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S P E C I A L El Niño Returns

California braces for most powerful storm yet

wreckage in Rio Nido
Rio Nido, California  
February 9, 1998
Web posted at: 6:37 a.m. EDT (0637 GMT)

SAN CLEMENTE, California (CNN) -- Rain-weary California residents were expected to get a brief respite Monday morning from massive storms that have dumped three months' worth of rain in a week. But forecasters warned that the most severe storm yet could sweep ashore as early as Monday night.

For residents like Mary Buckley, whose beachfront mobile home was battered by pounding surf in San Clemente Sunday, the storms have already caused enough damage.

"I heard the rumble, and I thought, 'Boy, we're gonna get a good one now,'" she said. "About that time it hit, and it literally knocked the whole wall in."

Surf in San Clemente
San Clemente, California  

Buckley's home was one of eight along the shore heavily damaged by the high waves. The scene was all too familiar to Californians, who have endured three major storms in the past week.

And although the rain is predicted to subside briefly Monday, officials are closely monitoring the flood levels of California's largest natural lake, Clear Lake, about 160 miles north of San Francisco.

The Department of Emergency Services said the lake, which has 110 miles of shoreline, was about 1.3 feet above flood stage Sunday and could be 2 feet above flood stage by Tuesday morning because of rains from the looming storm. About 500 residents have already been evacuated.

Meanwhile, to the south, in the Mexican border town of Tijuana, flash floods -- worsened by overflowing storm drains -- killed 13 people and drove thousands from their homes. City officials appealed to the Mexican army for help.

Wilson calls for Federal assistance

A woman, seven months pregnant, is rescued from flood waters near Chino, California
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Couple pulled from the water
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  • The heavy rains refused to relent late Sunday, with severe thunderstorm and flash flood warnings in effect for much of California. At least seven deaths across the state have been blamed on the deluge.

    In the San Fernando Valley north of Los Angeles, Frank Retz, 84, died when his car plummeted about 50 feet into a rain-swollen creek after a private road collapsed. His passengers, a man and a woman in their 60s, survived the accident, and climbed the ravine to get help.

    Joseph Lansing apparently slipped into Rattlesnake Creek while hiking in the hills above Santa Barbara. His body was discovered Sunday morning.

    In Northern California, mudslides destroyed four homes and damaged five others near the Russian River in Rio Nido. Residents of 300 homes downhill were warned to evacuate as cracks in the hillside continued to expand.

    California Governor Pete Wilson, touring a damaged levee, declared a state of emergency in five more California counties, bringing the total to 27. He called on President Clinton to declare those counties a federal disaster area, a designation that would make them eligible for federal funding.

    "We need to be prepared for a series of storms coming from across the Pacific," Wilson said.

    Survivors fished from vehicles

    Beachfront homes pounded by the high waves
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    Emergency workers made dramatic rescues throughout the state Sunday, as rising rivers and creeks caught drivers and even animals off guard.

    • Near Rio Vista, truck driver Jose Domiguez and four levee workers rescued 3-year-old Alicia and 1-year-old Oscar Hernandez by flipping their overturned car back over.

    • In Chino, Mari Reyes, who is seven months pregnant, and her husband Art were clinging to a tree after escaping from their car. After a three-hour effort, firefighters got them to safety.

    • In the Antelope Valley, two men were snatched to safety by rescuers in a helicopter as their pickup truck floated away.

    • In Contra Costa County, 16 people rescued a horse pinned between a tree and mud from rushing waters. The rescuers had to cut the tree to free the horse, who was in good enough spirits afterward to eat some oats.

    Elsewhere in California:

    A horse is rescued from muddy waters
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    • In Dana Point, a mudslide hit a hotel, flooding the parking lot, destroying cars and forcing guests to be evacuated.

    • Searchers at the Mountain High West ski resort near Wrightwood were looking for a 14-year-old snowboarder missing since Saturday afternoon. Winds were gusting badly in the area when the teen slid out of the resort's boundaries and into a canyon.

    • Ventura County agriculture officials estimated that storm damage to the avocado, lemon, strawberry and other crops would be more than $5.5 million.

    Correspondents Jim Hill and Rusty Dornin contributed to this report.

    El Nino returns
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