The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Flood watch covers nearly all of California amid severe storms

About 24 trillion gallons of water have fallen from a multitude of weather patterns known as atmospheric rivers

President Biden declared a state of emergency for California after governor Gavin Newsom made a public call on Jan. 14 for the move. (Video: Reuters)
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Nearly 26 million people in California were covered by a flood watch Saturday, mostly between San Francisco and Los Angeles, as fresh rain and storms move through the state, bringing fresh flooding, mudslides and traffic snarls to areas exhausted by severe weather in recent weeks.

New emergency evacuations were ordered in some low-lying parts of Santa Cruz County, which has been hit particularly hard by the waves of rains. On Saturday, the Rio del Mar Esplanade, located along Seacliff State Beach, flooded and is expected to get even more rain, the Santa Cruz County sheriff’s office said in a Facebook post.

Meanwhile, officials were urging the public to brace for the next storm. The National Weather Service issued flood, wind and high surf advisories warning people across the state, from Sonoma to Tahoe to San Diego, of expected treacherous conditions into Sunday.

In recent days, at least 5,800 people have been evacuated from their homes in a seven-county region that included Monterey County. Other parts of the state, including in Sacramento County, were told to prepare to evacuate as the rain continued.

Though less rain fell on Saturday than during recent days, it was small comfort for those in a state that has seen roughly 24 trillion gallons of water dropped from a multitude of weather patterns known as atmospheric rivers since December. The storms are blamed for at least 19 deaths.

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State officials are pleading with residents to be cautious during the continuation of storms that have caused destruction and widespread flooding for weeks. “We are not out of the woods yet,” state emergency official Nancy Ward said during a news conference.

Gov. Gavin Newsom (D) asked the public to prepare for the ninth atmospheric river that is set to hit Sunday night going into Monday. He added that erosion and tree damage that will continue even after rainfall stops.

“The challenges may present themselves over the course of the next few days rather acutely. Particularly because everything’s saturated, particularly because the grounds are overwhelmed,” Newsom said. “What may appear less significant in terms of the rainfall may actually be more significant on the ground in terms of the impacts on the ground and the flooding and the debris flow.”

Newsom said he expected President Biden to sign a major disaster declaration for the state, which will unlock federal funding and other assistance.

Late Saturday, Biden did issue a disaster declaration for Merced, Sacramento and Santa Cruz counties.

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Newsom spoke to reporters during a visit to an emergency shelter in Merced, a city in California’s San Joaquin Valley that experienced record flooding from a local creek. Displaced families were staying on cots.

The California Highway Patrol asked people in the hardest-hit areas to avoid driving due to flooding closing roads and toppling power lines.

The storms on Saturday unloaded 1 to 3 inches of rain throughout the lowlands of Central and Northern California. In the highest elevations of the Sierra Nevada, the rain changed to multiple feet of snow.

Heavy, blowing snow in the nearby mountains stopped travelers heading to Lake Tahoe for the Martin Luther King Jr. holiday weekend.

Interstate 80, a main route for reaching the ski slopes, was partially closed Saturday morning “due to multiple spinouts,” said a statement from Caltrans, California’s Department of Transportation. The agency shared photos of near-whiteout conditions near Donner Summit, a mountain pass at just above 7,000 feet in the northern Sierra Nevada near the California-Nevada border.

See the devastation of heavy rain in California

Three to six feet of snow is expected in the higher elevations of the Sierras through Monday, according to a Saturday afternoon update from the National Weather Service.

Los Angeles Mayor Karen Bass (D) declared a state of emergency Friday as a result of the storms that pounded the country’s second-most populous city. About 0.5 to 1 inch is anticipated in Southern California from this second storm, with a bit more in the mountains and hills.

Even as the rain slows, state residents would likely need to contend with the lingering threat of mudslides due to the saturated ground, officials said.

Mudslides closed a highway in Alameda County on Saturday. Amtrak warned about service delays from mudslides near its tracks in Contra Costa County.

Before this weekend, more than 14-1/2 inches of rain had fallen in San Francisco since Dec. 20, more than four times the average, officials said.

Less rain is forecast to fall in California on Sunday with the next storm arriving in the Bay Area around 10 p.m. But that next system will bring heavy precipitation to Central California, lasting into Monday or Tuesday.

“Overall rainfall totals are expected between 0.5-1.5 inches for the lower elevations of the region, and 1-3 inches for the higher elevations,” the National Weather Service office serving the Bay Area wrote.

The system will continue to affect other states inland. The National Weather Service predicts heavy snow Monday into Tuesday will stretch from parts of southeastern Idaho to Arizona and over parts of the Central and Southern Rockies.

While some showers could linger into midweek, mainly in Northern California, a much drier weather pattern is expected in most areas — a welcome reprieve after three weeks of storminess.

Robert Klemko and Matthew Cappucci contributed to this report.