SAN FRANCISCO (AP) — Devastating winds and torrential rains from a powerful “atmospheric river” hit California on Thursday, cutting off power to tens of thousands of people, causing flash floods and contributing to the deaths of at least two people, including a child whose home was hit fallen tree.
Officials have ordered evacuations in a high-risk coastal area where landslides killed 23 people in 2018 as a major storm hit the state. Authorities have warned residents to squat at home in anticipation of flooded roads, downed trees and other risks.
It was the latest in a series of fast-moving atmospheric rivers—long plumes of moisture that stretched far over the Pacific Ocean—that hit California. It was a “pineapple express” that started near Hawaii and stretched towards the west coast in a rotating area of rapidly falling air pressure, known as the “bomb cyclone”.
In Sonoma County, Western Volunteers fire chief Ronald Lunardi said a child believed to be under 2 died Wednesday night after a tree fell on a house, The Press Democrat reported. In Fairfield, a 19-year-old woman has died after her car hydroplaned on a flooded road and crashed into a pole, police said on Facebook.
The storm brought rain to parts of the San Francisco Bay Area, where a flood warning was issued for the region. The storm is expected to peak early Thursday in Southern California, with Santa Barbara and Ventura counties likely to experience the most rain, according to forecasters.
“We expect this to be one of the most complex and destructive series of storms to hit California in the past five years,” said Nancy Ward, director of the California Governor’s Office of Emergency Management.
San Francisco Mayor London Breed told a press conference that the city was “preparing for war.” Crews cleared clogged storm drains, tried to relocate the homeless to shelters, and handed out emergency supplies and ponchos to those who refused to go.
The city distributed so many sandbags to the residents that the supplies temporarily ran out.
Strong winds gusting up to 85 mph (136 km/h) or more forced the cancellation of more than 70 flights at San Francisco International Airport and downed trees and power lines. Firefighters rescued a family after a tree fell on their car. The fire department said “large shards of glass” fell from the Fox Plaza tower near the Civic Center, although no injuries were reported. The department tweeted that it was “very likely” that the damage was wind related.
More than 180,000 homes and businesses in California were left without power as of early Thursday, according to poweroutage.us.
The storm is the latest of three atmospheric river storms in the last week to reach a dry state. California Gov. Gavin Newsom declared a state of emergency to ensure a quick response and help clear up another massive storm that hit just a few days earlier.
In Southern California, an evacuation order has been issued for those living in areas hit by three recent wildfires in Santa Barbara County, where heavy rain forecast overnight could cause widespread flooding and mudslides.
Among the cities ordered to evacuate was Montecito, where huge boulders, mud and debris swept through the city to the coastline five years ago, killing 23 people and destroying more than 100 homes.
Elsewhere, a 45-mile (72 km) stretch of Coastal Highway 1 through Big Sur was closed Wednesday evening in anticipation of flooding and rockfalls. Further north, a 25-mile (40 km) section of Highway 101 was closed due to several downed trees.
Drivers have been urged to stay off the roads unless absolutely necessary, especially ahead of heavy snowfall in the mountains.
Evacuation orders were issued in Santa Cruz County Paradise Park along the fast-flowing San Lorenzo River, as well as in areas along the Pajaro River. Residents fleeing the 2020 Santa Cruz Mountains wildfires packed their bags as the cities of Boulder Creek, Ben Lomond and Felton were warned to be ready to evacuate.
Sonoma County authorities have issued evacuation warnings for a number of cities along the Russian River.
The storm came days after a New Year’s Eve rainstorm led to evacuations in Northern California and the rescue of several motorists from flooded roads. Several dams south of Sacramento were damaged and at least four people died in the flood.
Storms will not be enough to officially end the state’s ongoing drought, which is in its fourth year, officials said.
According to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, atmospheric rivers, named by researchers in the 1990s, are found throughout the world, but are especially important on the US West Coast, where they generate 30% to 50% of annual precipitation.
– Associated Press contributors Janie Har of San Francisco and Sophie Austin of Sacramento contributed to this report.
Top photo: A gas station canopy tipped over by high winds lies at an angle, Wednesday, Jan. 4, 2023, in South San Francisco. Another winter storm hit California on Wednesday, bringing even more rain and snow to the upstate. This is the second major storm in a week in a scorched state. This follows storms that have brought the threat of flash flooding and severe thunderstorms to the US South, as well as heavy snowfall to the northern Midwest. (AP Photo/Godofredo A. Vasquez)
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