SAN FRANCISCO – Heavy rains, high winds, power outages and evacuations rolled across California on Thursday as a second massive storm in a week overwhelmed the state and was blamed for at least two deaths.
Forecasts called for up to 10 inches of rain in some areas as the “bomb cyclone” – a storm intensified by a quick drop in atmospheric pressure – threatened to swamp the state.
Strong winds that toppled trees and powerlines exacerbated concerns, and more than 175,000 homes and businesses were without power Thursday. Wind gusts in excess of 100 mph were reported in Placer County’s Alpine Meadows, and gusts of up to 85 mph forced cancelation of scores of flights at San Francisco International Airport.
Rivers and streams were rising to alarming levels, and authorities struggled to meet the demand for sandbags as residents scrambled to keep floodwaters out of homes.
Police in Fairfield, 50 miles northeast of San Francisco, said a woman died in a car crash on a flooded road. And in the Sonoma County town of Occidental, Fire Chief Ronald Lunardi told local media that a child was killed when a tree blew onto a family’s home.
“A powerful atmospheric river continues to stream moisture over California,” Weather Prediction Center forecaster Paul Ziegenfelder said Thursday. “Considerable flooding impacts are likely. Rain rates over 1 inch per hour may lead to rapid water rises and mud (and) rock slides.”
The weather upheaval comes days after a New Year’s Eve downpour forced evacuation of people in rural Northern California communities and the rescue of several motorists from flooded roads. A few levees south of Sacramento were damaged, and on Wednesday, authorities in south Sacramento County found a body in a submerged car – one of at least four victims of flooding from that storm.
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San Francisco ‘preparing for a war’
In San Francisco, where just days ago 5 inches of rain sent floodwaters roaring down streets like rivers, about 1.5 inches of rain had already fallen early Thursday and up to 5 more were possible. Mayor London Breed said the city was “preparing for a war” – crews cleared clogged storm drains, shuttled homeless people into shelters and issued emergency supplies and ponchos to those who refused to go.
She urged residents to stay at home and not to inundate 911 with calls that do not involve threats to life.
“The storm that we had talked about is actually here. Floods are inevitable.” Breed said. “We have a team of people who are triaging all of the various challenges that exist all throughout our city in order to address them as quickly as possible.”
Authorities in Sonoma County, 80 miles north of San Francisco, issued an evacuation warning for towns along the Russian River. The river was predicted to crest above flood stage Thursday night, recede on Friday and flood again Sunday into Monday.
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Evacuations on Central Coast, where deadly mudslides have previously hit
Along the state’s Central Coast, Montecito was among towns where evacuations were ordered. Five years ago, landslides roared down from the mountains through the town, killing 23 people and destroying more than 100 homes. In Southern California, Santa Barbara was among areas ordering evacuations in areas scarred by recent wildfires.
“Cliffs and bluffs are considered dangerous at this time due to severe weather conditions, including heavy rain and storm surges,” Santa Barbara County tweeted. “Please avoid decks or patios on bluffs, and do not cross safety fencing at the top of cliffs.”
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What’s an atmospheric river?
The storm, the second of three or possibly four headed toward the California coast, is coming from across the Pacific Ocean. It’s what’s known as an atmospheric river – or a “Pineapple Express” because it originates over Hawaii.
These storms bring heavy rainfall and occur when a line of warm, moist air flows from near the islands across the Pacific Ocean to the West Coast.
When it reaches the cooler air over the western landmass, the water vapor falls as heavy rain. Atmospheric rivers are long, flowing regions of the atmosphere that carry water vapor across a swath of sky 250 to 375 miles wide. They can be more than 1,000 miles long – and can carry more water than the Mississippi River.
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Severe weather in South, Midwest
The South, too, was hit with intense weather. Heavy rains, flash floods and severe weather were seen in a swath across Florida, Georgia, North Carolina and South Carolina. A possible tornado touched down in Montgomery, Alabama, on Wednesday.
“We’re grateful not to have confirmed any fatalities associated with this morning’s tornado outbreak,” Mayor Steven Reed tweeted. “An incident command center has been activated as we continue response and assessment of the widespread property damage in east Montgomery.”
In the Midwest, ice and heavy snow this week closed schools in Wisconsin and Minnesota, where a jet rolled off an icy taxiway after landing in a snowstorm in Minneapolis.
In Illinois, the National Weather Service planned to survey storm damage following at least six tornadoes, the largest number of rare January tornadoes recorded in the state since 1989.
Contributing: Elizabeth Weise, USA TODAY; Evan Mealins and Alex Gladden, Montgomery Advertiser; The Associated Press