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Not a wet storm, but wild

A freakish, wintry wind peels roofs, topples trees, cuts power and capsizes boats. But it brings very little much-needed rain.

March 28, 2007|Hector Becerra and Ashley Powers | Times Staff Writers

Bone-dry Southern California continued to redefine the popular definition of a storm Tuesday, when a cold system produced destructive microbursts and heavy winds -- but almost no rain.

The winds, which were measured at 60 mph in some parts of the Los Angeles Basin, ripped roofs off several buildings, left 160,000 homes and businesses without power, and stripped a 10-story-tall advertising banner off a tower in Hollywood. The winds also downed hundreds of trees and capsized boats in Newport Harbor, prompting rescues by the Orange County Sheriff's Department Harbor Patrol.

The storm came from the northwest, but moved inland along the coast too far north to bring much moisture with it, said Curt Kaplan, a meteorologist for the National Weather Service.

The system created such havoc because it came with cold temperatures. When the cold air flowed down and hit the warm air near the surface, it caused great volatility as intense wind gusts burst in various directions.

The winds marked the latest strange weather to hit Southern California in the last few months, including snow that blanketed Malibu, Westwood and beyond in January and record heat waves during the normally rainy February.

Los Angeles is facing its driest rain year on record. Only 2.47 inches of rain have fallen in downtown Los Angeles since July 1. In a normal year, more than 13 inches of rain would have fallen by now.

"In most places, we got zero or trace amounts of rain," said Bonnie Bartling, a National Weather Service specialist. "Even in the mountains, we didn't get a whole lot of rain. This was mostly a wind system."

Microbursts and gusting winds were recorded across Southern California. Swells up to 10 feet lashed boats along the Orange County coast, snapping some from their moorings.

The rescues began shortly after sunrise, when a man steering an 11-foot boat capsized about a mile and a half off Laguna Beach. Michael Moyer had been sailing from Newport Beach to Dana Point when gale-force winds overturned his boat and ripped out the outboard motor.

Moyer managed to right the boat and called authorities at 7:52 a.m. Amid the wind and waves, a rescue boat struggled to find the craft as a sheriff's helicopter directed it from above.

"If he hadn't made that phone call, no one would have known he was out there," said Sgt. David Ginther of the Harbor Patrol. "It was a dangerous day."

Later, more than two dozen members of UC Irvine's rowing team had to be plucked from the chilly waters.

Up and down the coast, lifeguards said, most beachgoers shied away from choppy waves, gray skies and high winds, which reached 52 mph in Huntington Beach. In Newport Beach, a bystander panicked about 1:15 p.m. when a surfer seemed to vanish into the sea. But lifeguards discovered that the gusts had carried the surfer about 20 blocks away from his starting point.

The blustering winds conjured up small cyclones.

Dennis White said he and other construction workers were grading dirt for a concrete foundation in Westchester when they saw swirling palm fronds, cardboard and plywood.

"You could see debris spinning around in the air," White said. "Suddenly we saw a tree come down. It snapped directly in half."

The alder tree scraped their truck. They had to cut the tree into more than 20 pieces to remove it from the street, White said.

It was a strange sight, he said, with half of the sky clear and blue and the other half dark and cloudy.

"The sky was split. You had a wall of black clouds coming up against a beautiful blue sky," White said. "It was pretty gnarly."

Heavy winds ripped the roof off a helicopter hangar at Fullerton Airport, covering cars with debris. A tropical fish supply facility in El Segundo also was shorn of its roof.

The heaviest winds seemed to jump around the Southland, with certain areas being particularly hard hit, including Studio City, South Gate, Long Beach, Monterey Park, northern Orange County and the Hollywood Hills.

About 100 people gathered in the lobby of the Paul Hastings Tower in downtown Los Angeles to wait out a violent 15-minute wind spell.

Cafe chairs and tables blew toward Flower Street.

"I've never seen anything like this hit so quickly in my 20 years working here," said Craig Childs, the sole maintenance worker who had to quickly gather more than 100 chairs and 25 tables and umbrellas. "It's like a little tornado hit us here."

Fawn Hadley, an insurance agent who was visiting Los Angeles from Dallas, and friend Flor Gatewood shielded their heads with newspapers and magazines as they raced across 5th Street near the Westin Bonaventure.

"I was just saying how nice the weather was here," Hadley said, striding in her red high heels toward refuge in the Central Library.

The winds downed power lines and transformers in Los Angeles, Riverside, Orange and San Bernardino counties.

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