California saw no relief from drenching rains early Tuesday, as the latest in a relentless string of storms continued to swamp roads and batter coastlines with high surf, turning rivers into gushing flood zones and forcing the evacuation of thousands in towns with histories of deadly mudslides. At least 14 people have died since the storms began last week.
The storm prompted a few tornado warnings early Tuesday and also was expected to bring heavy snow to the Sierra Nevada mountain range a day after dumping up to 36 centimetres of rain at higher elevations in central and Southern California.
After a brief respite, another storm was expected to barrel into the state beginning Wednesday, adding to the misery and further saturating areas already at risk of flooding and debris flows. It could bring enough rain to exacerbate ongoing flooding and heighten the risk of mudslides, forecasters said.
Forecasters also warned southwestern California could see 97 km/h wind gusts at the peak of the storm, while some areas could receive rainfall of 13 millimetres per hour.
Death toll rises
The storms so far have threatened coastal and riverside towns and left more than 200,000 homes and businesses without power early Tuesday, according to the website poweroutage.us, which tracks utility reports. The weather service issued a flood watch through Tuesday for the entire San Francisco Bay Area, along with Sacramento Valley and Monterey Bay. Areas hit by wildfires in recent years faced the possibility of mud and debris sliding off denuded hillsides that have yet to fully recover their protective layer of vegetation.
The death toll from the storms that began last week climbed from 12 to 14 on Monday, after two people including a homeless person were killed by falling trees, state officials said.
A five-year-old boy vanished in floodwaters Monday on the central coast. The boy’s mother was driving a truck when it became stranded near Paso Robles. Bystanders managed to pull her free but the boy was swept out of the truck and carried away, probably into a river, said Tom Swanson, assistant chief of the Cal Fire/San Luis Obispo County Fire Department.
California state highway authorities said late Monday night that parts of U.S. and state highways were closed because of flooding, mud or rockslides, heavy snow or car spinouts and truck crashes.
Evacuation orders were issued in Santa Cruz County for about 32,000 residents living near rain-swollen rivers and creeks. The San Lorenzo River was declared at flood stage and drone footage showed numerous homes sitting in muddy brown water, the top halves of autos peeking out.
‘Not easy to relocate’
A roughly seven-hour search for the five-year-old boy was called off as water levels were too dangerous for divers, officials said. The boy had not been declared dead, said spokesperson Tony Cipolla of the San Luis Obispo County Sheriff’s Office.
About 210 kilometres to the south, about 10,000 people were ordered to evacuate in Santa Barbara County.
WATCH | Many Californians experience miserable overnight:
The entire seaside community of Montecito — home to Prince Harry, Oprah Winfrey and other celebrities — was ordered to flee, while about an hour north county officials ordered 20 homes evacuated in the area of Orcutt after flooding and a sinkhole damaged up to 15 homes.
Jamie McLeod’s property was under the Montecito evacuation order, but she said there was no way for her to “get off the mountain” with a rushing creek on one side and a mudslide on the other. The 60-year-old owner of the Santa Barbara Bird Sanctuary said one of her employees came to make a weekly food delivery and also became stuck.
“It is not easy to relocate,” McLeod said. “I totally love it [here], except in catastrophe.”
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Some miles down the coast another town, La Conchita in Ventura County, was ordered evacuated. A mudslide killed 10 people there in 2005.
In Ventura County, the Ventura River reached its highest level on record at more than eight metres on Monday. Firefighters using helicopters rescued more than a dozen people trapped on an island in the surging waters. The water level quickly dropped to minor flood stage levels overnight.
In Los Angeles, a sinkhole swallowed two cars in the Chatsworth area on Monday night. Two people escaped by themselves and firefighters rescued two others who had minor injuries, authorities said.
U.S. President Joe Biden issued an emergency declaration Monday to support storm response and relief efforts in more than a dozen counties, a move welcomed by Gov. Gavin Newsom.
Much of California has been in severe to extreme drought overall, though the storms have helped fill depleted reservoirs.