California weather updates: Death toll rises as storms slam state

11 Jan 2023


SAN FRANCISCO – Thousands of Californians fled their homes and the death toll from the wave of devastating storms rose to at least 14 since last week as the latest "atmospheric river" slammed a wide swath of the state with gale-force winds and more than a foot of rain.

"The endless onslaught of potent systems with atmospheric rivers of moisture continue to inundate California," the National Weather Service said in a statement. "Torrential rain, widespread flooding, rapid water rises, mudslides and landslides with possible debris flows, heavy mountain snow and gusty high winds all remain threats to the Golden State."

In and around the Santa Barbara County community of Montecito, about 10,000 residents were ordered to evacuate five years to the date since mudslides killed 23 in the town about 90 miles northwest of Los Angeles.

"Due to the extreme rain and weather conditions in the area, and to prioritize community safety, classes are canceled," the University of California, Santa Barbara tweeted. "Please be safe and take good care during this challenging weather."

In neighboring Ventura County, where 9 inches of rain had fallen by early Tuesday, emergency responders rescued 18 people trapped in an island encampment overwhelmed by Ventura River floodwaters.

More harsh weather was on the way Wednesday, forecasters warned.

"An enormous cyclone forming well off the coast of the North American continent will bring yet another atmospheric river toward the West Coast," the weather service said. The primary target will be northern California northward up the coast of the Pacific Northwest.

EVACUATIONS AMID GIANT STORMS: 5-year-old swept away by floodwaters; sinkhole swallows vehicles: Updates

Other developments:

►Wind gusts approaching 70 mph forced flight delays at San Francisco International Airport. Storm debris on the tracks delayed commuter trains, and fallen trees and branches snarled traffic around the city. Many residents were jolted from their sleep around 2 a.m. by a raucous electrical storm.

►Rescue workers were trying to evacuate more than 15 residents of a neighborhood in Studio City, 12 miles northwest of downtown Los Angeles, where flooding and a mudslide submerged about 10 cars in water and debris.

►About 170,000 homes and businesses were without power Tuesday afternoon, many of them in Santa Clara County south of San Francisco. Heavy winds tore the roof of some buildings, thunderstorms were forecast for the area, and tornado warnings were in place.

►In Montecito, Ellen DeGeneres posted video on Instagram of flooding near her home. She said she and her wife, actress Portia de Rossi, were told to shelter in place because they are on high ground. “This is crazy,” said DeGeneres, who was wearing a hoodie and raincoat.

►The National Weather Service said the storms had already dumped up to 14 inches of rain in isolated areas of central and Southern California.

ARE CALIFORNIA STORMS NORMAL?: Are California's storms normal, or is climate change making them worse? What experts say.

In San Francisco, the ground 'can't take any more rain'

In San Francisco, more than 1,000 trees have fallen since New Year’s Eve, including at least 15 since Monday night, said Rachel Gordon, spokeswoman for the Department of Public Works.

A fully grown black acacia tree fell in the wind early Tuesday in the Lower Pacific Heights neighborhood, crushing a Subaru parked nearby. Crews on the scene began cutting the tree and feeding it into a chipper later in the day.

“The ground is just saturated. It can’t take any more rain,’’ public works arborist Drew Landers said. “The slightest breeze can knock these trees down. This one was just so heavy and wet, it fell over.’’

Thin silver lining: Rains bring some relief to lengthy drought

The "one good aspect" of the heavy rains has been relief from the persistent drought that has been plaguing a wide swath of the West, the weather service said. Nearly all of California has seen rainfall totals 4 to 6 times above average over the past several weeks. And much of California into the Great Basin has seen one to two "drought class" improvements over the past month.

Reservoir levels across California are responding  – reservoirs are now above their historical average levels, and water levels are increasing rapidly, the weather service said.

But it's far from a perfect storm, the National Drought Mitigation Center noted in a tweet: "The wild weather in California this week reflects one of the biggest barriers to #drought recovery. If soils are saturated, water can't soak in properly to replenish groundwater supplies. On the flip side, if soils are too dry, they can't efficiently absorb water either."

Mounting snow levels increase dangers, could lead to avalanches

Two more storms were expected to pound California in the next several days, increasing concerns about mudslides, flooding and falling trees on saturated terrain. Then there are the mounting piles of snow.

The National Weather Service predicted 10 to 20 inches of snow for the greater Lake Tahoe area through Tuesday evening, and the numbers would rise to 18 to 36 inches above 7,000 feet. The service warned against traveling in the area, telling motorists, "You could be stuck in your vehicle for many hours.''

Miles of Sierra Nevada highways were subject to chain requirements and closures because of whiteout conditions. The Eastern Sierra’s Mammoth Mountain ski resort reported 4½ to 5½ feet of snow, and more was expected.

Rain turns into snow at higher elevations, and in normal times its accumulation in the mountains serves as natural water storage for the state. Rivers and creeks are nourished by the melting of snow in the spring, and this snow season was projected to be significant after years of underwhelming totals.

The flip side, however, is huge amounts of snow create hazards that include fallen branches and trees and blocked roads. Accuweather warned that "the fluctuation of rain and snow could bring an increased avalanche danger as well.''

Flood watches, mudslide concerns for San Francisco and beyond

The weather service issued a flood watch for the entire San Francisco Bay Area, the Sacramento Valley and Monterey Bay. Areas hit by wildfires in recent years faced the possibility of mud and debris sliding off denuded hillsides that have yet to fully recover their protective layer of vegetation. The storm was expected to bring enough rain to exacerbate flooding and heighten the risk of mudslides, forecasters said.

Some residents fled, and many sheltered in place.

"Check on friends and family who may need assistance ... especially the elderly, homebound, or neighbors with disabilities," the San Francisco Department of Emergency Management urged.

Sinkhole swallows two cars in Chatsworth area near Los Angeles

Vehicles were seen submerged in water in some parts of Los Angeles. And a sinkhole swallowed two vehicles in the Chatsworth area in northeast Los Angeles late Monday. Authorities said two people escaped on their own, and firefighters used ropes and an aerial ladder to rescue two others who had minor injuries.

California state highway authorities said late Monday that parts of U.S. and state highways were closed because of flooding, mud or rockslides, heavy snow or car spinouts and truck crashes. Included: northbound lanes of U.S. 101, a key coastal route.

California storms: Climate change or something else?

California could face a "parade of storms" over the next several weeks, on top of recent deluges that have killed at least 14 people, triggered flooding, knocked out power and forced evacuations and school closures up and down the coast. Although wet winters and dry summers are a natural part of California's weather patterns going back millennia, the question arises: Are this year's storms something out of the ordinary?

Weather patterns over hundreds of years show periods of severe drought and periods of extreme wetness in the state. The last few years have been severe drought. The wetness over the last two weeks has been extreme.

"We have in recent years become accustomed to quite dry conditions and a lot of winters that didn't feel much like winter in a lot of California past decade or so," said Daniel Swain, a climate scientist at the University of California, Los Angeles. "And that is both unusual, but also typical in the longer context." Read more here.

– Elizabeth Weise and Dinah Voyles Pulver

Contributing: The Associated Press

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