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Monterey Peninsula Cut Off in California’s ‘Storm Of Century’

March 13, 1995

SAN FRANCISCO (AP) _ Floods washed out all roads into the Monterey Peninsula on Sunday as waterlogged California struggled to recover from storms that battered two-thirds of the state.

At least eight people died in five days of flooding, and five more are missing after driving into a rain-swollen creek when an Interstate 5 bridge collapsed in central California.

Sunday was rain-free for most of California. The National Weather Service said showers were expected again Monday, but not the downpours of last week.

President Clinton declared 39 counties disaster areas. The declaration, prompted by an appeal by Gov. Pete Wilson, allows residents and businesses from Humboldt to San Diego counties to apply for federal aid.

In Monterey County, thousands of people left their homes overnight as the Salinas and Pajaro rivers inundated some of the nation’s richest farmlands, the site of John Steinbeck’s ``The Grapes of Wrath.″

The flooding cut off the communities around Monterey, about 100 miles south of San Francisco.

``At this point all roads are closed _ the Monterey Peninsula is literally isolated,″ said county emergency Officer Al Friedrich.

California Highway Patrol officials said roads may remain closed until Monday.

Many people were rousted from their homes early Sunday as floodwaters rushed into low-lying riverside communities overnight.

``Police went down the streets with their sirens telling people to please leave,″ Friedrich said. ``It’s a scary thing to hear in the dark.″

In the farming town of Pajaro, residents were in shock.

``People walked in here in tears. They looked like they were caught completely off-guard,″ said Salvation Army Maj. Joan Souders. ``We saw people walk in here with no shoes, no socks or with water lines up to their thighs.″

From the Oregon state line down to Mexico, rain, wind and snow wreaked havoc across 40 of California’s 58 counties.

``It’s the most widespread geographic storm in California in this century,″ said James Bailey of the state-federal Flood Operations Center in Sacramento.

The storms may also be the most expensive in California history, he added, costing up to $2 billion in a state already burdened with January’s Pacific storms, as well as a series of earthquakes, fires and mudslides.

In Coalinga, about 50 miles west of Fresno, teams were back at the scene of a fatal I-5 road bridge collapse on California’s main north-south freeway.

Four cars drove into a rain-swollen creek Friday night when the overpass suddenly dropped into the water. Transportation officials believe floodwater and its debris undermined the bridge’s foundation.

One driver was rescued, but six people were believed to be in the other three cars.

Rescue crews pulled the body of a teen-age girl from one car Sunday, said highway patrol spokeswoman Karen Barrows. Searchers found the last two cars.

``We don’t know yet whether there are bodies inside,″ Barrows said.

Survivor Wayne Johnson, 45, said he saw too late that something was wrong. As he approached the span in the rain and darkness, he saw a flashlight waving.

``I thought that perhaps the road was flooded so I started to slow down ... then I went up and down at an angle, and I was airborne Evel Knievel-style,″ he said.

He got out of his truck, but was stuck in a tree for several hours before being rescued.

Southern Californians shoveled mud and pushed water out of homes and off roads in areas hit hard by the rains.

The bodies of two newborn girls with umbilical cords still attached were found washed onto Orange County beaches about 10 miles apart.

One was found early Sunday; the other Saturday. They had been in the water several days, police said. It was unclear how they died or if they were put in a storm drain, a river, directly into the ocean or got there by some other means.

In Ventura County, a chain-link fence was being erected around the entire town of La Conchita, where a collapsing coastal bluff that destroyed nine homes a week earlier survived the latest onslaught of rain.

Mud flowing through the streets may have made a mess, but damage wasn’t significant.

``Residents are returning little by little to their homes to see what’s left,″ said sheriff’s Deputy Patti Dreyer. ``It’s a beautiful day here except for the mud.″