A winter-like storm battered Northern California and Nevada today, with heavy rain snarling traffic and strong wind knocking out power to thousands of people. More than three feet of snow was forecast in the Sierra Nevada.
The storm was the second to blow through the region this week, and another, lighter system was forecast for the weekend. The first storm barreled east, bringing gusty wind to Wyoming and blizzard-like conditions to the Colorado mountains.
The storms left up to three inches of rain in the San Francisco Bay area and 11/2 inches as far south as Los Angeles. The mountains got more, including up to eight inches in the Santa Cruz Mountains.
Flooded freeways were a commuters' nightmare, with jackknifed trucks and scores of fender-benders. In Temecula, southeast of Los Angeles, a charter bus ferrying gamblers from an Indian casino overturned, injuring dozens of people.
Along the coast, 12-foot waves pummeling Southern California were a boon to surfers. But waves reached 30 feet farther north and officials powered down the Diablo Canyon nuclear plant in San Luis Obispo, fearing seaweed tossed up by the surf would clog the intake pipes of the cooling system.
The National Weather Service reported a wind gust of 134 mph a few miles northwest of Tahoe City, Calif. Gusts of 84 mph were recorded Thursday south of Gardnerville, Nev.
The Reno, Nev., area experienced winds of 60 mph, while a 65-mph gust sent trees crashing into two homes in South Lake Tahoe. Similar conditions hit central Oregon, leaving 9,000 people without power and starting brush fires that nearly blew out of control.
Kelly Redmond of the Western Regional Climate Center in Reno said it was too early to attribute the strength of the storm to El Nino, but the powerful winds were unseasonably early.
He said El Nino appears to be strengthening, and some colleagues now believe it could become the third strongest in the past 50 years, behind the heavy winters of 1982-83 and 1997-98.
"It's respectable -- let's put it that way," Redmond told the Reno Gazette-Journal. "It looks like it's got the staying power to last all winter."
Nearly 1.3 million Pacific Gas and Electric customers lost electricity at some point starting Wednesday night. Outages hit San Francisco General Hospital today and forced officials to cancel hearings at the Contra Costa County courthouse.
Along the Oregon state line, a rock slide closed a highway linking the two states. Fires had stripped area hills of brush over the summer.
In Nevada, the storm slowed traffic over the Sierra and soaked the western part of the state with much-needed rain. The Highway Patrol was investigating whether reduced visibility because of blowing dust caused an 11-vehicle crash that killed at least one person and injured five Thursday afternoon.