The latest in a series of intense winter storms continued to lash Northern California on Tuesday, bringing periods of thunderstorms, heavy rain, wind and hail to the already waterlogged region as the death toll from the extreme weather climbs.
The back-to-back storms across the Golden State have killed 17 people, including two motorists who died early Tuesday in a crash on Highway 99 in Tulare County when a tree that had been struck by lightning fell into the road, authorities said.
“These floods are deadly and have now turned to be more deadly than even the wildfires here in the state of California,” Gov. Gavin Newsom said during a news conference over the weekend.
While it’s too early to make an accurate estimate, the cost to repair the damage from these storms could reach or exceed $1 billion, according to Adam Smith, an applied climatologist and disaster expert with the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.
Last year the U.S. experienced 18 weather and climate disasters costing at least $1 billion, putting 2022 in a three-way tie with 2017 and 2011 for the third highest number of billion-dollar disasters in a year, according to a report published by the agency.
Thunderstorms and strong gusts whipped through Northern California on Tuesday, causing many trees to fall, including some onto homes and power lines.
The National Weather Service issued a flash flood warning for the San Francisco area Tuesday, cautioning people that thunderstorms could produce periods of heavy rain. Hail was reported in San Francisco and Oakland and in Walnut Creek, a mile-long stretch of Ygnacio Valley Road — a major thoroughfare — was closed after a tree fell on a power line.
Early Tuesday, the Merced County sheriff issued a mandatory evacuation order for the town of Planada just east of Merced, affecting 4,000 residents, after Bear Creek began to flood amid heavy rain.
A day earlier, Merced city officials had issued evacuation orders and warnings along a number of residential neighborhoods along Bear Creek, which runs through the heart of the city.
Bear Creek, which bisects Merced, reached major flood stage early Tuesday, pushing muddy water into neighborhoods that sent cars bobbing along like boats, drifting near half-submerged stop signs.
County Supervisor Rodrigo Espinosa, who represents the area, said he spent Monday evening trying to lay sandbags in a fruitless attempt to hold back the water. After several hours, as the water kept rising, it became clear the whole community would have to be evacuated.
“We didn’t think it was going to be that bad,” he said of the flood risk. “And it was worse than we thought. And there are two more storms coming.”
“The county is just putting sand everywhere,” he added, “but sand can’t do much anymore.”
Alex Martinez, 29, who grew up in Planada but now lives in Merced, rushed over in his lifted truck to help family members evacuate.
As he waited for them to load their cars, he launched a drone camera to fly over the hard-hit area. His camera revealed a town destroyed — covered in feet of water with many residents facing a long road ahead even after the water recedes.
The unincorporated community is made up of about 90% renters, very few of whom likely have flood insurance, officials said.
“It’s really devastating,” Martinez’s fiancee, Monica Manzo, 30, said.
“You almost feel hopeless,” Martinez added.
About 190,000 Pacific Gas & Electric Co. customers across the state remain without power Tuesday. Efforts to restore power overnight were stymied by wind gusts exceeding 70 mph in some areas and more than 100 lightning strikes, according to the utility.
When Katie Bass, 35, a Fresno resident who owns San Joaquin Drug in Planada, arrived at her store Tuesday morning the building wasn’t damaged, but the power was out. Bass had to rush to save vaccines and insulin, which need to be refrigerated.
Bass has lived in the Central Valley most of her life and compared the storms to those in the 1990s, when the area around Bear Creek was evacuated.
“Down the street, everything was flooded, but a few of my employees were evacuated late last night,” she said. “My other employees in Merced can’t get to the pharmacy at all.”
The Felton area of Santa Cruz County, portions of which were flooded Monday from the rising San Lorenzo River, also sustained major damage overnight from powerful winds gusting up to 70 mph that toppled trees. Highway 17 was closed after power lines went down and were sparking on the roadway, according to the National Weather Service.
Forecasters are keeping close watch on the Salinas and Big Sur rivers in Monterey County.
Sheriff’s officials issued an evacuation order for residents near the Salinas River early Tuesday. Officials anticipate the river could reach flood stage by Wednesday, according to the California Nevada River Forecast Center.
While forecasters say the brunt of the storm, which began late Sunday, has passed through the northern half of the state, wet weather and periods of intense showers will occur across the region, with some thunderstorms.
“If a strong thunderstorm does develop over an area, people need to realize that it could produce really gusty winds as well as dump heavy rainfall,” said Brooke Bingaman, a meteorologist with the National Weather Service in the San Francisco Bay Area. “So what that means is, while that thunderstorm is there, more trees could go down and there could be quick water rises if you’re near a creek or stream.”
In the Sacramento area, forecasters observed rotation on radar indicating favorable conditions for tornado formation and issued a tornado warning, though no twisters actually materialized, said Cory Mueller, a meteorologist with the National Weather Service in Sacramento.
As far south as Modesto, residents reported being jolted awake shortly before 4 a.m. to an emergency alert warning them to get to a basement or low level of the house because of a tornado threat.
The strong winds wreaked havoc in the area, knocking over a semi truck and leaving it dangling on an overpass and toppling trees across El Dorado, Amador and Sacramento counties.
San Francisco has logged its third-wettest 15-day period on record, which goes back to the Gold Rush in 1849, according to meteorologist Jan Null, an adjunct professor of meteorology at San Jose State.
Storms have dumped 12.37 inches of rain on San Francisco since Dec. 26. The only two wettest 15-day periods ahead of that were in December 1866, when 13.54 inches fell, and during the Great Flood of 1862, which saw more than 19 inches of rain.
In South San Francisco, aggressive winds pulled back a section of the decking on an apartment building’s roof around 2 a.m. Tuesday, sending rainwater into two units. The entire four-unit building was evacuated and no one was injured, said Matt Samson, the city’s deputy fire chief.
“The amount of rain that’s just been continuous has been something we haven’t experienced in quite some time,” Samson said. “We’re not getting much reprieve. The ground isn’t getting much time to dry out and then we’re getting accompanying winds so we’re seeing quite a few trees come down. We’re seeing buildings that have been weakened and damaged by the wind.”
On Tuesday, a tree toppled over on a Muni bus in the city, officials said. No one was injured.
Lightning struck Sutro Tower, a 977-foot-high structure that delivers signals for television and radio stations and is recognizable part of the city’s skyline. San Francisco’s Department of Emergency Management said there was no reported impact to the communications equipment.
Nearly all of California has seen rainfall totals ranging from 400% to 600% of above average over the past several weeks. Successive storms have wreaked havoc across the state with water from rising rivers and creeks inundating neighborhoods and businesses and homes along the coast being battered by swells.
More rain is on the horizon with another atmospheric river forecast to move into Northern California on Wednesday and precipitation continuing through the weekend.
Rong-Gong Lin reported from San Francisco, Fry from Orange County, Summer Lin from Los Angeles and Garrison from Sacramento.