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California storm forces flood rescues but spares Montecito

UPDATED: Thu., March 22, 2018

By Amanda Lee Myers and John Antczak Associated Press

LOS ANGELES – A powerful storm dropped more rain across California on Thursday, swelling rivers, flooding streets and causing some mudslides but so far sparing communities a repeat of the disastrous debris flows that followed a deluge earlier this year.

Authorities lifted evacuation orders for some 30,000 people in disaster-weary Santa Barbara County, which includes Montecito, where mudslides killed 21 people and inundated hundreds of homes in January. People returned home as the storm unleashed flooding that led to some dramatic rescues in other parts of the state.

Some 80 miles east of Santa Barbara, a car turned upside-down in rushing water on a neighborhood road, according to video posted by the Santa Clarita Valley Sheriff’s Department. Passers-by helped rescue the people inside the car, who weren’t hurt, the department said.

About 150 miles to the north in Paso Robles in San Luis Obispo County, rescuers reported pulling 10 people from the Salinas River in separate incidents throughout the day. A helicopter plucked six people from the water while swimmers got the others, said Paso Robles Fire Chief Jonathan Stornetta.

In another dramatic video , a man whose car was stuck in floodwaters 280 miles to the north in Folsom stood halfway outside his sunroof as rescuers in a boat threw him a life vest. The man was able to jump from the roof of the car into the boat.

Meanwhile various problems arose in Tuolumne County, in the central part of the state

“We had a very heavy rain cell that came through and caused a great deal of havoc throughout the county,” Sheriff Jim Mele said at a news conference. “This cell was very powerful.”

One couple stranded atop a chicken coop had to be rescued after their home and cars were flooded, and a dam leak in the Sierra Nevada foothills prompted about three dozen people to evacuate. A full dam failure was averted.

Not far from the dam in the small community of Groveland, flooded streets caused minor property damage and students at two schools had to shelter in place because buses weren’t able to reach them. They were later released to their parents.

“We had basically a river going through downtown Groveland,” Mele said, adding that waters also dislodged two propane tanks from a home. The tanks hit a car and a home but no damage was reported.

Residents in Montecito began breathing a sigh of relief as the storm faded away in their area without any major problems.

“We dodged a bullet when this storm did not reach its full potential and actually veered off to the north and south of us,” Santa Barbara County Sheriff Bill Brown said at a news conference.

No debris flows had occurred, creeks were flowing well and debris catch-basins were working, he said.

In fact, authorities began praising the storm for dropping a good dose of much-need water in the area, where drought conditions have recently gone back to extreme or severe levels.

“This has been a fairly beneficial rain,” National Weather Service meteorologist Mark Jackson said. “We’re still in a drought so this was a good rain, and we could use more of the good rain.”

The county saw between 2-5 (5-13 centimeters) inches of water in coastal areas, 4-6 inches (10-15 centimeters) and in foothills and mountains, and 8 to 10 inches (20-25 centimeters) in parts of the central coast.

Thousands of people fled Montecito and neighboring communities in advance of the storm, just as they had during previous rains and last year during a wildfire that became the largest in state history as it destroyed more than 1,000 buildings, mostly homes.

In Los Angeles County, authorities canceled some planned mandatory evacuations because of a projected decrease in rainfall but kept others in place because of debris flows in one canyon area stripped bare by wildfires.

A large chunk of a hillside fell away in a Los Angeles canyon that burned last year, but no one was hurt.

The storm also toppled a pine tree across one neighborhood street and a eucalyptus tree into a home in another neighborhood. No one was injured.

The storm came ashore earlier in the week as a so-called atmospheric river, a long plume of Pacific moisture that is also known as a “Pineapple Express” because of its origins near Hawaii.

Forecasters said the plume was finally shifting to the east but there would be a chance of thunderstorms through Thursday evening as a cold front moved down from the Central Coast, so the “concern for significant flash flooding and debris flows has lessened but not gone away completely.”

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