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FLOODS NOTHING NEW TO VENTURA COUNTY; STORMS SLUG AREA, BUT IT'S BEEN WORSE.

Byline: Don Holland Daily News Staff Writer

The flooded homes, decimated crops, damaged airports and threatening landslides that have pushed El Nino-related damage to nearly $40 million make this a landmark winter - but certainly not the worst in Ventura County history.

There was the Great Flood of 1884, when roads were washed out and hundreds of livestock were lost. A flood in 1938 turned deadly when three people were killed. And a rain-soaked bluff gave way in February 1992, burying a home and killing a couple inside.

The most severe, however, was in 1969, when floodwaters left 10 people dead and caused $60 million in damage countywide.

But that tragedy doesn't discount this year's losses to homes and livelihoods. Ventura County has been declared a disaster area, and more than 500 local residents have applied for help from the Federal Emergency Management Agency.

``The way we're looking at it is that this is an evolving disaster,'' said Julia Helmreich, a spokeswoman for the governor's Office of Emergency Services. ``It's ongoing. It changes daily with each new storm.''

The earliest catastrophic storm known to historians was in 1884, when an average of 20 inches fell on Ventura County over the course of just eight nights, and 10 more inches fell over the next 17 days. Santa Paula got pummeled with 40 inches that season, while Ojai wallowed under 70.

``The railroads and all wagon roads were washed out,'' wrote L.M. Hardison, an early Santa Paula pioneer whose personal account of the disaster is tucked away in the files of the Ventura County Historical Society. ``The ground was so saturated with water all over the county that if a horse stepped out of the beaten path, it would mire to the saddle blanket.''

Flooding, it seems, is as much a part of Ventura County as the sun and surf - the weather system is inseparable from its geography.

Warm storms from the Pacific typically roll across the Oxnard Plain, then are pushed higher by local mountains, said Delores Taylor, a senior hydrologist with the county Flood Control Department. The colder temperatures at the higher elevations cause even greater condensation, and thus heavier downpours that can then overwhelm creeks and rivers on the journey back to the sea.

A storm that might drop an inch of rain at lower elevations can dump up to eight times that much due to the local phenomenon.

``When you've got a saturated watershed, then even a small amount of rain can cause a lot of runoff,'' Taylor said. ``Depending on the intensity of the storm, the water can overtax our (drainage) facilities, because a lot of the facilities in the cities were built back in the '60s.

``Since then, there's been a lot more development, a lot more paving - and a lot more pipes to drain it more efficiently.''

Silt and debris conspire to clog channels. And when the soil becomes supersaturated, even light showers can lead to severe flooding.

Gambling with nature

Just ask Jack Broome, a third-generation farmer who's seen plenty of storm damage over his eight decades of tilling the soil in the county.

``Maybe every 10 years we get hit hard,'' said Broome, who grows lemons, avocados and field crops along Calleguas Creek near Point Mugu.

Time and again, nature has smiled on Broome. But other times, floods have destroyed crops and ruined fertile farmland with a layer of rocks and silt. After the storms of 1995, it took Broom 14 months to clear the sand and silt from his farmland and get everything back in order.

``It's a calculated risk that all of us in the farming business have to accept,'' said a philosophical Broome as a half-dozen pumps labored to clear water from his swamped fields. ``I think agriculture in Ventura County has been very kind to us. It's raised my kids and sent them to college.''

But nature's caprice is not always so easy to take - especially when the toll is not in dollars but in human lives.

During the 1969 storms, eight stranded Boy Scouts drowned in rain-swollen Sespe Creek, along with a sheriff's deputy and a Navy Seabee who tried to save them.

``When they were about halfway across, this huge wall of water hit them,'' recalled Hank Carrillo, a retired sheriff's lieutenant who led the investigation into the deaths.

Carrillo concluded that debris had collected upstream to slow the creek's flow. When it gave way - at the worst moment possible - it sent a 20-foot-high wall of water down the creek.

In 1978, Sespe Creek overflowed its banks and flooded a housing tract. When the Santa Clara River shifted course, it wiped out the Ventura Marina. Floods that year inflicted major damage on 221 homes and forced some 5,000 people around the county to flee.

The El Nino storms of 1983 left behind $39 million in damage. About 1,400 Simi Valley residents had to be evacuated because of fears that the Sinaloa Dam would fail. Coastal storms came in directly from the west, sneaking past the Channel Islands, which can act as a buffer. The sun and moon also teamed up to provide the year's highest tides.

The most intense of the storms spewed 2 inches of rain an hour, filling Calleguas Creek to its highest peak flows ever recorded.

A county special report on the 1983 disaster said many coastal residents considered the storms to be the worst they'd ever seen. Officials at the time called it a once-a-century event.

The day the earth moved

Tony Alvis remembers clearly how his La Conchita home was almost gobbled up by a massive landslide in March 1995.

There had been talk in the small community about the cracks that appeared in the hillside above the homes. First there was just a small landslide. Then came the big one.

The wall of soil barreled down the hill, chasing some residents who dashed between the houses to escape. It was like a scene from an Indiana Jones movie, he said.

``When it happened, it was real quiet,'' recalled Alvis. ``It doesn't make a lot of noise. If it would have happened at night, it would have killed quite a few people. It would have buried them in their houses.''

No one was killed, but the slide buried six homes and destroyed three others. Six more were deemed uninhabitable. Alvis, a ranch foreman, still stays at his home - but not when it's raining.

``It's been almost (four) years now, and the hill still isn't fixed,'' said Alvis, who is unhappy with the federal response to the slide. ``I'm watching all the mountains around here, and this is like the 100-year rainstorm. Right now there's all kinds of earth movement.''

The storms of 1998 will also have a spot in the county's record books. A Feb. 3 downpour pounded Oxnard with 1.15 inches of rain in a mere 15 minutes, said Taylor of the county Flood Control Department. This season's rainfall is already 236 percent above normal, and the $37 million in damage done this season is expected to rise.

``When you've already had damage and you still have a lot of winter left, then, because you don't have a chance to do anything but emergency repairs, there is the danger that you'll have additional damage to your already-weakened structures,'' Taylor said. ``It's not over yet.''
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Publication:Daily News (Los Angeles, CA)
Date:Feb 22, 1998
Words:1226
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