California storms: Five areas to watch

SAN MATEO, Calif. – More than two weeks of storms have already hit California and one more arrived over the holiday weekend. The relentless torrential rains and their effects — flooded homes, stretched cars, downed power lines and more — have killed at least 19 people and disrupted the lives of millions more since late December.

Experts said almost none of the storms would have been considered catastrophic on their own, but the continuous pounding has taken its toll on California’s landscape. The soil, which now struggles to hold water, is more vulnerable to mudslides. Days of strong winds have fallen trees. And the relentless rainfall turned trickling streams into raging waterways.

Here’s a rundown of a few areas officials are keeping a close eye on.

The quintessential coastal perch of Monterey County, a peninsula about 100 miles south of San Francisco which is home to 50,000 residents, is a world-renowned tourist destination that includes the cities of Carmel, Monterey, Pacific Grove and the golf destination of Pebble Beach.

As the storms battered the central coast, the peninsula and the roads that provide access to it were under close watch. The rain will continue on Monday after a stormy Sunday.

Disaster officials saw widespread flooding in the Salinas Valley, inland from the peninsula, and the county still has active evacuation orders for some areas along the Salinas and Carmel rivers. As of Saturday, more than 100 people were in evacuation shelters, according to Maya Carroll, communications coordinator for Monterey County. Some residents have left their homes since the flooding began last Monday.

There were no evacuation orders on the Monterey Peninsula Sunday, but officials remained on alert throughout the county for more flooding on major rivers.

The fears brought back memories of 1995, when roads to the peninsula were flooded, completely cutting the region off from the rest of the county. The main roads into the region are Interstates 1 and 68, which are at risk of flooding if the Salinas River overflows.

Concerns in hard-hit Santa Cruz County, a coastal region south of San Jose, include low-lying flooding, rising coastal tides and downed trees, but the county’s mountains are uniquely vulnerable to the effects of more rain, said Dave Reed, director of the Service. for Santa Cruz County Response, Recovery and Resilience.

“The challenge for us right now in the mountainous regions is that any amount of rain, even moderate, can cause road damage, landslides,” he said. The ground has been saturated with rain for weeks and can’t absorb much more, increasing the potential for mudslides and damaged roads.

Rain was expected on Monday morning in the Santa Cruz Mountains, with a chance to continue into the afternoon. Falling trees and mudslides are Daniel DeLong’s main concerns.

Mr. DeLong, 56, a retired firefighter who lives in Ben Lomond, Calif., a rural town in the Santa Cruz Mountains, described the recent storms as “much more extreme” than anything he’s experienced in the three decades he’s lived there. His family lives on acres of land filled with towering redwoods and Douglas firs.

“They can just come and cut your house in half,” Mr. DeLong said. Several smaller trees fell on his property in the past two weeks, but did not cause major damage.

His property is less vulnerable to falling rocks and mud, but there are road closures in the area due to mudslides. Mr DeLong said it was possible his family would be trapped on their property if more roads failed.

More than eight feet of snow has piled up in the Sierra Nevada in the past week. The Lake Tahoe area’s mountain communities, with fleets of snow removal equipment and avalanche professionals, are built to withstand major winter storms. But the problems grow over the holiday weekend, when so much snow coincides with the arrival of thousands of people seeking a winter getaway in the Tahoe area, one of the nation’s most popular downhill ski spots.

Bumper-to-bumper traffic backed up on the two-lane roads to the ski resorts north of Lake Tahoe on Sunday morning. The National Weather Service expects another eight to 18 inches of snow to accumulate by Tuesday, with winds gusting up to 80 mph on exposed Sierra ridgetops.

California Department of Transportation officials asked travelers for patience Monday, when continued snowfall is expected to affect road conditions as hikers return home through high mountain passes. Long delays and slow traffic were expected, said Gilbert Mohtes-Chan, public information officer for Caltrans District 3.

With Interstate 80 and Interstate 50 experiencing delays and intermittent shutdowns during Saturday’s heavy snowfall, Mr. Mohtes-Chan said the roads were “wild” with multiple spin-offs and accidents. While stuck in traffic, people jump out of their cars to play in the snow, forgetting that they are on a major thoroughfare where large snowplows and heavy equipment need access. “People need to slow down and be patient and they will get to their destination,” Mr Mohtes-Chan said.

On the plus side, the amount of water in the snowpack now rivals that of some of the worst winters in decades. The Sierra is essentially a large reservoir for all of California—roughly 30 percent of the state’s water supply, on average, comes from the Sierra snowpack—and springtime snowmelt is what keeps water flowing downstream when the weather turns dry.

Downtown Los Angeles received 1.8 inches of rain on Saturday, breaking the record set for January 14. The storm caused only limited damage: a tree flattened several cars; rock and other debris from a mudslide closed traffic. Near the ocean, rising tides caused up to six inches of water to form lakes on streets, including in Long Beach. And a sinkhole that swallowed two vehicles last week in the Chatsworth neighborhood of north Los Angeles continued to grow to nearly the full width of the road.

Overall, Mark Pestrella, director of public works for Los Angeles County, described the situation as “10,000 little cuts across the county.” But they all come together. He said the road system, with its potholes and damaged pavement, would cost nearly $200 million to repair, he estimated.

Still, Los Angeles fared much better than other parts of the state, according to Capt. Sheila Kelliher-Berko of the Los Angeles County Fire Department. “We definitely have our share of things, but it could be worse,” she said.

Ms. Kelliher-Berkoh said one of the biggest priorities for the department is the Los Angeles River. Often just a dry concrete channel cutting south through the heart of the city, the river became a 10-foot-deep stream during the storms, she said. This current can be especially dangerous for people who underestimate the strength of the current, especially children and homeless people camping near the banks.

The county fire department is also keeping a close eye on areas recently hit by wildfires, where burn scarred areas have left behind loose soil, ideal conditions for mudslides.

The county, which is about 130 miles east of San Jose in the San Joaquin Valley and is home to nearly 300,000 people, has endured some of California’s most punishing weather. Last week’s flooding forced hundreds of people to evacuate their homes. Among the hardest hit areas was Planada, a small farming community a 90-minute drive from Yosemite National Park.

The county has already received more than 200 times more rainfall this month than last January. Storm conditions eased in the area Sunday, but residents braced for another round of heavy rain and possible flooding through Monday.

During a short break over the weekend, the California National Guard worked with the county’s Office of Emergency Management to repair and shore up major waterways in the region, including Bear Creek, which flooded last week.

Emergency workers also struggled to pump out floodwaters before conditions worsened again, clearing drains and repairing dikes.

Evacuation orders in Merced County were lifted and roads began to reopen over the weekend, allowing Red Cross workers, local volunteers and members of the Merced County Sheriff’s Office to distribute food and water to weary neighbors.

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