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Ouch! California Belted Again

Another powerful El Nino-driven storm barged into Northern California and the Sierra Nevada on Thursday, and wild winds and driving rain ruined rush hour, pushed streams over their banks and left the threat of landslides hovering above scores of homes.

The state estimated damage so far this winter has cost $475 million statewide.

Dozens of homes in Petaluma were evacuated some for the second time as streets flooded from runoff and the overwhelmed Petaluma River. Petaluma is 35 miles north of San Francisco.

In Berkeley, wind and rain shoved an ancient Monterey cypress onto a car waiting at a traffic light, crushing the male driver. He was not identified pending notification of relatives.

Assistant Fire Chief David Orth said the man apparently was conscious when rescue crews reached him, but by the time a crane arrived to lift the huge tree, he had died.

"It was an old tree, and it was raining very hard," Orth said.

His death brought to 11 the total number of storm-related fatalities in the winter's storms.

CBS News Correspondent John Blackstone reports that that the storm shattered a 120-year-old record in San Francisco. This is the wettest February ever recorded in San Francisco, with more rain on the way. The monthly total hit 12.57 inches. The previous mark was 12.52 inches, set was back in 1878.

There was some good news regarding El Nino, the warm-water phenomenon that creates weather havoc around the world. Scientists at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena said the area has "thinned in volume along the central tropical Pacific."

"Oceanographers indicate this is a classic pattern, typical of a mature El Nino condition that they would expect to see during the ocean's gradual transition back to normal sea level," the lab said in a statement.

Hundreds of accidents from 5 a.m. to 1 p.m. in the nine-county San Francisco Bay area helped slow traffic to a crawl, and rain blown almost horizontal by gusting winds caused a massive jam at the San Francisco-Oakland Bay Bridge. Traffic was backed up for miles during the morning commute.

"We had cell phone callers say they had their windshield wipers on the fastest speed and still couldn't see more than 10 feet ahead," said California Highway Patrol Officer Virgil Aguilar. "You can only drive 10-15 mph under those conditions."

The National Weather Service offered some temporary hope. The storm was expected to be gone to the south by late afternoon, and Friday would likely be dry, according to meteorologist Miguel Miller.

"We're looking at Saturday for the next storm, and it should be similar to the one we're seeing today," he said.

He said rainfall totals for the year, tallied before the current storm hit, were 34.99 inches in San Francisco, 241 percent of normal; 24.14 in San Jose, 219 percent of normal; and 35.62 inches in Oakland, 237 percent of nrmal. Rainfall totals are recorded beginning July 1.

On the central coast, convoys were being organized to take residents of Big Sur and Palo Colorado Canyon in and out of the area Friday and again Feb. 27.

The area was isolated by slides blocking Highway 1.

Pacific Gas & Electric Co. spokesman Bill Roake said the utility was dealing well with the latest downpour. He said some 9,000 customers lost power in the morning hours out of a total 4.3 million statewide but he expected most would have the lights on again later in the day.

In Sacramento, Gov. Pete Wilson added Stanislaus and Trinity counties to the 31 counties previously listed as storm disaster areas.

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

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