Death toll rises to 5 as wild California storm passes, leaving heightened flood risk

From left,Gerri Watkins, Cornell Hope and Meeko Shamel walk along the Hermosa Beach Pier in the rain
From left,Gerri Watkins, Cornell Hope and Meeko Shamel walk along the Hermosa Beach Pier in the rain on Tuesday.
(Christina House / Los Angeles Times)

The remarkable “bomb cyclone” storm is losing energy as it moves southeast, but it could still cause damage and flooding, especially in the already soaked Central Valley.

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Heavy rain and damaging winds will gradually subside Wednesday as one of the wildest storms of the season makes its exit from the Golden State, leaving at least five people dead and others critically injured as it felled trees and knocked out power to hundreds of thousands.

One person was killed and another injured Tuesday when a large tree fell onto their car in Walnut Creek, according to the Contra Costa County Fire Protection District. Another individual was killed when a tree fell onto a vehicle on Alpine Road in the San Mateo County community of Portola Valley, the California Highway Patrol said.

In Oakland, a man was pronounced dead Tuesday night after a tree fell on the tent he was inside near Lake Merritt. An exact cause of death has not yet been determined, but officials presume he died of either blunt force or suffocation.

Gusts reached up to 76 mph in the Santa Cruz Mountains on Tuesday, leading to downed trees and wires across the county....

Two people also died after being brought to Zuckerberg San Francisco General Hospital on Tuesday for treatment of injuries suffered in separate storm-related incidents, according to city officials.

“Tragically, two people lost their lives, which is a grave reminder of how serious and dangerous this storm became,” Mayor London Breed said in a statement.

Though stormy conditions were dissipating Wednesday in the San Francisco Bay Area from the remarkable “bomb cyclone,” the Central Valley is bracing for more rain and potential flooding as the system tracks in its direction. A flood watch is in effect for a large swath of the region, spanning from Merced to Bakersfield and San Luis Obispo.

Thousands of people remain under evacuation orders in Tulare County, where officials continue to monitor high levels on the Tule River and release water from Lake Success. Nearly 24,000 structures in the area are threatened, said Daniel Potter, spokesman for the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection, which is assisting with emergency response in the area.

At least 760 homes and structures have been damaged, including seven that have been completely destroyed, said Carrie Monteiro, spokeswoman for Tulare County’s Emergency Operations Center. Assessments are ongoing.

There is no estimated time frame for when evacuated residents will be able to return to their homes, and utility companies will also need to assess potential damage to water, sewer, electric systems and other infrastructure in the area, she added.

“We’re in for a long haul here in Tulare County,” she said.

The storm brought hurricane-force winds Tuesday as it developed two “eyes,” or areas of low pressure, that swirled around each other in what is known as the Fujiwhara effect, meteorologists said.

Trees falling in heavy winds snapped a power pole on Aptos Beach Drive
Trees falling in heavy winds snapped a power pole on Aptos Beach Drive on Tuesday.
(Kevin Painchaud / Lookout Santa Cruz)

“Wow. Even by the standards of what has turned out to be one of our most extraordinary winter seasons in a very long time, yesterday stands out,” the National Weather Service said Wednesday.

The strength of the storm, which brought wind gusts of up to 70 mph on the Monterey County coast and 80 mph in the mountains, caught even some meteorologists by surprise.

“From a large-scale picture, there was just a lot of potential energy to be converted over to energy and motion — or kinetic energy — and it just equated to a lot of wind and a fair amount of rain,” said Rick Canepa, a meteorologist with the National Weather Service in the Bay Area. “It just fully spun up and strengthened over our forecast area.”

Weeks of wild weather have left few corners of California unscathed. Over the last month or so, Gov. Gavin Newsom has proclaimed a state of emergency in 43 of the state’s 58 counties.

“We’re continuing to mobilize an all-hands-on-deck response to protect Californians during this latest round of devastating storms,” Newsom said in a statement. “With communities from San Diego to Siskiyou County reeling from recent storms, the state is working closely with federal and local partners to provide immediate relief and support the ongoing recovery.”

As many as 244,000 customers were without power Tuesday evening, according to Pacific Gas & Electric Co. Initial assessments found 42 damaged poles and 23 damaged transformers from the storm.

About 121,000 people remained without power statewide Wednesday morning, according to outage trackers.

As of Wednesday morning, 688 people were seeking refuge at emergency shelters in Santa Cruz, Monterey, Calaveras, Humboldt, Kern, Mono, San Bernardino, San Joaquin, Stanislaus and Tulare counties, according to the Governor’s Office of Emergency Services.

The California Department of Transportation responded to “dozens and dozens” of reports of flooding, downed trees and power lines that snarled traffic, sometimes for hours as cars were stuck between two energized wires on the road, spokesman Kevin Drabinski said.

“We have five counties in our district,” he said of the area from Monterey to Santa Barbara. “There’s not one that wasn’t affected by flooding and downed trees — it’s just everywhere.”

Long stretches of Highways 9 and 236 in Santa Cruz County remained closed Wednesday as crews worked to clear the roads, he said.

The storm’s last gasp is expected to deliver more rain to the region through Wednesday night, but only about half an inch along the coast and valleys and an inch in the Santa Lucia and Santa Cruz mountains, Canepa said.

The chance of rain will diminish through the day as the storm loses energy and moves southeast.

The weakened system could still deliver strong thunderstorms south of Fresno County, along with an additional half-inch of rain in the San Joaquin Valley and an inch in the Sierra Nevada foothills, said Bill South, a meteorologist with the weather service in Hanford. Two additional feet of snow are possible at elevations above 6,000 feet.

The flood watch has less to do with precipitation totals than with “what happened leading up to this event,” South said, including heavy rainfall and low-elevation snowmelt.

“Many of the rivers, streams and creeks are running at capacity right now, or just below capacity, so any additional rainfall today is going to cause additional flooding, or worsen ongoing flooding,” he said.

Tulare County officials estimate about 10,000 acres of the county are underwater due to the recent snowmelt and storms, he added.

Sunrise over flooded fields in Yolo County
In Yolo County, near the town of Dunnigan, officials from the state Department of Water Resources are working with farmers on a project to recharge groundwater. Storm water is allowed to percolate into the ground to replenish aquifers, while providing habitat for birds.
(Carolyn Cole / Los Angeles Times)

Videos shared by San Joaquin Valley news outlet SJV Water show the low-lying area of Corcoran in nearby Kings County transformed into a “sea.”

Potter, the Cal Fire spokesman, said crews have been able to patch most of the levee breaks that sent floodwaters rushing into the area, and will be patrolling Wednesday as the storm brings more rain before gradually drying out overnight.

More than 50 breaches have occurred along Tulare County’s 620 miles of waterways, said Monteiro, the emergency operations spokeswoman. Crews on Wednesday were continuing to secure large breaches and plug new ones.

However, “these are temporary stabilizations,” Monteiro said. “Once we get past this series of storms, and get past this immediate emergency response of stopping levee breaches or breaks, then we have to go back to all these areas and they have to be re-engineered.”

The heavily agricultural region is also anticipating crop damage. That includes field crops such as wheat and forage crops for cows, as well as citrus crops and pistachios, almonds, walnuts and other nuts, Monteiro said.

Officials are closely monitoring the Tule River, Kaweah River and Kings River watersheds, she added.

Though rainfall is expected to dissipate by Thursday, “we have over 200% of normal snowpack in our mountains, and that is going to melt as the seasons change warmer,” Monteiro said. “They’re balancing releasing water and managing the capacity of those reservoirs in preparation for rainstorms, but also in preparation for our snowmelt this summer.”

Southern California is also bracing for more rainfall after a wet and stormy day Tuesday set daily rainfall records in the area, including 1.53 inches at Long Beach Airport, which surpassed the previous record of 0.82 inches set in 1983.

Downtown Los Angeles received 1.43 inches, breaking its 130-year record of 1.34 inches set in 1893.

The region largely fared better than the Bay Area, although roadway flooding, debris flows and strong winds were reported.

However, flood watches will remain in effect through Wednesday afternoon in areas ranging from Oxnard to San Diego, including much of the L.A. Basin. Isolated showers and a brief chance of thunderstorms are expected to wane as the day goes on.

High temperatures in Los Angeles are expected to stay in the 50s — about 12 to 18 degrees below normal.

A winter storm warning is also in effect in the San Bernardino mountains until 5 a.m. Thursday, where 60 mph wind gusts and up to 14 inches of fresh snow are possible. Blizzard conditions there earlier this month trapped scores of residents and resulted in more than a dozen deaths.

Recent snowfall totals were only a fraction of those seen during that historic event, however. From Tuesday to Wednesday morning, the San Bernardino County Department of Public Works recorded 10 inches of snow in Big Bear, 7 inches in Crestline, 11 inches in Lake Arrowhead, 14 inches in Running Springs, and 22 inches in Green Valley Lake. Crews will continue working during and after snowfall to clear roadways, officials said.

The rest of the week should be chilly and dry, forecasters said, but there is a chance for more rain to develop across the state as early as Monday.

In the meantime, officials are still trying to get arms around the full brunt of the latest storm. The National Weather Service plans to dispatch a survey team to the Carpinteria area Wednesday afternoon to assess whether damage reported at a mobile home park may have been the result of a landspout or tornado.

This story originally appeared in Los Angeles Times.


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