In saturated California, evacuation orders and impassable roads
Workers battle crashing waves as they board up a waterfront business in Capitola, Calif. on Friday, Jan. 13, 2023.
By SHAWN HUBLER, VICTORIA KIM and JUDSON JONES
A fresh wave of storms inundated California again Saturday, swelling rivers, downing power lines and imperiling travelers during yet another holiday weekend as a procession of atmospheric rivers continued to wallop the state.
At least 19 people have died since late December, with the toll expected to increase, in a series of powerful storms that unleashed destructive downpours from the North Coast to the southern border over the past 2 1/2 weeks.
The state’s northern and central regions have sustained the most damage: Levees have broken, thousands of trees have toppled, towering waves have shattered piers and mudslides have blocked highways. Flash flooding has shut down critical roads in the valleys and coastal areas, and heavy snow has blocked passages east over mountain ranges.
As of Saturday evening, millions of residents from Eureka, in the far north of the state, to San Diego were under flood advisories. Across the state, emergency officials said, more than 75,000 people were under evacuation orders and warnings. More than 23,000 utility customers were without power statewide, according to poweroutage.us, which tracks power interruptions. A federal emergency declaration covered much of the state, with the cost of damage expected to reach hundreds of millions, if not billions, of dollars by the time skies clear.
The repeated lashings have left the ground beyond saturated in much of California, and the arrival of still more rain has threatened to compound the risk of flooding and mudslides. State emergency officials have sought to shore up hills, evacuate flood-prone communities and position rescue crews in vulnerable areas.
None of the current storms would be considered catastrophic individually, meteorologists say, but the cumulative impact of almost relentless precipitation and wind has posed a formidable challenge. State authorities said the storms, taken together, had claimed more lives than the entirety of the past two wildfire seasons. On Friday, Nancy Ward, director of the Governor’s Office of Emergency Services, described the onslaught as “among the most deadly natural disasters in the modern history of our state.”
One to 5 more inches of rain was expected to fall by Monday morning, with 2 to 3 more feet of snow in the Sierra Nevada and up to 6 feet in some places. In Southern California, where incoming storms were expected to bring up to 1 inch of rain in the valleys and along the coast and up to 3 inches in the mountains, Mayor Karen Bass of Los Angeles declared a state of emergency, anticipating mudslides and flooding.
In Northern California, where the current storm system hit first, roads were a lethal maze of floodwater, landslides, downed trees, blowing snow, spinouts and closures. Authorities in San Luis Obispo County, citing unsafe conditions, temporarily paused the search for Kyle Doan, a 5-year-old who disappeared down a rushing creek Monday after being wrested from his mother’s arms as they tried to escape from floodwaters rising around their car.
At Donner Summit, scientists at the Central Sierra Snow Lab at the University of California, Berkeley, on Saturday reported more than 2 feet of snowfall in less than 36 hours, and state transportation officials were turning big rigs around amid deteriorating road conditions. At 7 a.m., more than 30 semitrucks were parked in a single file along the shoulder of eastbound Interstate 80 at the Nevada state line.
State, federal and local officials implored motorists to stay off roads that were filled with determined travelers bound for the slopes on a packed Martin Luther King Day weekend.
“If you can avoid travel, please consider staying home,” Mike Keever, chief deputy director of the state transportation agency, Caltrans, said at a news conference Friday. “Watch some football. Enjoy some time with your family.”
Since the week after Christmas, California has been pummeled by eight atmospheric rivers, a weather phenomenon that summons moisture into a powerful band and then unleashes intense blasts of precipitation. At least five of the atmospheric rivers have been powerful enough to be categorized as “strong” or greater, said Chad Hecht, a research and operations meteorologist at the Center for Western Weather and Water Extremes at the Scripps Institution of Oceanography in San Diego. That is nearly as many intense atmospheric rivers as the state normally sees in a year, Hecht said.
Forecasts promised an incoming respite.
“We are nearing the end of this active cycle — we just need to get through this weekend and Monday,” said Daniel Swain, a climate scientist at UCLA, noting that at least one more large storm system is expected to hit the state Sunday before a shift in weather patterns brings drier conditions.
But state officials warned that the weekend storms, on terrain that was already 95% saturated in some areas, had primed the ground for more disaster.
“We’re not out of the woods,” Gov. Gavin Newsom warned Saturday in Merced County, where thousands had been evacuated earlier in the week amid extensive flooding.
Rainfall totals throughout the past several weeks have been 400% to 600% above average, according to the National Weather Service’s Weather Prediction Center. In some parts of Northern California, more rain has been recorded in the past three weeks than would normally fall in six months.
On the other hand, there has been an increase in the statewide average snowpack to 226% of the average for this time of year and a significant easing in the record drought that has gripped the state, according to environmental officials.