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Thousands evacuated, boy swept away, as strongest atmospheric river yet hits California

Flash flooding prompts evacuation of Montecito and parts of Santa Barbara amid torrents expected to continue into Tuesday

Heavy rain fueled by an atmospheric river again pummeled California on Jan. 9, flooding homes and roads, prompting evacuation orders and knocking out power. (Video: Julie Yoon, John Farrell/The Washington Post, Photo: Melina Mara/The Washington Post)
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SANTA CRUZ, Calif. — Thousands of residents were ordered to evacuate a seaside community Monday, and a 5-year-old boy was swept away in a creek, authorities said, as the latest in a string of strong storms triggered mudslides and caused widespread flooding across California.

The storms Monday caused significant damage along the state’s central coast, including mudslides, collapsed roadways and flooding that trapped people in vehicles and homes. In Southern California, thousands of residents of Montecito were ordered to evacuate Monday amid extreme rainfall on what was the fifth anniversary of a mudslide that killed 23 people there.

About a half-foot of rain had fallen in neighboring Santa Barbara by Monday evening and nearly 13 inches at San Marcos Pass in the mountains to its northeast.

“As far as we know, this is a historical record for the amount of rain in that location,” Eric Boldt, a meteorologist with the National Weather Service office in Los Angeles, said at a news conference.

A 5-year-old boy was swept away in the Central California town of Paso Robles, with police calling off the search due to bad weather seven hours later, officials said.

The boy and his mother were driving to school about 8 a.m. when water on the roadway swept the car into a nearby creek, according to Tony Cipolla, a spokesperson for the San Luis Obispo County Sheriff’s Office.

“Both either jumped out or exited the vehicle, and they both got swept into the current,” Cipolla said.

Neighbors were able to rescue the mother, but the boy was pulled downstream toward the Salinas River, he said.

A police underwater search team looked for the boy for seven hours, but at about 3 p.m., police called off the search because it had become too dangerous for the dive team, Cipolla said. Police are hoping for a break in the weather so they can resume the search, he said.

The Weather Service cautioned that several inches of additional rain could still fall Monday night from roughly San Luis Obispo to Los Angeles, the entire zone under flash flood warnings.

Rivers, meanwhile, were approaching or surpassing flood stages from Sacramento to Los Angeles, while paralyzing snowfall was expected in the Sierra Nevada.

All across Santa Cruz County on Monday, residents’ phones blared with emergency alerts warning of flash floods, urging people not to leave their homes unless they had to. Rising water, landslides and downed trees made travel treacherous for those seeking shelter: In Watsonville, road closures forced people heading to a Red Cross shelter to take a long detour through farm fields.

President Biden declared a state of emergency for California on Monday at Gov. Gavin Newsom’s request, clearing the way for assistance from the Federal Emergency Management Agency for the storms that have killed at least 12 people in 10 days. That’s more than the number of civilians killed by wildfires in the past two years, Newsom (D) said Sunday at a news conference.

More than 90,000 customers were without power Monday evening in Northern and Central California, although that number was down from more than a half-million Sunday after violent winds toppled trees from the Bay Area to the Sacramento Valley.

Utility officials said they were working to repair damage to power infrastructure caused by strong winds in recent days, as gusts continued to cause damage, downing trees and blowing the roof off a structure in San Luis Obispo County, according to the Weather Service.

Though sunshine began to appear in the Bay Area by early afternoon, meteorologists warned that a second wave of precipitation coming Monday night would bring thunderstorms producing flash-flooding downpours and damaging winds.

“This will be a fairly substantial second wave,” Daniel Swain, a climate scientist at the University of California at Los Angeles, said on a live YouTube video. “What falls is going to fall quickly.”

The Weather Service described the storm as the latest in “a barrage of atmospheric rivers” to hit California, predicting that its intensity — the most powerful in the series — would peak Monday into Tuesday.

An atmospheric river is a strip of deep tropical moisture capable of transporting huge amounts of water vapor from the tropics and causing extreme rainfall, high winds and flooding.

“The cumulative effect of successive heavy rainfall events will lead to additional instances of flooding. This includes rapid water rises, mudslides, and the potential for major river flooding,” the Weather Service warned Monday. “Susceptible terrain and areas near recent burn scars will be most at risk for debris flows and rapid runoff.”

That included in Montecito, where a 2018 mudslide flowed from an area burned by the Thomas Fire. Monday’s evacuation order was the first to include the entire town since that disaster, with as much as 10 inches of rain expected on already rain-saturated foothills, said Scott Safechuck, a spokesman for the Santa Barbara County Fire Department.

“When you get to steep terrain and saturation, we have to take these necessary precautions,” he said.

Montecito is home to numerous celebrities, including Prince Harry and Meghan, Duchess of Sussex, as well as Ellen DeGeneres, who posted a video in front of raging water.

“This creek next to our house never flows, ever,” DeGeneres said. “We need to be nicer to Mother Nature, because Mother Nature is not happy with us.”

California has been in the midst of a historic drought. In San Luis Obispo, the creek the child was swept into doesn’t usually have running water, Cipolla said.

“It’s a dry creek, it’s been a dry creek for years because of the drought. Once you get a large amount of water flowing through there it suddenly becomes very fast and very erratic,” Cipolla said.

Flooding in Santa Cruz County led to high-water rescues Monday morning, and the San Lorenzo River rose above flood stage, prompting evacuations. The Weather Service shared reports of people trapped in their homes being rescued via personal watercraft along the river in Felton, a collapsed road in Aptos and a sinkhole swallowing a roadway in the Santa Cruz mountains.

Bethany and James Rogers, residents of the Felton Grove area north of Santa Cruz, checked on their home early Monday after leaving the night before. They found it swamped in three feet of water.

“The last time I saw my TV, it was about to be submerged,” said James Rogers. “I couldn’t get to it because the water was moving fast.”

There, too, the impact of past fires and drought appeared to make the flooding worse, with fast-moving water uprooting dead trees and more easily triggering landslides, Bethany Rogers said.

Karla Nemeth, director of the California Department of Water Resources, told reporters Monday that the ongoing flood threat is “yet another climate signal, in that California is experiencing coincidentally both a drought emergency and a flood emergency.”

Wilton, in Sacramento County was under an evacuation order “out of an abundance of caution.” Emergency management feared that the Cosumnes River would overflow and spill over key access roads, preventing residents from leaving. That was the case last weekend.

“So we are urging residents to get out now,” read the bulletin from Sacramento County.

After Sunday’s winds, Carly Gomez, a meteorologist at ABC10 in Sacramento, tweeted: “This storm was as bad as a couple of the hurricanes I’ve been through. Never in my life [as] a Californian have I felt this kind of wind storm.”

While the brunt of the storm was focused on Northern and Central California, Southern California also suffered serious storm effects. The Weather Service in Los Angeles is forecasting 2 to 4 inches of rain for the coasts and valleys, and 4 to 8 inches for the mountains and foothills.

“All of this rain on top of last week’s rain will produce responses on the area’s major rivers,” the Weather Service wrote. “Along with the major rivers, many smaller streams will be full or overflowing.”

In San Diego, the National Weather Service issued flood watches for Orange County, the Inland Empire, and the San Bernardino/Riverside County Mountains, warning of possible thunderstorms Tuesday, when rainfall is expected to be heaviest and most widespread.

The storm’s snowy side

While California lowlands contend with heavy rain and flooding, crippling amounts of snow were predicted in the high terrain of the Sierra Nevada.

What began as a snow-globe-like confetti of flakes on Sunday evening turned into an extreme winter storm by midnight on Donner Pass Road in the Sierra Nevada. Conditions rapidly deteriorated on roadways Monday, with primary roads growing treacherous and secondary roads buried beneath a thick white paste.

Donner Pass Road is one of several main routes affected by the ongoing storm. Interstate 80 westbound was closed at Truckee, Calif. Vehicles west of Nyack needed chains and four-wheel-drive. Traffic was being halted before the full closure was announced.

Winter storm warnings were in effect for the Sierra Nevada. For the greater Lake Tahoe area, 2 to 5 feet of snow was expected through Tuesday evening above 7,000 feet, but up to 6 feet above 8,000 feet. Winds of 45 to 60 mph are expected, especially earlier in the storm, though a few gusts of more than 100 mph are likely to occur atop the Sierra Ridge.

Snow was initially falling all the way down to 5,000 feet, but warm air being trucked in by the atmospheric river should quickly cause a changeover to rain through 7,000 feet during midmorning. For places that see all snow, extreme accumulations are probable. In locales that see rain, the freshly fallen snowpack will absorb liquid water like a sponge, which may destabilize the snowpack.

That’s why the U.S. Forest Service Sierra Avalanche Center has called an avalanche watch, anticipating “widespread avalanche activity in the mountains.”

“Large destructive avalanches could occur in a variety of areas,” it wrote.

Parade of storms to keep coming

The state has been inundated with rain and snow in recent weeks. An atmospheric river soaked Northern and Central California on New Year’s Eve, knocking out power and stranding some people in flooded cars.

In 13 days, San Francisco has recorded 11.16 inches of rain, the wettest stretch for the city since 1871. On New Year’s Eve, 5.46 inches of rain fell, the second-wettest calendar day on record since bookkeeping began in 1849.

Additional storms in the forecast later this week and next week spell more flood threats, though state water resources officials said room remains in many large reservoirs, with statewide storage at about 78 percent of average. Some smaller reservoirs were releasing some water for safety reasons, Nemeth said.

Forecasters predict a break in the stormy pattern by around Jan. 20, according to the Weather Service’s Climate Prediction Center. Swain said the shift could usher in a period of dry weather, though it was too soon to tell how long a respite from the rain the state might get.

Dance reported from Washington. Cappucci reported from Soda Springs, Calif. Sands reported from London. Jason Samenow in Washington, Brianna Sacks in Los Angeles and Diana Leonard in San Diego contributed to this report.