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County Is Pounded by Big Storm

Accidents soar as many areas get several inches of rain. The wet weather may continue.

February 13, 2003|Massie Ritsch and Steve Chawkins | Times Staff Writers

Rain pelted Ventura County for a second day Wednesday, triggering mudslides and more than 100 vehicle accidents, from fender-benders to overturned trucks.

Most areas received a drenching of 3 to 4 inches, snarling traffic and otherwise wreaking havoc for drivers.

During the morning rush hour, stalled cars had to be pushed from a deep pool in a dip at the Santa Rosa Road onramp to the Ventura Freeway in Camarillo. Two cars plunged down an embankment off California 126.

A mudslide in the county's rugged backcountry closed a stretch of California 33 and another slowed traffic on California 150 near Santa Paula.

As the downpour continued through the afternoon, firefighters and divers sped to a sandbar at the mouth of the Ventura River, where a homeless man lay motionless under a green sleeping bag.

"People were standing around looking at this guy and, my God, the ocean was eating away big chunks of the sandbar," said Dick Henderson, an Elderhostel tour leader who called 911.

A Ventura County Sheriff's Department helicopter landed yards from the man just as a Harbor Patrol boat chugged by and a lifeguard atop a surfboard glided onto the sandbar. The man was loaded onto the chopper, along with his bicycle, and taken to a local hospital in an ambulance waiting at a nearby parking lot.

"Just one phone call and the world explodes," mused Henderson of Mission Viejo as he surveyed the firetrucks and emergency personnel who had arrived within five minutes.

In Los Angeles County, the California Highway Patrol logged more than 400 collisions and other incidents by midafternoon, about four times the number from a comparable -- but dry -- period last week.

In Pacoima, a driver died when his van rear-ended a Caltrans truck, but it was unclear whether the weather had contributed to the accident.

Farther north, on the Golden State Freeway grade known as the Grapevine, a sliding hill trapped cars in as much as 3 feet of mud, rocks and brush. CHP officers shut down the southbound lanes, while Caltrans worked into the evening to shore up the slide.

"As quickly as Caltrans is grading it up, it's probably coming down twice as fast," CHP Sgt. Jack Skaggs said. "Right now we're fighting a losing battle."

The relatively warm storm system from the southwest Pacific was expected to drop as much as 5 inches of rain by late Friday, and forecasters are not ruling out more rain through Sunday. With temperatures remaining in the 50s, snow was predicted only at elevations higher than 7,500 feet.

"Warm storms are the ones that carry a lot of moisture," National Weather Service meteorologist Bruce Rockwell said. "It's a pretty impressive storm."

As motorists cursed the weather that fouled their commutes, residents in rural canyons rejoiced. Slopes in the Santa Ana Mountains were sprouting wildflowers in yellow, blue and purple.

"We need it very badly," said Bruce Newell, who oversees the local firehouse in Orange County's Modjeska Canyon. Off the roads, at a Fullerton manufacturing firm, two employees were injured when a section of the roof gave way under the weight of pooling water.

The storm ended six weeks of spring-like weather and followed the driest January on record in Southern California.

The National Weather Service said this week's rainfall will probably boost the year's total to normal or above-average levels.

Ski and snowboarding slopes in the San Bernardino Mountains were closed Wednesday. There was no snow falling -- just rain -- and it was too warm and humid to make any flakes.

"With the [low] volume of business that we'd be doing in the rain, it's just more prudent for us to close down and keep our snow in good shape," said Chris Riddle, Snow Summit's marketing director.

Groomers stood ready to clean up the slopes in time for the Presidents Day weekend, the last holiday of the winter season and a chance for resorts to make up for slow business during January.

"We're keeping our fingers crossed" for snow, Riddle said.


Times staff writers Hanah Cho, Jai-Rui Chong, Dave McKibben and Janet Wilson contributed to this story.

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