SAN FRANCISCO — Damaging hurricane-force winds, surging surf and heavy rains from a powerful “atmospheric river” pounded California on Thursday, knocking out power to tens of thousands, causing flooding, and contributing to the deaths of at least two people, including a child whose home was hit by a falling tree.
Officials had ordered evacuations in high-risk coastal area s Wednesday and warned residents to hunker down at home in anticipation of flooded roads, toppled trees and possible mudslides.
Even as rains were expected to let up Thursday, the state was bracing for more wet and wild weather this weekend, the latest in a rapid series of atmospheric rivers — long plumes of moisture stretching far over the Pacific — to hit California. This one was a “Pineapple Express” originating near Hawaii and pulled toward the West Coast by a rotating area of rapidly falling air pressure known as a “bomb cyclone.”
The latest storm knocked out power to more than 180,000 homes and businesses in California at one point, according to poweroutage.us.
In Sonoma County, Occidental Volunteer Fire Chief Ronald Lunardi said a boy believed to be under 2 years old was killed Wednesday night after a tree fell on a home, The Press Democrat reported. In Fairfield, a 19-year-old woman died after her vehicle hydroplaned on a flooded road and hit a utility pole, police said on Facebook.
Waves that were forecast to top 25 feet battered the Santa Cruz County coastline south of San Francisco, crashing into homes at the mouth of Soquel Creek in the seaside city of Capitola and knocking out a section of its historic wooden pier. A wharf at the nearby Seacliff State Beach was also heavily damaged.
Hurricane-strength gusts as high as 101 mph, toppled trees on buildings and roads, knocked out power lines and blew down the roof on a gas station in South San Francisco. More than 70 flights were canceled at San Francisco International Airport.
“It’s among the highest values that I can recall,” National Weather Service meteorologist Warren Blier said of the wind speed recorded on a Marin County hilltop.
A large eucalyptus tree in Oakland crashed through the roof of Victoria James’ apartment as she was preparing for dinner Wednesday. She and her children ran into the hallway, initially thinking it was an earthquake, and braced for an aftershock.
As rain began pouring into their home, the family fled with only clothes on their backs – some of the children without shoes.
“There’s big holes in the ceiling. In my bedroom, the living room and the kitchen for sure,” she said from her car. “Everything’s damaged.”
In Southern California, a helicopter crew plucked a man clinging to bamboo branches from an island in the Ventura River on Thursday morning, Ventura County Fire Department spokesperson Andy VanSciver said.
San Francisco Mayor London Breed had said the city was “preparing for a war” after storm damage from the previous weekend. City firefighters rescued a family after a tree fell onto their car. The fire department reported that wind had likely blown windows off Fox Plaza tower, but no one was injured.
The blustery winds and incessant rain were especially taxing for the homeless population in California, where 100,000 people are living on the streets.
Glenn Scott, 59, who has arthritis in both knees and feet and needs a cane to walk, sought refuge from a steady downpour on a bench outside the main San Francisco public library with a small group of other homeless people.
“I just have to do whatever I’ve gotta do and go wherever I can to get peace of mind,” Scott said.
The storm is the latest of three atmospheric river storms in the last week to reach the drought-stricken state. California Gov. Gavin Newsom declared a state of emergency to allow for a quick response and to aid in cleanup from another powerful storm that hit just days earlier.
Evacuation orders were lifted in Santa Barbara County beneath areas burned by three recent wildfires where heavy rain forecast overnight threatened to cause flooding and unleash debris flows. The evacuation area had included the town of Montecito, where five years ago huge boulders, mud and debris swept down mountains through the town to the beach, killing 23 people and destroying more than 100 homes.
Farther north, a 25-mile stretch of Highway 101 was closed due to several downed trees.
A rockslide closed a stretch of coastal Highway 1 between Stinson Beach and Muir Beach, Marin County said on Twitter. A 45-mile section of the scenic road through Big Sur was closed Wednesday evening in anticipation of flooding and rock falls.
Drivers were urged to stay off the roads unless absolutely necessary, especially with heavy snow expected in the mountains.
Residents who fled wildfires in the Santa Cruz Mountains in 2020 packed their bags as the towns of Boulder Creek, Ben Lomond and Felton were all warned they should be prepared to evacuate.
“After wildfires, all the vegetation is gone so the material is loose,” Santa Cruz-based geologist Jim Olson said. “This means even small rain storms can trigger debris flows. With a series of storms like we’ve seen, and then a large storm, you can see deeper erosion.”
Sonoma County authorities issued an evacuation warning for a string of towns along the Russian River, where greater flooding was expected by Sunday.
The storm came days after a New Year’s Eve downpour led to evacuations in Northern California and the rescue of several motorists from flooded roads. A few levees south of Sacramento were damaged, and at least four people died in flooding.
The storms won’t be enough to officially end the state’s ongoing drought, now entering its fourth year, but they have helped. Not including the latest deluge, recent storms moved parts of the state out of the “exceptional drought” category in the U.S. Drought Monitor. Most of the state, though, remains in the extreme or severe drought categories.
Atmospheric rivers, named by researchers in the 1990s, occur globally but are especially significant on the U.S. West Coast, where they create 30% to 50% of annual precipitation, according to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.
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