California storm death toll reaches 16 as more rain, winds hit state

The San Lorenzo River on Tuesday near the Tannery Arts Center.
(Thomas Sawano / Lookout Santa Cruz)

A winter storm continues to lash Northern California as the state’s death toll from the extreme weather climbed to at least 16 people, including a Santa Cruz man killed at Lighthouse Field State Beach.

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The latest in a series of intense winter storms was forecast to continue to lash Northern California on Tuesday, bringing periods of thunderstorms, heavy rain, wind and hail to the already waterlogged region as the death toll from the extreme weather climbs.

The back-to-back storms across the Golden State have killed at least 16 people, including a Santa Cruz man who was found under a fallen tree at Lighthouse Field State Beach amid the Dec. 31 storm.

Two motorists died early Tuesday in a crash on Highway 99 in Tulare County when a tree that had been struck by lightning fell into the road, authorities said.

Storm Central keeps you updated as we watch, wait and assess. Check back here as Lookout correspondents reach out across...

“These floods are deadly and have now turned to be more deadly than even the wildfires here in the state of California,” Gov. Gavin Newsom said during a news conference over the weekend.

Early Tuesday, the Merced County sheriff issued a mandatory evacuation order for the town of Planada just east of Merced, which affects 4,000 residents, after Bear Creek began to flood amid heavy rain.

A day earlier, Merced city officials had issued evacuation orders and warnings along a number of residential neighborhoods along Bear Creek, which runs through the heart of the city.

Merced is bisected by Bear Creek, a tributary for the Mokelumne River that starts in the Sierra Nevada. Bear Creek’s water levels reached the major flood stage early Tuesday, sending muddy water into neighborhoods and stranding motorists.

About 189,000 Pacific Gas & Electric Co. customers remained without power Tuesday, including thousands in Santa Cruz County. Efforts to restore power overnight were stymied by wind gusts exceeding 70 mph in some areas and more than 100 lightning strikes, according to the utility. PG&E’s outage map is here.

An aerial phot of a landslide that closed Highway 9 at Ben Lomond on Monday.
(Kevin Painchaud / Lookout Santa Cruz)

In Felton, portions of which were flooded Monday from the rising San Lorenzo River, sustained major damage overnight from powerful winds gusting up to 70 mph that toppled trees. Highway 17 was closed after power lines went down and were sparking on the roadway, according to the National Weather Service.

Forecasters are keeping close watch on the Salinas and Big Sur rivers in Monterey County.

Sheriff officials issued an evacuation order for residents near the Salinas River early Tuesday. Officials anticipate the river could reach flood stage by Wednesday, according to the California Nevada River Forecast Center.

While forecasters say the brunt of the storm, which began late Sunday, has passed through the northern half of the state, wet weather and periods of intense showers will occur across the region, with some thunderstorms.

“If a strong thunderstorm does develop over an area, people need to realize that it could produce really gusty winds as well as dump heavy rainfall,” said Brooke Bingaman, a meteorologist with the National Weather Service in the San Francisco Bay Area. “So what that means is, while that thunderstorm is there, more trees could go down and there could be quick water rises if you’re near a creek or stream.”

In the Sacramento area, forecasters observed rotation on radar indicating favorable conditions for tornado formation and issued a tornado warning, though no twisters actually materialized, said Cory Mueller, a meteorologist with the National Weather Service in Sacramento.

The strong winds wreaked havoc in the area, knocking over a semi truck and leaving it dangling on an overpass and toppling trees across El Dorado, Amador and Sacramento counties.

San Francisco has logged its third wettest 15-day period on record, which goes back to the Gold Rush in 1849, according to meteorologist Jan Null, an adjunct professor of meteorology at San Jose State.

Storms have dumped 12.37 inches of rain in San Francisco since Dec. 26. The only two wettest 15-day periods ahead of that were in December 1866, when 13.54 inches fell and during the Great Flood of 1862, which saw more than 19 inches of rain.

Nearly all of California has seen rainfall totals ranging from 400% to 600% of above average over the past several weeks.

“This has resulted in nearly saturated soils and increasingly high river levels,” the weather service said Tuesday, adding that heavy rain through the day will “further exacerbate ongoing flooding while prolonging the risk of flash flooding and mudslides especially across recent burn scar regions.”

More rain is on the horizon with another atmospheric river forecast to move into Northern California on Wednesday and precipitation continuing through the weekend.

This story originally appeared in Los Angeles Times.

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