooky," said Jesus Ramirez of Ventura. "What do you expect the government is going to say?"

Ted Cartee, director of the Ojai Valley Sanitary District, which has a treatment plant below the dam, said Ventura County is so seismically active the warning system should stay in place after dam construction ends.

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Sirens would only be activated in the event of a total collapse of the dam--an unlikely scenario, according to the bureau. So far, there are no plans to make the flood-warning system permanent.

About 50 people attended the meeting at De Anza Middle School in Ventura. More public workshops are planned in the next two months, with times and locations to be announced.

Of chief concern to emergency planners is the period from June to December, when an earthen berm below the dam is to be removed and replaced with a stronger one. Like a doorstop, it acts as a support to keep the dam in place.

"If a big quake occurs during this period, a bell should go off in your head to turn on the radio and TVs and be ready to hoof it," said Ventura Police Sgt. John Turner, who is preparing escape plans for west side residents. "To the most prepared, to the ones that are trained and those that listen, to those go the greatest chance of survivability."

Laura D. Hernandez, assistant director of the Office of Emergency Services for the Ventura County Sheriff's Department, said there is no cause for alarm.

"The risk is very low. They are doing everything they can to strengthen the dam. We are doing this for public safety," Hernandez said.

Nonetheless, officials recommended residents along the Ventura River corridor--from Casitas Springs to the river mouth--make preparations in case a quake collapses the dam.

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They should learn escape routes and destinations, keep some emergency items on hand, such as flashlights and a transistor radio, and attend upcoming meetings to learn what to do if disaster strikes.

"I want the community to be as prepared as we can," said Art Troll of the Westside Community Council, a neighborhood improvement group. "This is something that has to be done. If we keep our heads about it, we can get it done."

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