California Braces For El Nino Dousing

From the rooftops to the waterfronts, residents ready for record rainfall

Residents here, who are better known for fiddling in the sun like grasshoppers, are hustling like ants readying for winter.

Behind the town's lifeguard house/fire station, a brigade of "Baywatch"-style beach hunks with George Hamilton tans scurry to and fro. Hoisting themselves with pulleys and blue strap harnesses, they slide back and forth along an 80-foot span of rope, suspended about 15 feet in the air between a street lamp and porch post.

"This is how we'll save people stuck on cars and rocks when El Nino hits," says Chuck Moore, spokesman for the Los Angeles County Swiftwater Rescue Team. "We're beefing up for what could be the biggest dousing this state has ever seen."

If there is a flood, a bikinied rollerblader says as she glides by, "I'd like to get saved by one of those guys, anytime."

Elsewhere in town, the sound of hammering echoes.

"You couldn't find a roofer now if your life depended on it," says a woman from her garden veranda. "They're all ocupado [occupied] getting ready for El Nino."

The two beachside scenes are indicative of the wave of storm-prep activity that is crashing over southern California, courtesy of the massive, warm-water Pacific Ocean current that is disrupting worldwide weather patterns.

From the rooftops to the waterfronts, from catch basins to sewer lines, from pier pilings to breakwater dikes, this fun-in-the-sun paradise has its wary eye on something it's not really used to: bad weather. From November to June, experts say the amount of rain falling on Los Angeles could be three times the current record, about 40 inches. That's very big news in a desert metropolis where even intermittent showers bring the freeways to a halt and lead the nightly news. ("Raindrops dampen pavement, film at 11.")

Capt. Steven Valenzuela of the L.A. Fire Department says his staff is urging residents to get ready for the worst storms in 100 years. Local fire stations will be the centers for community relief, he says. Residents will go there for sandbags, sand, and brochures explaining everything from how to coordinate flood diversion with neighbors to fastening plywood over windows and doors.

Many in these beach communities are remembering the severe storms of 1983 and 1992, which inundated low-lying communities such as Seal Beach and Hermosa Beach.

"Five years ago my house flooded with water," remembers Karen Bhall, who lives in the basement of a shoreside bungalow. "This time I'm ready."

Preparations are also afoot in places far from shore.

"Rain disasters here are great for the plant business," says Ellen Vukovich, a San Fernando Valley-based landscaper who has been designing water-runoff plans for clients and planting hillsides of vegetation nonstop for months. One reason for the heightened activity regionwide is the 1994 devastation in 17 communities by fire, reducing vegetation that can hold back floods and mudslides.

Another reason is increased alarm voiced by key local authorities. James Noyes, chief deputy director of L.A. County Department of Public Works, recently stated that nearly 100 flood-control channels from Santa Clara to Compton could overflow because federal and state agencies have not cleared vegetation growing in them.

Back in Manhattan Beach, Mr. Moore of the Swiftwater Rescue Team says the pre-storm preparation may already have a silver lining for a metropolis often known for its self-absorption. "If people can spend their time making sure they are taken care of and can spend time on neighbors," he says, "this whole period can be a beneficial thing."

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