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Ventura County

Storm Packs Surprising Strength

County is hit with up to 6 inches of rain, causing dozens of traffic accidents and damaging roads and buildings. More is expected today.

November 09, 2002|Gregory W. Griggs and Holly J. Wolcott | Times Staff Writers

A surprisingly strong Pacific storm poured up to 6 inches of rain on parched Ventura County Friday, temporarily closing a key Ventura Freeway bridge, causing road flooding, minor damage to buildings, dozens of car crashes and effectively ending a long fire season.

Traffic backed up for nearly 10 miles Friday morning after the California Highway Patrol closed the Santa Clara River bridge for 45 minutes, fearing that heavy rain and construction work had undermined bridge supports.

Diana Rice, a Ventura title company employee, was taking her car to Camarillo for service when she approached the bridge at about 45 mph. She said she hit a slick spot in the road, spun around twice and slammed into a restraining wall.

"It's pretty horrifying out here," she said shortly after the crash. "It's pouring down rain, traffic is backed up, and I just wrecked my BMW pretty severely. Now I'm waiting for a tow truck and a rent-a-car."

By morning rush hour Friday, overnight rains had dropped nearly 4 inches of precipitation on the Ojai area and 2 to 3 inches on the coastal plains from Ventura to Thousand Oaks.

It rained steadily Friday. And forecasters predict the rain will continue through tonight. Up to 8 inches of rain are expected in the mountains above Ojai by the time the storm ends tonight, and coastal areas could receive 5 inches.

"The jet stream and the moisture plume and the speed of this thing -- it slowed down when it hit -- made this a much bigger storm," said weather specialist Stuart Seto at the National Weather Service office in Oxnard.

The original forecast was for less than 2 inches.

The storm emerged from an intensive low-pressure system off the Canadian coast and has dropped rain as far south as Cabo San Lucas, Mexico, he said.

The effects of the storm -- the heaviest here since the floods of 1998 -- were felt throughout the county. A post office was slightly damaged and a museum flooded in Oxnard; the roof leaked at Rains department store in Ojai; a couple were rescued after their car settled into 2 feet of water at Camarillo Springs; and streets were overflowing in flood-prone areas such as El Rio.

More than 100 collisions and fender-benders were reported in the county Friday. No major injuries were reported.

"The rain has been good and bad," said Joe Luna, a spokesman for the Ventura County Fire Department. "It has definitely minimized fire danger, but the roads are incredibly slippery."

The storm is bringing an end to the high-fire season in Los Padres National Forest, and a campfire ban will be lifted Wednesday, officials announced.

"We really consider Los Padres National Forest to be in fire season year-round, but the recent rain has lessened those restrictions," said Kathy Good, a spokeswoman for Los Padres.

Rains forced closure of the slow lane on the northbound Ventura Freeway at the Santa Clara bridge through Friday afternoon, according to California Department of Transportation spokeswoman Jeanne Bonfilio. There was also damage to the slope beneath the freeway, prompting traffic on Ventura Road to be diverted for much of the day, she said.

Despite the storm-related accidents, police said most drivers heeded warnings about slowing down during wet weather.

"I've been driving around, and it actually looks like people are being cautious today," said Sheriff's Department spokesman Eric Nishimoto. "I didn't see the knuckleheads out there driving too fast, like they usually do in the rain." Portions of Ventura Road near Wagon Wheel Road in Oxnard were flooded, but most streets were clear, said Denise Hamilton, an Oxnard police spokeswoman. Vehicles got through the flooded area, "but they're going through slowly."

According to the National Weather Service, it will be breezy today, with south to southwesterly winds of 30 to 42 mph and occasional strong gusts. The Coast Guard has issued a small-craft advisory.

Chris Hendrick, a store merchandiser at Rains in Ojai, came to work Friday to find about 2 inches of water in the back of the store.

Rains is under construction, and there was a temporary plastic roof where workers are building an addition to the store, she said.

"The roof just gave way under all that rain, and the water ran into the whole back of our store," Hendrick said.

Some of the housewares items and boxes were wet, but there was minimal damage to merchandise, Hendrick said.

Employees at an Oxnard post office on Saviers Road also had a flood on their hands early Friday after a ceiling tile fell and left a 20-foot-wide puddle in the lobby. The mess was cleaned in less than an hour, said supervisor Russ Partee.

More than 2 inches of rainwater flooded the basement of the Carnegie Art Museum in downtown Oxnard, where dozens of paintings, charcoal sketches and other drawings were stored.

Employees and firefighters hauled the artwork to the upper floors and used vacuums to remove the standing water. The amount of damage had not been determined.

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