Rain continues as storm-weary Californians face evacuations

LOS ANGELES (AP) — The latest in a relentless series of storms hit California on Monday, inundating streets, battering coastlines with high surf, turning rivers into bubbling floodplains and forcing the evacuation of thousands in cities with histories of deadly mudslides.

The National Weather Service said the rain is expected to continue into Tuesday after dumping up to 35.5 centimeters (14 inches) at higher elevations in central and southern California. After a brief lull, another storm was to sweep the state in a matter of days, adding to the misery and further inundating areas already threatened by floods and mudslides.

The storms left chaotic streets, threatened coastal and river towns and left tens of thousands without power. The weather service issued a flood warning for the entire San Francisco Bay Area as well as the Sacramento Valley and Monterey Bay through Tuesday. Areas ravaged by wildfires in recent years have faced the possibility of mud and debris being washed away from bare hillsides that have not yet fully restored their protective layer of vegetation.

“Additional heavy rains on Tuesday will exacerbate ongoing flooding and continue risks of flash floods and mudslides, particularly in recent burn scar regions,” the weather service said.

Forecasters also warned that southwestern California could see wind gusts of 60 mph (97 km/h) at the storm’s peak, while some areas could receive precipitation of half an inch (12.7 millimeters) per hour.

The death toll from the relentless series of storms that began last week rose from 12 to 14 on Monday after two people, including a homeless man, were killed by falling trees, state officials said.

People with their belongings arrive at an evacuation center in Santa Barbara, California on January 9, 2023.

California state highway officials said late Monday night that portions of the U.S. and state highways are closed due to flooding, mud or falling rocks, heavy snowfall, or car slips and truck accidents. The closures included northbound lanes of US 101, a major coastal highway, as well as portions of US 6 and State Route 168.

In Santa Cruz County, evacuation orders have been issued for about 32,000 residents who live near rain-swollen rivers and streams. The San Lorenzo River was declared in flood and drone footage showed scores of homes sitting in muddy brown water with the top halves of cars peeking out.

A 5-year-old boy disappeared in flood waters on the central coast on Monday. The boy’s mother was driving a truck when he was stranded in flood waters near Paso Robles. Bystanders managed to free her, but the boy was swept out of the truck and carried away, likely into a river, said Tom Swanson, deputy chief of the Cal Fire/San Luis Obispo County Fire Department.

A search for the missing boy for about seven hours turned up only his shoe before officials broke it off because the water level was too dangerous for divers, officials said. The boy has not been pronounced dead, said spokesman Tony Cipolla for the San Luis Obispo County Sheriff’s Office.

About 130 miles (209 kilometers) south, about 10,000 people in Santa Barbara County have been ordered to evacuate.

The entire coastal community of Montecito – home to Prince Harry, Oprah Winfrey and other celebrities – has been ordered to flee on the run fifth anniversary of a mudslide which killed 23 people and destroyed more than 100 homes in the coastal enclave.

County officials ordered the evacuation of 20 homes in the Orcutt area following flooding and a sinkhole damaged up to 15 homes.

Jamie McLeod’s property was under the Montecito evacuation order, but she said there was no way for her to “get off the mountain” with a raging creek on one side and a mudslide on the other. The Santa Barbara Bird Sanctuary owner, 60, said one of her employees came in to deliver groceries weekly and was also stuck.

McLeod said she feels lucky because her house is on a hill and the electricity is still on. But she’s tired of the frequent evacuation orders since the massive wildfire that followed the deadly landslide five years ago.

“It’s not easy moving,” McLeod said. “I totally love it, except in disaster.”

Ellen DeGeneres shared one Instagram video of herself standing in front of a raging creek near the Montecito house where she lives with her wife, actress Portia de Rossi. She said in the post they were told to protect themselves on the spot because they are on high ground.

“This is crazy,” says the talk show host, who is wearing a hoodie and raincoat, in the video.

A few miles down the coast, another town, La Conchita in Ventura County, was evacuated. In 2005, 10 people died there in a mudslide.

In Ventura County, the Ventura River reached its highest level on record at more than 7.6 meters. Firefighters used helicopters to rescue more than a dozen people trapped on an island in the surging waters.

Storm-swollen San Lorenzo River flooding makes landfall along the Ocean Street Extension in Santa Cruz, California on January 9, 2023.
Storm-swollen San Lorenzo River flooding makes landfall along the Ocean Street Extension in Santa Cruz, California on January 9, 2023.

Shmuel Thaler/The Santa Cruz Sentinel via AP

The storm also washed 3 feet (1 meter) of mud and rocks onto State Highway 126, stranding a long line of cars and trucks. Rescuers worked into the night to free them.

In Los Angeles, a sinkhole swallowed two cars in the Chatsworth area Monday night. Two people fled alone and firefighters rescued two others with minor injuries, authorities said.

Tens of thousands of people were without power, including around 17,000 in the Sacramento area late Monday night. The number of customers without service fell from more than 350,000 the day before after 60-mph gusts threw majestic trees into power lines, the Sacramento Municipal Utility District said.

The National Weather Service warned of a “relentless parade of atmospheric fluxes” — long plumes of moisture that stretch into the Pacific and can drop prodigious amounts of rain and snow. Rainfall expected over the next few days comes after storms cut power, flooded roads and battered the coast last week.

President Joe Biden issued an emergency declaration Monday to support storm response and relief efforts in more than a dozen counties.

Much of California continues to suffer from severe to extreme drought, although the storms have helped fill in depleted reservoirs.

Associated Press journalists Janie Har and Olga R. Rodriguez in San Francisco, Amy Taxin in Orange County, Andrew Dalton in Los Angeles, Nic Coury in Aptos, Martha Mendoza in Santa Cruz, and Haven Daley in Felton contributed to this report.

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