California copes with heavy rain, flooding in latest ‘atmospheric river’ storm

Corky Beall surveys flood waters on College Road in Watsonville, California March 10, 2023.Nic Coury/The Associated Press

Emergency officials in several California counties spent Friday patrolling levies and swollen rivers as an “atmospheric flow” storm drenched the already soaked state with torrential rain, causing flooding that eroded roads and prompted evacuations.

The recent deluge of dense torrents of Pacific moisture that swept across California’s skies soaked some mountainous areas still clogged with snow piles dumped by a recent wave of crippling snowstorms and pushed even more snow to higher elevations.

The San Bernardino County Sheriff’s Department said it is investigating what role, if any, late February snowstorms may have played in the deaths of at least eight people, most of them elderly, who had a history of dying alone while living in their houses were snowed in for two weeks.

Residents of the city of Big Bear and nearby mountain enclaves said their communities were ill-prepared for the severity of the winter storms, which local authorities described as unprecedented for the Southern California highlands.

The latest blast of heavy showers and gusty winds hit Thursday evening and peaked early Friday. It swept across a vast region that is home to some 26 million people, including the greater Los Angeles area, the San Francisco Bay Area and metropolitan Sacramento.

Flood warnings and warnings stretched from San Diego and the Mexico border to the Shasta-Cascade region of Northern California.

The National Weather Service (NWS) reported rainfall totals ranging from 3 inches to nearly 10 inches across the region.

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US President Joe Biden on Friday declared a state of emergency in California and ordered federal aid to help state and local authorities deal with the severe weather.

The storm was the product of what meteorologists call an atmospheric flow, a high-altitude current of dense, subtropical moisture pouring into the west coast from the warm Pacific waters around Hawaii.

It’s the 10th such weather system to hit California since Christmas, contributing to an exceptionally wet, snowy winter in a state that’s been beset by drought and wildfires far more than heavy rainfall in recent years.

Among the hardest-hit areas on Friday were riverside communities in central California, where numerous streams clogged by rain and melting snow from the surrounding mountains turned into torrents.


About 2,000 residents in San Luis Obispo County were under evacuation orders and alerts as crews there spent the day monitoring levees, creeks and rivers and filling sandbags, said Rachel Monte Dion, the county’s emergency services coordinator.

Some employees spent hours in trailers watching for flooding in low-lying areas across the county, which was hit by torrential downpours in January, causing a levy to fail and homes to be damaged.

“It’s been raining non stop here since January and so our soil is completely saturated and our creeks are full,” Dion said, adding that Friday’s flooding hit parts of the coastal wine town of Cambria and the coastal community of Oceano.

A road collapse in Paso Robles for the second time since January left a few hundred residents outside that town cut off again, Dion said.

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In Santa Cruz County, another road washed out by a flooding creek near the town of Soquel has isolated at least 400 homes in adjacent foothill and mountain communities, county spokesman Jason Hoppin said.

Elsewhere in the county, evacuation of communities along the rapidly rising San Lorenzo River was ordered before it reached flood level and then backed out, Hoppin said. Authorities were still keeping an eye on the Pajaro River, which drains a much larger area and therefore takes longer to rise and fall, he said.

Evacuation orders were issued along the banks of this river in Monterey County, where “the levee is slightly lower” than on the Santa Cruz County side, Hoppin said.

On Friday morning, the Weather Service issued a flash flood warning for parts of Tulare County, urging residents: “Move to higher ground now! This is an extremely dangerous and life-threatening situation.”

The Tulare County Sheriff has issued evacuation orders and alerts for several areas where rivers and streams have either burst their banks, are approaching dangerously high levels, or where a dam has been breached. At least one bridge has been reported washed out.

The increasing frequency and intensity of such storms amid prolonged droughts are symptomatic of human-caused climate change, experts say. Shifting from one extreme to the other has made managing California’s precious water supplies more difficult while minimizing the risks of flooding and wildfires.


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