Worst Rain in Nearly a Decade Batters California; 5,000 Ordered Evacuated
LOS ANGELES (AP) _ The worst rainfall in nearly a decade continued its deadly assault across the state Tuesday, forcing the evacuation of 5,000 residents in Sacramento County and sending waves of mud into Southern California homes. At least seven deaths were blamed on the storm.
Five thousand residents of Rio Linda, 15 miles north of Sacramento, were ordered evacuated when Dry Creek, a tributary of the American River, spilled over its banks. Hundreds of people were sent to shelters in elementary schools and churches.
``Water is almost to the top of street signs in some locations,″ said sheriff’s spokeswoman Sharon Telles.
Gov. Pete Wilson declared states of emergency in 24 counties after a week of Pacific storms that dumped the most rainfall on the state since 1986, when tens of thousands of people were driven from their homes in widespread flooding. President Clinton declared a federal disaster area, freeing up low-interest loans and aid for rebuilding.
Army National Guard Chinook helicopters plucked residents out of hard-hit Guerneville, about 60 miles north of San Francisco, as the Russian River crested at 17 feet above flood stage.
Brothers Brian and Dave Ridley were on one of the first flights out, both of them cold and hungry.
``Our house is gone,″ Dave said. ``I’ve been inside my truck for three days.″
At least seven deaths were blamed on the storm over the past two days, five in Northern California, one in Southern California and one in southwestern Oregon.
In Southern California, a body was found in the raging Ventura River. Police said the death was storm-related.
Nearly 200,000 utility customers were reported to be without power across the state, and repairs were often difficult.
``A lot of times they’re under water, and mudslides and landslides are blocking the way,″ said Diana Gapuz of Pacific Gas & Electric Co.
In Southern California, at least 33 people were pulled from the Ventura and Santa Clara rivers, some by helicopter; three were hospitalized for hypothermia, authorities said.
Many of those rescued were residents of homeless encampments along the river bed. They had been warned on Monday to move to higher ground, but few listened.
``I was coming close to dying,″ said George Struck, draped in a blanket and shaking violently after he was pulled from the water. ``I felt it. I felt it.″
In Santa Barbara, 43 residents of a convalescent home were evacuated to a hospital as runoff waters invaded their home before dawn, said police Sgt. Brian Abbott.
In the Hollywood Hills, an elderly couple were sleeping when a wall of mud and a tree hit their home.
``The tree came right into the bedroom, hit them in the bed,″ said Bob Grebb, whose 71-year-old father, Harry, and 72-year-old mother, Arnella, were in good condition at a hospital.
``It sealed shut the door to the bedroom that leads into the hallway, and I couldn’t get to them.″
The rainfall turned Los Angeles’ morning and evening commutes into even more of a nightmare, flooding intersections and littering freeways with fender-bender accidents, spinouts and overturned vehicles.
Ninety miles of railroad track between Los Angeles and San Luis Obispo were submerged, forcing cancellation of Amtrak service.
Pacific Coast Highway in Malibu was closed because of a thick coating of mud and rock. At Las Flores Canyon, motorists abandoned vehicles as they filled with water.
``We’re Malibu. We’re resigned. Actually, we’re drinking a bottle of Cabernet,″ said Arnold York, whose home was destroyed by wildfire 15 months ago. York now rents a home in Malibu.
In Northern California, the storm sent 10-foot boulders hurtling down onto Highway 17, preventing Santa Cruz residents from reaching jobs over the mountains in San Jose and the Silicon Valley.
Commuters who made it to San Jose found the downtown a maze of detours as creeks and rivers overflowed and flooded streets and major highways.
``This was a 500-year rain event,″ said Gary Ryan of the National Weather Service.
Farther inland in Modesto, a section of roof at a Target Store collapsed under the weight of rain. Three people were hospitalized with minor injuries.
More than 12 1/2 inches of rain fell at Matilija Creek in Ventura County, and wind gusted up to 93 mph atop Black Mountain near Templeton, 220 miles northwest of Los Angeles.
``Most locations have had more than half their annual rainfall in the last seven days,″ said the weather service’s Tim McClung.
Rain was forecast through the weekend.
The Federal Aviation Administration slowed traffic west of the Mississippi to avoid sky traffic snarls. Two of San Francisco International Airport’s four runways remained closed Tuesday because of high winds; some flights at Los Angeles International were delayed, but runways were open.
The San Francisco 49ers, their practice field a sodden quagmire, flew to Phoenix to prepare to take on the Dallas Cowboys on Sunday in the NFC championship game.
AP Writer Michelle Locke contributed to this report.