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Calif. Storm Kills 2 CHP Officers

February 24, 1998

LOS ANGELES (AP) _ A river swollen by the season’s wettest El Nino-powered storm swept away part of a highway and several vehicles today, including a Californa Highway Patrol cruiser with two officers inside.

The pair were later found dead.

``Rescue workers and divers were able to gain entry into the vehicle and they were able to account for two highway officers who did not make it,″ said CHP Officer Marlon Varin.

At least seven deaths in Southern California and northern Mexico had been blamed on the latest storm, which spawned two tornadoes today and sent mud cascading down weakened hillsides.

A search and rescue operation was under way today 20 miles east of Santa Maria, where the Cuyama River chewed away part of a highway, taking along a tractor-trailer rig and a half-dozen cars, including the CHP cruiser carrying the two officers.

Santa Maria is a town about 60 miles northwest of Santa Barbara.

The driver of the truck was rescued but the officers and an undetermined number of motorists were still missing by late morning. The officers had been checking an accident at the scene, some 200 miles from Los Angeles along the central California coast, when the highway collapsed, said CHP Lt. Paul Matthies.

``The river was swollen at the time, and it washed away the foundation of the highway,″ Matthies said. ``It washed away a big chunk.″

The officers’ patrol car was found upside-down in mud.

Hundreds of homes in at least five counties across the state were threatened by flooding and hillsides crumbling from a month of storms. Rock and mud slides closed many roads and highways in Southern California.

The Ventura County town of Ojai was virtually isolated by flooding and mud slides.

Two tornadoes _ rare in Southern California _ early today ripped apart storage sheds and carports in a Huntington Beach trailer park, and knocked down trees in Long Beach. Damage was minor and no injuries were reported, police said.

Early today, a wall of mud plowed down Laguna Beach Canyon Road in Orange County, damaging two houses and forcing the evacuation of eight others.

A body covered with mud was found outside one home in the canyon today, said police Sgt. Bob Rahaeuser. In addition, 10 people were injured, he said.

In northern Mexico, a car was swept away about midnight trying to cross a stream in Tijuana’s La Presa section, said Antonio Rosquillas, director of civil protection for the city. One man was confirmed dead and four were missing.

About 800 people spent the night in shelters in Tijuana, many of them evacuated earlier in the week as a precaution as rain loosened the soil under hillside shantytowns.

On Monday, two people were killed when a tree fell on their car in suburban Claremont.

And in the rugged, snow-covered San Bernardino Mountains east of Los Angeles, volunteers set out after dawn today to search for a small plane that disappeared Monday after taking off from Big Bear Lake en route to Palomar in San Diego County, said Civil Air Patrol Maj. Wyn Selwyn.

The storm halted Amtrak service for thousands of passengers until at least March 2 by damaging a key train trestle in Ventura. And flooding blocked rail commuter service between Los Angeles and the Antelope Valley, northeast of the city.

Dozens of residents were evacuated Monday night southeast of Bakersfield as Caliente Creek crested with water running off the nearby southern Sierra Nevada.

``It’s a very dangerous situation,″ said Kern County sheriff’s spokeswoman Patty Chase. ``They are literally pulling people out of vehicles that are caught in flash floods.″

Almost a foot of rain has fallen so far this month in the Los Angeles area, close to the February 1884 record of 13.37 inches. San Francisco has had its wettest rainy season in more than a century, with 38.61 inches as of Monday.

The storms over the past month have caused an estimated $475 million in damage statewide and 35 of 58 counties have declared states of emergency.

The storm was expected to taper off tonight and leave clear weather for five to 10 days, forecasters said.

``It looks like we’re out of the really heavy stuff for a while,″ National Weather Service meteorologist Dan Klinger said.

Update hourly