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California declares state of emergency as another massive deluge hits

Jan. 4, 2023 Updated Wed., Jan. 4, 2023 at 8:56 p.m.

By Reis Thebault Washington Post

California officials issued an emergency declaration Wednesday as the West Coast braced for a third powerful rainstorm in a week threatening to bring intense wind, landslides and further flooding to communities across the state.

For days, a succession of atmospheric rivers – plumes of tropical moisture that bring heavy rain and snow – has lashed northern and central California, filling rivers, breaching levees and soaking the ground. The storms have saturated the soil, leaving the state especially vulnerable to more downpours.

Most of the region was under a flood warning, and several communities were ordered to evacuate. Authorities urged other residents to stay home, asking them to stay away from roads that could flood or transform into dangerous obstacle courses littered with downed trees and power lines.

As of Wednesday afternoon, tens of thousands of Californians were without electricity, with most of the outages concentrated in counties along the state’s coast, according to PowerOutage.us. Officials warned of prolonged blackouts, with the storm’s impact potentially making repairs difficult.

“We anticipate that this may be one of the most challenging and impactful series of storms to touch down in California in the last five years,” Nancy Ward, California’s newly appointed director of emergency services, said in a briefing.

The barrage of storms is expected to continue for at least another week.

Rain clouds have become a welcome sight in California, which has been choked by drought for years. But as the deluges stacked up, residents and state leaders seemed to say: We wanted rain, but not like this.

Water-starved landscapes have severely weakened trees, making them particularly susceptible to toppling over under the sudden pressure of fierce winds and pounding rain.

“We’re moving from extreme drought to extreme flood,” said Karla Nemeth, director of the California Department of Water Resources. “What that means is a lot of our trees are stressed after three years of intense drought.”

Falling trees that pull down power lines will be “the signature of this particular event,” she said.

In the Bay Area, where a New Year’s Eve storm trapped motorists in cars and flooded the streets of San Francisco, flights were delayed, a neighborhood was evacuated and at least one death was attributed to the weather.

That person, a 19-year-old woman whose name was not publicly released, died after she struck a utility pole while driving through standing water in the North Bay city of Fairfield, police told the San Francisco Chronicle.

About 30 miles southwest, in Richmond, 15 homes were evacuated because of a landslide risk, Mayor Tom Butt said. The displaced residents with no other options were put up in a hotel.

In San Francisco proper, which was still drying out after recording one of its wettest days ever on Saturday, residents and shop owners again piled sandbags against their doors. The city’s international airport canceled dozens of flights.

Elsewhere, officials warned residents of dangerous storm conditions and grave flooding risks, highlighting coastal communities and Mendocino and Sonoma counties, especially the areas near the Russian and Navarro rivers, which were expected to swell drastically.

The wind and rain was expected to continue Wednesday night and into Thursday. The storm should ease up in some areas on Friday, forecasters said, but it will probably be only a brief respite. At least three more atmospheric rivers are on the horizon.

“Thus, the message to convey is resiliency,” the San Francisco Bay area’s National Weather Service office said in a Wednesday update. “This is not a ‘one and done’ storm.”

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