A powerful storm is moving into Southern California after forcing thousands to the north to evacuate, prompting dozens of water rescues, causing widespread damage and bringing to 14 the tally of people killed in the state’s recent relentless weather.
More than 11 million people in western Los Angeles, San Luis Obispo, Santa Barbara and Ventura counties are under a flood warning early Tuesday, while some 34 million people across California – about 10% of all Americans – are under flood watches as the risk of mudslides also shifts to the Los Angeles and San Diego areas.
TRACK THE STORMS
More than 30 million people across the Southwest face a marginal threat – level 1 of 5 – for severe weather as the system pushes inland.
“Isolated strong to severe thunderstorms capable of producing damaging winds and perhaps a brief tornado may occur today across parts of southern/central California,” warned the Storm Prediction Center. “Thunderstorms capable of isolated severe gusts will also be possible across parts of southeast Nevada, northwest Arizona, and southwest Utah.”
Flash flooding will be likely in and around Los Angeles through the late afternoon. And while storm-battered parts of central and Northern California will see some respite early Tuesday, “it will be short lived as the next in the seemingly never ending parade of strong wet Pacific systems pushes more heavy precipitation across all of California on Tuesday,” the National Weather Service warned, before another batch of heavy precipitation pushes inland Wednesday across Northern California and the Pacific Northwest.
Monday’s storms – the latest in an unrelenting parade of atmospheric rivers to thrash the West Coast in recent weeks – set the stage for even more intense flooding and mudslides by further saturating California soil already scarred by historic drought and devastating wildfires.
“It just came really quick,” said Felton resident Rachel Oliveira, explaining what she saw Monday as the nearby San Lorenzo River rose, flooding her Santa Cruz County home. “Within a matter of minutes, it was from across the street all the way into our yard, and it went really fast.”
President Joe Biden on Monday approved a measure to support California’s efforts to respond to the storms that for weeks have whacked the state like cascading dominoes. “As of Monday afternoon, winter storms have claimed the lives of 14 Californians – more lives than wildfires in the past two years combined,” Gov. Gavin Newsom’s office said Monday in a news release.
Streets again Monday turned into rivers, trees crashed down, homes lost power, rivers swelled and major roadways were shuttered as a storm unleashed powerful winds and heavy downpours. Flooding closed parts of the seaside Pacific Coast Highway in Southern California, officials said.
A driver died after entering a flooded roadway in Avila Beach, the San Luis Obispo County Sheriff’s Office said. In nearby San Miguel, a 5-year-old was swept away by floodwaters near the Salinas River, and an hourslong search for the child was suspended in the afternoon “because the weather had become too severe and it was not safe anymore for first responders,” San Luis Obispo County Sheriff’s Office spokesperson Tony Cipolla told CNN.
As of late Monday, 2 to 7 inches of rain had fallen across lower elevations and up to 10 inches in the mountains over a 24-hour period, preliminary rainfall reports showed. Montecito got a whopping 9.89 inches over 24 hours, while Fillmore got 6.24 inches and Santa Barbara got 6.13 inches.
In central California, heavy downpours unleashed significant flooding, mudslides and debris flows, prompting calls for residents to flee. All of Montecito in Santa Barbara County was ordered to evacuate Monday, along with residents in parts of Carpinteria, Summerland and the city of Santa Barbara.
“LEAVE NOW! This is a rapidly evolving situation,” Santa Barbara County officials said, adding residents should “be prepared to sustain yourself and your household for multiple days if you choose not to evacuate.”
Montecito – locked between the Santa Ynez Mountains and the Pacific Ocean – got the evacuation orders on the five-year anniversary of a mudslide in 2018 that killed 23 people as mud and boulders the size of houses plowed down hillsides, splintering more than 100 homes and rupturing a gas main, according to the state’s Office of Emergency Services.
Cars traversed flooded streets Monday as water raged in a nearby creek in Montecito and mud oozed down a hillside, video from CNN affiliate KEYT showed. Roads were impacted by boulders, debris and flooding, Santa Barbara city officials reported.
Farther north in Santa Clara County, about 32,000 people were under evacuation orders Monday afternoon, and more people could be asked to leave Tuesday.
Santa Barbara County Sheriff Bill Brown asked county residents to shelter in place Monday evening as travel became a nightmare with rockslides, flooded roads and closed highways.
Crews in Santa Barbara County have responded to more than 200 incident calls due to the heavy rains, according to Captain Scott Safechuck, spokesperson for a Santa Barbara County Incident Management Team.
Around 10 to 15 homes were damaged due to flooding in the county on Monday, according to Santa Barbara County Fire, which released images showing a flooded neighborhood and a sinkhole that developed.
To the north, Santa Cruz County saw widespread damage, according to images from Cal Fire. The San Lorenzo River swelled 14 feet in just over four hours Monday morning as heavy rain pounded the region, putting the river in major flood stage.
Fast moving water in Santa Cruz knocked out a bridge and flooded state parks, video showed.
The National Weather Service reported a “possible levee breach” along the Pajaro River Monday morning and warned of “life threatening flash flooding.”
Meanwhile, farther south in San Luis Obispo County, authorities urged residents south of the Arroyo Grande Creek Levee to evacuate to higher ground immediately Monday evening.
The deluge prompted numerous water rescues throughout the state Monday, as rising waters trapped drivers.
In Southern California, at least 18 people were rescued by Ventura County Fire Department, including multiple people who were stranded on an island in the Ventura River, fire officials said.
As the rainfall intensified Monday night, officers in Ventura County’s Moorpark were working to rescue stranded drivers on State Route 126, according to the California Highway Patrol. State Route 126 was closed from Fillmore City limits to Fairview Canyon.
In Monterey County in central California, the sheriff’s office and the Coast Guard rescued two people and a dog who were trapped by flood waters, the sheriff’s office said in a post on Facebook.
Ahead of the storm’s arrival, California Emergency Services Director Nancy Ward warned that “floods kill more individuals than any other natural disaster.”
“We’ve already had more deaths in this flood storm since December 31 than we had in the last two fire seasons of the highest fire acreage burned in California,” Ward said during a news conference Sunday.
The rains dropped Monday night into Southern California, threatening flash flooding and mudslides from Los Angeles to San Diego – particularly across fire-scarred areas.
Parts of downtown Los Angeles have already seen between 1 to 3 inches of rainfall, with the higher elevations around the city seeing 2 to 5 inches by early Tuesday.
“Nearly all of California has seen much above average rainfall totals over the past several weeks, with totals 400-600% above average values,” the Weather Service said. “This has resulted in nearly saturated soils and increasingly high river levels.”
Downtown Santa Barbara received 6.37 inches as of early Tuesday – the wettest day on record for the downtown area.
San Luis Obispo McChesney Field also had its wettest day on record, with daily rainfall of 4.10 inches surpassing the previous record of 3.68 inches. Meanwhile, Moorpark had its second rainiest day on record with 4.02 inches.