HEALDSBURG, Calif. — 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.
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 evening, nearly a hundred thousand California customers 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 piled 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 and exacerbate flooding issues 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 serious 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.
“It’s a nightmare,” said Duncan Stewart, who was evacuating the trailer he has lived in for a decade at the Mirabel Trail Park in Forestville, Calif. His old, blue truck was filled with his possessions. “I am 73 and I don’t take too well to this. Basically, everyone is up for themselves and not much more. I’ve had enough.”
The park is on the Russian River, which is expected to swell to 39.7 feet by Sunday.
Sonoma County, particularly the Russian River Valley, is beloved for its wines. It’s your home 15,000 vineyard acres. By Wednesday evening, some of them were drenched, the soil beneath the grapevines thick mud and pools of water. Parts of River Road, a main two-lane highway in the heart of Sonoma County, had also started to flood. Soon after, gusty winds and falling trees caused power outages in Guerneville and some nearby towns.
In San Mateo County, south of San Francisco, officials already had declared a local emergency, with residents still reeling from previous downpours. A mobile home park and a farmworker housing community were evacuated, and about 100 residents were relocated to hotels. Like other areas, parks were closed, and many schools were canceled. About 12 percent of the county’s utility customers were without power.
Across the state, authorities were also paying special attention to regions that have recently burned, where fire-scorched ground could melt into dangerous debris flow and one disaster could give way to another. The National Weather Service said this one-two punch is most possible in the burn scars of the 2020 August Complex fire, 2021’s Caldor and Dixie fires and last year’s Mosquito Fire.
The danger even stretched to Southern California, where less rain was projected but where burn areas in Los Angeles and Santa Barbara counties spurred evacuations.
Nemeth, of the state’s water resources department, said that during a succession of storms, it doesn’t take much precipitation to inflict significant damage. But she expressed confidence that state and federal flood management infrastructure — California’s vast system of levees and reservoirs — would hold up.
“We believe that with these incoming storms, we have enough capacity to absorb the precipitation,” she said.
For the agricultural industry, the largest in the country and driver of the state’s economy, the flood has brought much-needed relief to parched land, but it also comes with its own drawbacks. If land has not been carefully managed, valuable topsoil could wash away in the storms, said Evan Wiig of the Community Alliance with Family Farmers, an advocacy group for small farms.
“We’re certainly desperate for precipitation here, and in the grand scheme of things, yes, it’s a good thing for California agriculture more generally, as our reservoirs have already risen,” Wiig said. “We just wish it didn’t have to come all at once.”
The wind and rain were expected to continue Wednesday night and into Thursday. The storm should ease up in some areas on Friday, forecasters said, but it will probably only be 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.”
In Forestville, Stewart and his neighbors expected to be gone from their little community on the river for two weeks as the storms roll across the region.
Thebault reported from Los Angeles and Sacks from Healdsburg, Calif.