Death toll rises to 18, cleanup continues as another storm targets California

California State Parks workers survey damage to Seacliff State Beach in early January.
(Kevin Painchaud / Lookout Santa Cruz)

The latest storm threatens to further swamp California, already reeling from widespread flooding, mudslides, washed-out roads and downed power lines.

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Repair and cleanup efforts were continuing across California on Wednesday, even as the weather-weary state found itself in the path of yet another in a seemingly ceaseless parade of storms.

The latest system — the seventh atmospheric river storm to train its eye on the state since Christmas — threatens to further swamp a state already reeling from widespread flooding, mudslides, washed-out roads, and downed trees and power lines.

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

“I guess it’s about time we had this kind of notoriety,” said Alan Vidunas, as he walked in the devastated seaside town of Capitola with his 10-year-old dog, Seabass. “I always call my friends in Florida after they’ve been hit by hurricanes. They’re now calling me.”

Capitola is but one of many California communities trying to get arms around the damage wrought by recent storms — which showered sheets of rain across the state, causing roadways to flood, hillsides to crumble and rivers and creeks to crest their banks.

Sonoma County sheriff’s officials on Wednesday announced a person had been found dead in a car submerged in 8 to 10 feet of water, bringing the total number of confirmed storm-related fatalities to 18.

A tornado also briefly touched down in Calaveras County on Tuesday morning, causing extensive tree damage, according to the National Weather Service.

Widespread flooding forced the evacuation of the community of Planada, a town of about 4,000 people just east of Merced. Though water levels have started to recede, the Merced County Sheriff’s Office said Wednesday morning that it was “unsafe to go back into flooded areas” and the evacuation order was still in place.

County Supervisor Rodrigo Espinosa said more than half the town, which is home to many farmworkers, flooded. Officials were hoping to marshal government and nonprofit resources to get aid to people, he added, and were also working furiously to shore up the sewage plant in Planada so it doesn’t send raw sewage into the already decimated community.

“It’s very sad,” he said. “We’re just trying to get help to residents.”

Nearly 41,000 Pacific Gas & Electric Co. customers in Northern and Central California remained without power because of storm-related outages Wednesday morning. The utility has called this “the single largest winter storm response” in its history.

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

“The weather looks favorable for restoration over the next few days, although issues with flooding and access remain in some locations,” officials said.

Recovery efforts are underway under the looming threat of even more storms, which could further douse some already inundated areas through the weekend.

“It’s not that any individual storm is a big scary one — it’s what are the cumulative impacts, because it’s really rare for us to get into storms seven, eight and nine,” said Michael Anderson, state climatologist at the California Department of Water Resources. “We just don’t have that many in the historical record.”

Rainfall totals San Francisco over the past 15 days are now the area’s third-highest on record, he said, with only January 1862 — the “Great Flood of California” — and December 1866 having more rain in that window.

“So that gets us up into territories that we haven’t really seen, in terms of that much rain,” he said.

Santa Cruz County Supervisor Zach Friend characterized recent storms as “a once-in-a-generational challenging event” that has affected the whole county.

“We know this is going to be a long rebuild. We know we’re going to need a lot of resources,” he said during a news conference Tuesday. “But what we also need is a sense of resilience from all of us to be able to rebuild this area — because we’ve seen the tears, we’ve seen the anger, but we’re moving into a resilience phase where we’re just trying to rebuild, bring that hope back.”

Although it’s too early to estimate, the cost to repair the damage from these storms could exceed $1 billion, said Adam Smith, an applied climatologist and disaster expert with the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. California’s storms would be the first billion-dollar disaster of 2023.

“We’re here for the long haul, not just here for this moment,” Gov. Gavin Newsom said during Tuesday’s news conference.

Some closely watched rivers were receding on Tuesday, including the Pajaro River Santa Cruz and Monterey counties and Bear Creek in Merced, according to Jeremey Arrich, manager of the Division of Flood Management with the Department of Water Resources.

The Pajaro River levee, which has seen some seepage during the ongoing series of storms, was set for emergency repairs Wednesday.

But at least seven sites — including the Russian River in Sonoma and Mendocino counties — were forecast to exceed their flood stage in the coming days, with 20 more expected to reach the monitor stage, he said. Those numbers could change as new information comes in.

A flood warning remains in effect through Thursday morning across parts of Mariposa and Merced counties, according to the National Weather Service. Flood watches were in effect Wednesday through Thursday midday for Marin County, the North Bay, and a swath of Northern California reaching northward in parts of Humboldt County and points eastward, including the Sacramento Valley and the western slope of the northern Sierra Nevada.

Winds won’t be as strong as those that hit earlier this week, but still, downed trees are possible and the coast and mountains could still see gusts of up to 60 mph.

The hard-hit Santa Cruz Mountains and the North San Francisco Bay could see rainfall of up to 3 inches through Wednesday night, with less rain likely for the East Bay, Monterey Bay and Central Coast. Wind gusts of up to 60 mph are also possible.

Chances of rain persist through Thursday. It remains unclear whether Thursday will give a reprieve to the soggy North Bay, which “would be a bad scenario,” the weather service said. The Russian River at Guerneville in Sonoma County narrowly avoided surging into flood stage in recent days but could still exceed it briefly on Thursday before receding and again on Sunday.

The next storm is set to hit Northern California on Friday into Saturday, and a thunderstorm or two is possible.

And a third storm could strike on Sunday and persist through Martin Luther King Jr. Day into Tuesday.

“The recent storms have unfortunately resulted in loss of life here in California, destructive flooding and property damage across the state, and our thoughts and support really do go out to those who are suffering during this time,” Arrich said. “It’s super important that the public just continue to heed all the warnings and direction from local law enforcement and the emergency managers that are putting those warnings out there.”

This story originally appeared in Los Angeles Times.


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