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At least 2 dead as fierce rains and winds again batter California

‘We’re moving from extreme drought to extreme flood,’ the director of the California Department of Water Resources says

Californians braced for another massive winter storm Jan. 4 by setting up sandbags and staying indoors. (Video: Julie Yoon/The Washington Post)
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OCCIDENTAL, Calif. — It’s not a sound that Carter Laos had heard before, but he knew exactly what was happening as he leaped from bed in fear early Thursday.

Seconds later, a giant fir branch burst through his roof. His young daughter ran in screaming, and his wife warned him not to venture outside, when another gust of wind roared, followed by another explosive “thwack.”

My wife was like, ‘You better not go out there,’” Laos said, “and I said, ‘Someone has to go out there and pull this out.’”

Laos, who has lived in this rural community for 25 years, stood on a street corner Thursday trading stories with neighbors about one of the most intense nights they’ve ever experienced — and bracing for more bad weather to come.

Howling winds knocked down trees all around them, sending branches into power lines and onto homes. Not far from where they stood, a 2-year-old boy died after a tree fell onto his family’s double-wide mobile home.

“Our whole community is pretty tossed up about that right now,” said Steve Conwell, a longtime resident who spent the morning chain-sawing a 150-foot tree that landed right in front of his house. “This was one of the worst storms we’ve ever seen.”

The powerful winter storm that lashed Northern California with torrential rains and fierce winds over the past day killed at least two people, caused extensive power outages, and spurred evacuations and road closures, as officials fear more catastrophic flooding and landslides could lie ahead.

The destructive system was the latest storm to pound the West Coast over the past week, with more threatening weather in the forecast. For days, atmospheric rivers — plumes of tropical moisture that bring heavy rain and snow — have battered Northern and Central California, filling rivers, breaching levees and saturating the soil.

What it’s like to suffer through an atmospheric river in California

By the time the most recent storm barreled into Northern California on Wednesday evening, some communities had been ordered to evacuate and many more faced warnings of severe flooding. Authorities pleaded with residents to stay home and to avoid driving through inundated roads.

By Thursday afternoon, nearly 150,000 residents in California were without power, according to Many of those were in Bay Area counties such as Marin, San Mateo and Sonoma. Wind gusts over 50 mph were common in Northern and Central California on Wednesday night. In the Sierra Nevada, several gusts surpassed 100 mph, and ridge-top winds near the northern California coast topped 80 mph.

Bob Rozett, a volunteer captain with the Occidental Fire Department, said the “terrible call” of the boy who died after a tree fell on his home was one of the hardest that firefighters have answered in a long time.

In addition, crews responded to about 35 incidents overnight, he said. They had to evacuate multiple people out of homes struck by trees, and one of their own engines got trapped between live power lines. Power was still out Thursday afternoon in the woodsy town, here residents piled into generator-run coffee shops to charge their phones and check in on one another.

Just before 9 p.m. Wednesday, a 19-year-old Fairfield woman also died after a single-car collision during the storm.

The Fairfield Police Department said in a statement that the woman apparently hit a patch of standing water and hydroplaned, crashing into a nearby utility pole.

The human and economic loss from the deluge — as well as from another round of severe weather predicted in coming days — is probably far from over.

Much of Central and Northern California is expected to see sporadic downpours through into Friday, and flood watches will remain in effect until then for most of the region.

In the Sierra Nevada, heavy snows on the order of several feet have been common above 6,000-feet elevation. A backcountry avalanche warning is in effect from Ebbetts Pass north to Yuba Pass, where the National Weather Service warned a “high avalanche danger” will persist through Friday morning.

In the meantime, a succession of additional atmospheric rivers is marching eastward out of the Pacific subtropics and straight toward California. The next is likely to arrive Saturday into Sunday, with another Monday into Tuesday and another late next week.

Bomb cyclone slinging high-impact atmospheric river into California

The nonstop deluges have brought increased worry in a state that, under different circumstances, would have welcomed more water. California has been choked by drought for years, but as precipitation totals stack up, it’s clear that the epic downpours could cause more harm than relief.

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.”

Just last week, 80 percent of the state was engulfed in a “severe” or worse drought, according to the U.S. Drought Monitor. That number had dropped to 71.1 percent as of Tuesday morning, and an additional reduction is expected.

The zone of top-tier “exceptional” drought, which last week covered more than 7 percent of the state, has since disappeared.

At least an inch and a half of rain fell in San Francisco, Sacramento and Los Angeles, while amounts reached 3 to 6 inches in some of the hillier terrain in Northern California.

“Basically got a year’s worth of rain in 12 hours, and we were not ready for that,” said Ythsta Resovich, who lives in Shingle Springs, east of Sacramento. “Mother Nature is not real happy right now. It feels like she is trying to wash off the planet.”

Even as the specter of more destructive weather loomed, residents were left to grapple with the impacts of the latest storm.

What is a Pineapple Express? California’s wild weather explained.

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.

Massive waves caused extensive damage along the coast, including in Capitola, which suffered damage to its wharf. The raging sea also damaged the pier at the Seacliff State Beach, where the SS Palo Alto, known as the “cement ship,” had long been docked.

Elsewhere, officials warned residents of dangerous storm conditions and grave flooding risks, highlighting coastal communities and Mendocino and Sonoma counties, especially the areas near the Russian and Navarro rivers that were expected to swell significantly.

“It’s a nightmare,” said Duncan Stewart, who late Wednesday 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.”

The park is on the Russian River, which is expected to swell to nearly 36 feet in coming days.

Sonoma County, particularly the Russian River Valley, is beloved for its wines. It’s home to 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 had already declared a local emergency, with residents still reeling from previous downpours. Like other areas, parks were closed and many schools were canceled.

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 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 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 agriculture industry, the largest in the country and driver of the state’s economy, the inundation has brought much-needed relief to parched land, but it also comes with drawbacks. If land hasn’t 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.”

As Thursday wore on, the rain had not let up in Sonoma County, and the Russian River, now a milky brown, continued to swell closer to homes along its banks.

While most roads remained free of significant flooding, crews responded to a small mudslide along River Road outside of Guerneville. The town was still without power, and the gas station was bustling with residents loading up to power their generators.

The impacts from the storm in Occidental, 20 minutes away, were much worse. Strong winds had sent trees toppling over onto a number of homes, including the mobile home where the young boy died.

The local fire department’s six trucks had spent the previous night responding to various issues, Capt. Dennis Sandberg said.

“There are more homes damaged than I can think of,” he said.

And even here, in a community used to sawing and surviving its way out of dangerous, difficult weather events, most everyone knew more rain-induced suffering was likely to come.

Walking up her driveway in a bright yellow raincoat after hacking a tree that blocked her neighbor’s driveway, 83-year-old Dotty Joos, said that as she’s gotten older and the storms and fires have gotten more fierce, it’s become harder for her and other elderly residents.

The impacts, physical and emotional, wouldn’t be so bad if it was just one big event from time to time. But as California endures more intense rains and winds, and as residents know more extreme weather is on the way in rapid succession, the anxiety and uncertainty take an inevitable toll.

“This was bad, and what’s coming is supposed to be worse,” Laos said. “Are we going to get another one just like this? We just have to sit and wait. This is climate change. And people need to wake up.”

Jason Samenow contributed to this report. Thebault reported from Los Angeles and Sacks from Occidental, Calif.