Storm-ravaged California scrambles as fresh atmospheric river rolls in

Newest round of storms expected to produce torrential downpours and gale force winds along the northern coast

California is facing a new round of brutal storms that will bring torrential downpours and gale force winds in the north as the state scrambles to clean up and repair widespread damage amid a break in the weather.

The state has been ravaged by a relentless string of storms that have killed at least 17 people – a number the governor warned was likely to grow. The bout of extreme weather has closed highways, knocked out trees and infrastructure and cut power to thousands of people. More than half of California’s 58 counties have been declared disaster areas.

The newest round of storms is forecast to hit the northern coast, where the threat of flooding will persist until Friday, the National Weather Service (NWS) said. A wind advisory is in effect in some areas, which could see gusts of up to 60mph (96.5km/h). The plume of moisture lurking off the coast stretched all the way over the Pacific to Hawaii, making it “a true Pineapple Express”, the NWS said.

Meanwhile, southern California will see a break in rains until the weekend, when more wet weather is forecast.

A short glossary of the storms and their elements lashing the previously parched state.

Atmospheric rivers: Long streams of moisture - or, as the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration simply says, “rivers in the sky” - that transport water vapor from the tropics, after warm water evaporates off the Pacific. They can at times be incredibly destructive, often accompanied by strong, gusty winds.

Pineapple express: A particularly strong system, the pineapple express delivers moisture from around Hawaii to the west coast that then hammers other regions of the US and Canada with rain and snow.

Bomb cyclone: These low-pressure storm systems help create atmospheric rivers, pushing them from the Pacific to the coast. Unlike hurricanes or other storms where the center is the strongest, bomb cyclones can generate the worst weather at their edges.

La Niña: This is a climate pattern characterized by a colder-than-average sea surface level in the Pacific Ocean near the equator. The region is in the grip of a third year of La Niña conditions, which tend to steer storms north into Washington and Oregon.

- Gabrielle Canon

Communities across the state are working to pick up the pieces after days of severe rain, wind and flooding. This week’s storm, which began on Monday, was one in a series that began in late December and repairing the damage may cost more than $1bn, said Adam Smith, a disaster expert with the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, the Los Angeles Times reported.

Crews worked to reopen major highways that were closed by rockslides, swamped by flooding or smothered with mud. More than 10,000 people who were ordered out of seaside towns on the central coast were allowed to return home.

People salvage items from their flooded home in Merced, California.
People salvage items from their flooded home in Merced, California. Photograph: Noah Berger/AP

They included Montecito, a wealthy Santa Barbara county community that is home to Prince Harry, Meghan, Oprah Winfrey and other celebrities, where 23 people died and more than 100 homes were destroyed in a mudslide five years ago.

In the Rancho Oso area of the Santa Ynez Mountains above Santa Barbara, mud and debris across the roadway isolated about 400 people and 70 horses, the Santa Barbara county fire department said on Twitter, posting a photo of a vehicle stuck in the mud.

Officials in central California resumed the search for a five-year-old boy who was swept away by raging floodwaters this week near the small village of San Miguel, the local sheriff’s department said.

While some emergency orders were lifted, thousands of people living near rain-swollen creeks and rivers remained under evacuation. In the San Joaquin Valley, raging waters from Bear Creek flooded parts of the city of Merced and neighboring Planada, a small agricultural community along a highway leading to Yosemite national park. Neighborhoods were under water with cars submerged up to their roofs, and all 4,000 residents of Planada were ordered to leave Tuesday morning.

An aerial view of two cars in a large sinkhole in Chatsworth, Los Angeles, California, on 10 January.
An aerial view of two cars in a large sinkhole in Chatsworth, Los Angeles, California, on 10 January. Photograph: Robyn Beck/AFP/Getty Images

Other evacuations were ordered because of levee breaches in parts of Monterey county.

The torrential rains, along with heavy snow in mountain areas, are caused by “atmospheric rivers” of dense moisture funneled into California from the tropical Pacific.

The storms brought unprecedented amounts of rain coupled with furious winds and even hail and lightning that knocked down trees and damaged electrical lines in many areas. More than 52,000 homes and businesses remained without power as of early Wednesday, according to data from

The wet and blustery weather has highlighted the grave risks facing California’s large unhoused population. At least two homeless people in Sacramento county died after trees fell on their tents and more than a dozen people were rescued from a homeless encampment on the Ventura River.

Theo Harris, who has lived on San Francisco’s streets since 2016, fortified his shelter with tarps and zip ties on Tuesday and took in his girlfriend after her tent flooded.

“The wind has been treacherous, but you just got to bundle up and make sure you stay dry,” Harris said. “Rain is part of life. It’s going to be sunny. It’s going to rain. I just got to strap my boots up and not give up.”

Flooded properties along Beer Creek in Merced, California.
Flooded properties along Beer Creek in Merced, California. Photograph: Lipo Ching/EPA

In San Francisco, a tree fell on a commuter bus on Tuesday without causing injuries and lightning struck the city’s Transamerica Pyramid building without damage. High winds also ripped away part of the roof on a large apartment building.

Further south, mudslides damaged some homes in pricey Los Angeles hillside areas, while further up the coast a sinkhole damaged 15 homes in the rural Santa Barbara county community of Orcutt.

Kevin Costner, best actor winner in a television drama series for Yellowstone, was unable to attend Tuesday’s Golden Globe awards in Los Angeles because of the weather. The presenter Regina Hall said he was sheltering in place in Santa Barbara due to flooding.

The growing frequency and intensity of such storms, interspersed with extreme heat and dry spells, are symptoms of the climate crisis, experts say. Though the rain and snow will help replenish reservoirs and aquifers, a mere two weeks of precipitation will not solve two decades of drought.


Dani Anguiano and agencies

The GuardianTramp

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