Intrepid Californians Step Up To Latest Challenge in Galoshes

State wracked by earthquakes, fires, and droughts now copes with deluge

THIS land of extremes is once again battling nature's forces in the extreme.

In what is becoming uncomfortably routine, Californians are hunkering down in their homes, transfixed by television news updates of hardship - and heroism - resulting from one of the worst rainstorms here in 10 years.

Returning to the same, armchair-ready positions they used in 1992 riots, 1993 fires, and 1994 earthquakes, they watch as evacuations, power and telephone outages, and transportation mishaps on roads and rails play out on-the-air, ``live,'' like communal theater.

``The Great Storm of 1995'' is the title meteorologists are giving to the biggest rainfall in Southern California since 1986. In Northern California, the National Weather Service said flooding resulted from a ``500-year rain event.'' In both locales, more rain is forecast.

Residents from Napa County to the city of San Diego near the Mexican border are gearing up 24 hours a day for another storm predicted this weekend.

``This is the worst flooding I've seen in my 25 years as a public servant,'' said one Los Angeles policeman in the flooded community of Malibu.

Even while precipitation has subsided from earlier levels, the landslides and raging floodwaters are once again threatening businesses and million-dollar homes from hilltops to canyon floors.

Urban theorists are being trotted out to question why people build in dusty hills so susceptible to flash flooding. And once again the worst of circumstances are bringing out the best in people, testing community resolve as well as emergency readiness from sand-bag crews to fire truck drivers.

``Can you believe this?'' asked one phone caller, early Tuesday, cajoling me out of bed to catch a helicopter rescue of a Ventura County homeless man on one television channel, and the washing away of a 20-year landmark on yet another.

I recognized the same reporters from the Rodney King riots, the Malibu/Laguna Beach fires, and the Northridge-centered earthquake. Wearing here-we-go-again looks, each had been once again dispatched to streets of Los Angeles and were shouting above the din of emergency vehicles, while doing interviews.

``The radio said they're offering rain counseling for anyone who needs it,'' said another caller from Santa Barbara.

The water rose high enough for President Clinton to declare 24 counties as federal disaster areas, while California Gov. Pete Wilson has declared state emergencies in those same counties. At least six people have died on the West Coast. At press time, the weeklong series of Pacific storms had dumped more than eight inches of rain and had clocked wind gusts up to 93 m.p.h. in some coastal towns.

Dozens of California roads and major highways, including sections of the Pacific Coast Highway, were closed by high water and mudslides, strangling travel in the state.

Back in their studios, anchors, weather forcasters and traffic-desk personnel reeled off a flood of statistics, down to the latest water speed of the Los Angeles River (``70,000 cubic ft. per second'').

As if viewers could not surmise from the torrents swiping out bridges, telephones and houses, reporters assured them ad infinitum, ``it's extremely wet out here.''

One word that continues to roll off the lips of both reporters and watchers alike is ``surreal.'' As with other disasters here, there is the strange mixture of the silly with the serious.

In one community, so-called ``boogie boarders'' surf defiantly down inundated main streets while in other areas residents rush to fill sandbags to save a neighbor's home.

Both describe what has been unleashed by nature here as ``awesome.''

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