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Storm Is Just a Prelude for L.A.

The first front inundates a swath of Northern California and snarls Southland traffic. The second, due today, may flood local burn areas.

January 01, 2006|Charles Piller and Lee Romney | Times Staff Writers

A powerful storm battered Northern California with torrential rains and widespread flooding Saturday, and a second strong front was in line to push through the state and soak its southern regions today.

The latest storm was expected to linger through Tuesday, with the heaviest rains tonight and into Monday morning, virtually assuring the first wet Rose Parade in 51 years. Skies are expected to clear in time for Wednesday's Rose Bowl game.

On Saturday, emergency crews waded through waist-deep water and dropped into flooded areas from helicopters to rescue several stranded residents in submerged vehicles and homes in Northern California. Few injuries and no deaths were reported, but some residents in hard-hit areas said they experienced extensive property damage.

Widespread flooding stretched as far east as Reno but was most serious along Northern California's Russian and Napa rivers. There, rising waters flooded homes and businesses and triggered evacuation of hundreds of residents.

In Napa, furniture store owner Pieter Kloos said he lost much of his inventory of fabric, futons, tables and chairs from two warehouses after water rose 5 to 6 feet in the area.

"Downtown is like a war zone," Kloos said. "It's a big blow -- one of the most stressful things a person can experience."

In Sonoma County, a Sheriff's Department helicopter rescue team lifted six people to safety in a harrowing 90-minute stretch Saturday morning. Among those rescued was a man with hypothermia stranded on a bridge in Geyserville and three elderly people who were plucked from flooded homes in Schellville and airlifted to safety.

Sonoma County Sheriff's Lt. Roger Rude, who supervises the helicopter rescue unit, said the storm "just hosed us." His team rushed to lift people to safety, "doing [pickups] and then reconfiguring for the next one. It was one, to the other, to the other."

The National Weather Service said today's storm could cause "significant and widespread" flash flooding tonight in areas burned last year by wildfires in Los Angeles, Santa Barbara and Ventura counties.

"We had the fires two years ago in the Lake Arrowhead and Ventura County areas, and those are the places we are really going to keep an eye on as this heavy moisture moves in," said National Weather Service meteorologist Kathy Hoxsie. "Even Burbank, which had mudslides earlier this year, is going to be an area of concern."

Hoxsie said a low-pressure system from Alaska and a warm moisture plume from Hawaii converged over California to produce the first storm's ferocious rainfall over the northern regions. As the moisture plume moves down the state, Southern California will bear the brunt of the second storm, she said.

By Saturday, the storm had dumped between 3 and 5 inches of rain throughout the state in a 24-hour period, setting daily records in some areas of Northern California, she said.

Along the Russian River, which cuts through Sonoma and Mendocino counties, residents scrambled to prepare for the worst.

In Monte Rio in Sonoma County, Faye Massie, 63, cleared out the lower floor of her home, where she operates a small antique business. Lugging her vintage sewing machine and other collectibles upstairs, she said she would stay through the night to deter looters.

At the Rio Theater across the street, owners Don and Suzi Schaffert showed "Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire" on Friday night. By midday Saturday, the power was out in their stretch of town. Volunteers streamed in to help the couple unbolt their 243 theater seats and lug them up to the balcony.

"Everything below the counter has to come out," Don Schaffert said. "The mud is highly toxic, full of septic waste and lead."

In Guerneville, farther east in Sonoma County, basements were flooded near the Russian River. Residents in trailer parks evacuated to higher land. Closer to the river's mouth, giant logs, fragments of decking that had broken loose from homes, riderless kayaks and other debris surged with the current. Ranchers moved their cattle to higher ground.

Several of the region's vineyards along the river were close to flooding by mid-Saturday. But officials said they did not expect widespread losses because most growers had already harvested their grapes.

Officials were strongly encouraging residents throughout Sonoma County to leave their homes, but they stopped short of calling for a mandatory evacuation.

More than 30 miles southeast, the Napa River continued to rise. Napa County officials ordered the evacuation of approximately 350 residents of Edgerly Island, about eight miles south of the city of Napa, and of 230 people in St. Helena. The county opened a shelter in Napa High School gymnasium, said Lynn Perez, a county spokeswoman.

Volunteers flocked to the river area to help shore up protection for both mansions and fishing shacks perched above the river.

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