Flooded Californians warned to flee as deluge persists

The parade of storms since the end of December is one of the biggest tests yet for disaster-weary California. PHOTO: AFP

LOS ANGELES – After years of drought, California is in a long flood fight as waves of storms roll in off the Pacific, killing at least 14 people, closing highways up and down the state and sending residents fleeing for their lives.

Wind gusts exceeding 97kmh are expected into Tuesday morning across mountains and foothills, National Weather Service’s Los Angeles office said on Twitter.

Rain will be heavy at times and there’s also a risk of thunderstorms. More downed trees and power lines should be expected, the forecaster said. 

The parade of storms since the end of December is one of the biggest tests yet for disaster-weary California, which has endured a crucible of wildfires and extreme heat in recent years as global warming makes weather ever-more extreme.

On Monday residents in the tiny coastal enclave of Montecito, home to Oprah Winfrey, Ellen DeGeneres and Prince Harry, were told by state officials in a tweet to “LEAVE NOW” while shelter-in-place orders were issued in other parts of Santa Barbara County. Several other towns throughout the state advised residents to get out before more rivers flood.

“California is experiencing coincidentally a drought emergency and a flood emergency,” said Department of Water Resources Director Karla Nemeth during a media briefing Monday. Parts of Highway 101 and Interstate 505 were also shut

They’re just a few of several major thoroughfares and small country roads closed because of flooding, from the state capital of Sacramento in the north to the garlic capital of Gilroy near Silicon Valley to Los Angeles-area beach towns in the south.  

By 4 pm local time Monday the state had opened a dozen emergency shelters for those told to evacuate, including in Santa Cruz County, about 120km south of San Francisco, where the San Lorenzo River rose 5.4m since Sunday.

Levels on the river probably have peaked, but there will be another round of intense rain, said Daniel Swain, a climatologist at the University of California, Los Angeles. 

Sacramento County on Sunday told about 3,300 people in the Central Valley town of Wilton ahead of Monday’s deluge to evacuate due to the risk of flooding if levies overflow, said county spokesman Matt Robinson. Many downed trees are being removed to clear roads, he added.

Five rivers are being monitored for flooding including the Cosumnes River in Sacramento County and the Russian River in Napa and Mendocino counties in Northern California, according to Jeremy Arrich, flood management manager of the Department of Water Resources, said during the press briefing.

Heavy rain started falling Sunday night in many regions. About 179,000 customers were without power around 3am in Los Angeles, according to PowerOutage.us. That’s down from more than 500,000 on Sunday after an earlier storm over the weekend.

The new storm may dump 5 to 13cm of rain in some areas and 30cm to 1.2m of snow in the Sierra Nevada, a mountain range in Eastern California, said Mr Ashton Robinson Cook, a forecaster with the US Weather Prediction Center.

Avalanche warnings have been posted in a number of areas through the Sierra Nevada through Wednesday, according to the National Weather Service. “Any steep slopes could be dangerous,” the weather service said. BLOOMBERG

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