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El Nino Torments California

A river swollen by the season's wettest El Nino-powered storm swept away part of a highway and several vehicles Tuesday, including a California Highway Patrol cruiser with two officers inside.

The pair, who were checking an accident scene when the road collapsed, were later found dead.

"Rescue workers and divers were able to gain entry into the vehicle and they were able to account for two highway officers who did not make it," said CHP Officer Marlon Varin.

At least seven deaths in Southern California and northern Mexico had been blamed on the latest storm, which spawned two tornadoes today and sent mud cascading down weakened hillsides.

A search and rescue operation was under way Tuesday 20 miles east of Santa Maria, where the Cuyama River chewed away part of a highway, taking along a tractor-trailer rig and a half-dozen cars, including the CHP cruiser carrying the two officers.

The driver of the truck was rescued but the officers and an undetermined number of motorists were still missing by late morning. The officers had been checking an accident at the scene, some 200 miles from Los Angeles along the central California coast, when the highway collapsed, said CHP Lt. Paul Matthies.

"The river was swollen at the time, and it washed away the foundation of the highway," Matthies said. "It washed away a big chunk."

The officers' patrol car was found upside-down in mud.

Two tornadoes, rare in Southern California, early Tuesday ripped apart storage sheds and carports in a Huntington Beach trailer park, and knocked down trees in Long Beach. Damage was minor and no injuries were reported, police said.

Early Tuesday, a wall of mud plowed down Laguna Beach Canyon Road in Orange County, damaging two houses and forcing the evacuation of eight others.

A body covered with mud was found outside one home in the canyon today, said police Sgt. Bob Rahaeuser. In addition, 10 people were injured, he said.

On Monday, two people were killed when a tree fell on their car in suburban Claremont.

Almost a foot of rain has fallen so far this month in the Los Angeles area, close to the February 1884 record of 13.37 inches. San Francisco has had its wettest rainy season in more than a century, with 38.61 inches as of Monday.

The storms over the past month have caused an estimated $475 million in damage statewide and 35 of 58 counties have declared states of emergency.

Tuesday's storm was expected to taper off during the evening and leave clear weather for five to 10 days, forecasters said.

Written by Oscar Musibay
©1998 The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed

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