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Slow storm hits East; 2nd storm hammers West

A powerful storm packing tornadoes and drenching rain ripped across southern Florida, leaving 220,000 customers without power Tuesday and driving ships aground. At least one person was killed and several people had to be rescued at sea.

The storm blew in from the Gulf of Mexico and moved slowly northward, and states along the East Coast braced for rain, wind and snow.At least four tornadoes hit the Miami area and another struck near Fort Lauderdale.

"If this were Kansas, it would be `Auntie Em, Auntie Em, run for the cellar,' " said Mike Puto of the Monroe County Emergency Management office.

A second major storm hammered California, blacking out thousands of customers there Tuesday and causing flooding that shut down Amtrak train service along the whole West Coast and closed highways. Mudslides destroyed at least one house and part of the Napa Valley wine country was inundated.

Flood warnings were posted for parts of California in the West and North Carolina and Tennessee in the East, with coastal flood watches on the Atlantic shore as far north as Chesapeake Bay. Winter storm warnings were in place for California's Sierra Nevada, southern Nevada and northwestern Arizona, and heavy snow warnings were issued for West Virginia.

El Nino, the Pacific Ocean-warming phenomenon that affects weather patterns world-wide, was believed to be affecting the path and strength of both storms.

Such storm systems are normal in Florida, "but El Nino is acting to enhance these storms so they can grow stronger and longer and more frequent," said meteorologist Walt Zaleski.

Much of Florida remained under flood advisories Tuesday. But the bulk of the storm was spreading rain across the Carolinas and Georgia, and forecasters said it was slower and more intense than the one that dumped up to 4 feet of snow on the Appalachians a week ago.

More than 18,000 customers blacked out by that storm still had no power Tuesday.

Some 220,000 customers were without power Tuesday in South Florida from the new storm, down from a peak of about 500,000 on Monday, utilities said.

Gusts of up to 85 mph hit the Florida Keys during the night. Flying debris injured several people in Key West and the wind overturned a police helicopter and two small airplanes sitting at the city's airport.

A gust of up to 104 mph was reported at Miami International Airport, which was closed briefly Monday night. High wind also closed the airport at Fort Lauderdale for a short time.

Eleven- to 14-foot-seas in the shallow water off South Florida drove a 375-foot freighter, a tugboat and a diesel-filled barge aground. And about a dozen boaters had to be rescued from half-a-dozen small craft that lost power or lost masts.

In California, the storm left more than 100,000 customers without power.

"The wet ground is not holding the trees," said Corey Warren of Pacific Gas & Electric. "We've got wind snapping wires together and loose branches are flying, shorting transformers."

Amtrak canceled trains from San Diego to Seattle until Wednesday because of track flooding between Los Angeles and Salinas, and flooding also closed I-80 between Sacramento and San Francisco.

North of the San Francisco Bay area, the Russian River was forecast to crest 9 feet above flood stage and the Napa River had forced a few evacuations in the towns of Napa and St. Helena.

The Napa River also had inundated 5,000 acres of vineyards but grape vines are dormant at this time of year and no permanent damage was expected.