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Disaster Area Inundated Another Storm System Pummels California As Floodwaters Cut Off Towns

A powerful Pacific storm barreled across the length of California on Tuesday, forcing thousands to evacuate their flood-ruined homes, prompting rescue workers to dangle from helicopters and pluck endangered residents from torrential rivers and further inundating a state already brought to its knees by a weeklong series of brutal weather systems.

Torrents also continued to pound Southern California, sending rivers of mud sliding down hillsides from Santa Barbara County to Mexico.

The storms granted a reprieve to water-weary residents of Napa and Sonoma counties, where the Russian and Napa rivers were expected to be below flood level by this morning. But the respite may be brief. More rain - possibly lots of it - is on the way the rest of the week.

And from the north to the south, much of the damage already has been done. At least five are dead as a result of the tenacious winds and relentless rain. Thousands are homeless. President Clinton declared 24 counties in the state major disaster areas and promised federal money.

It was the Sacramento area’s turn Tuesday as nearly 5 inches of rain fell in a 24-hour period. In Sacramento, intersections and neighborhoods were under water. Just north, in Rio Linda, an estimated 5,000 people abandoned their homes in the face of rising water.

“We’ve made a couple of dramatic rescues of people off the tops of roofs in the Rio Linda area,” said Sharon Telles, Sacramento County sheriff’s spokeswoman. “There are parts in there where (the water) is up to the tops of street signs.”

In outlying areas, creeks poured over their banks with little warning, flooding 400 square miles of Placer County. Overflow from Dry Creek forced hundreds of evacuations in Roseville, including 300 residents of a retirement home. About 100 of the elderly residents refused to go.

“This is worse than the ‘86 flood,” Roseville city spokeswoman Marilyn Bartell said, recalling the devastating regional floods nine years ago.

No question, the storms of 1995 will take their place with the 1986 disaster. Few areas of the state have been spared so far, and the stormy weather is not over. Hundreds of flood victims statewide were in shelters Tuesday night. Countless more were with friends and relatives or in motels.

Santa Barbara, where just a few years ago some residents painted drought-parched lawns green, was all but cut off from the rest of the world by flooded highways and an airport closed by flooding and mud.

Ventura County firefighters made more than a dozen rescues from rooftops and the swollen Ventura River. There was an unconfirmed report of one death in the river.

In Malibu, muddy water roared from the canyons to the sea, plowing across the Pacific Coast Highway and through a local landmark nursery and several homes along the way.

“Earlier, I was advising people to run to the hills, but I’m afraid the hills will go,” said meteorologist Robert Baruffaldi.

Forecasting more rain for Southern California, he said, “The best thing may be to build an ark and ride it out.”

There aren’t many dry places left.

State officials reported significant damage to the historic downtown of Ferndale, in Humboldt County. A levee broke in Yountville, flooding a mobile home park. About 760 homes in Murrieta, Riverside County, were evacuated. The Bay Area was bedeviled by flash floods and mud slides.

About 200,000 people were without power in the state.

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.

Ninety miles of railroad track between Los Angeles and San Luis Obispo were submerged, forcing cancellation of Amtrak service.

The Federal Aviation Administration slowed traffic west of the Mississippi to avoid traffic snarls. Two of San Francisco International Airport’s four runways were closed Tuesday because of high winds; some flights at Los Angeles International were delayed, but runways were open.


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