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Two dead as nearly 13 inches of rain drench Central California

In an aerial view, workers make emergency repairs to a road that was washed out heavy rains Friday in Soquel, California.
Justin Sullivan
/
Getty Images
In an aerial view, workers make emergency repairs to a road that was washed out heavy rains Friday in Soquel, California.

Updated March 11, 2023 at 6:00 PM ET

Intense rainfall caused widespread flooding and mudslides in parts of California on Friday, prompting evacuations and road closures. Hours later, a breached levee in central California forced hundreds more people to evacuate.

At least two people have died as a result of the severe weather in the state, Nancy Ward, the director of California's Office of Emergency Services, said at a Friday evening press conference.

In Monterey County, a swollen Pajaro River breached the levee overnight, sending the entire small town of Pajaro under water, a local official told KQED.

"It's heartbreaking to see the community under flood waters today," Monterey County Board of Supervisors Chair Luis Alejo told the local NPR member station. "We know that these residents are going to go through some challenging times over the next several months to try to get their homes repaired and make them habitable again."

As of Saturday afternoon, more than 37,000 households were without power, mainly in Monterey County, according to utility companies' reports tracked by PowerOutage.US.

Central California saw flash flooding, with King City in Monterey County receiving nearly 13 inches of rainfall. In northern California, parts of Palo Alto in the Bay Area saw 10 inches of downpour.

The severe weather is the result of back-to-back atmospheric rivers, the first of which arrived on Thursday. The second is expected to make landfall on Monday afternoon, according to Brian Ochs, a meteorologist for the National Weather Service based in Hanford, Calif.

The storm was warmer, creating a dangerous combination of excessive rain and snowmelt in some areas that could pose serious risk of flooding.

"Lately we've had snow levels as low as 1500 feet, but since we have warmer air, we're seeing snow in elevation as high as 7,000 feet and above," Ochs told NPR.

Earlier this week, California Gov. Gavin Newsom proclaimed a state of emergency in 21 counties. Newsom also has requested federal assistance in anticipation of the state's need to respond to the extreme storms. President Biden later approved this request on Friday.

What is an atmospheric river?

People stand under an umbrella while looking toward the skyline from Twin Peaks in San Francisco, Thursday, March 9, 2023.
Jeff Chiu / AP
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AP
People stand under an umbrella while looking toward the skyline from Twin Peaks in San Francisco on Thursday.

Also known as "rivers in the sky," these meteorological phenomena develop when a relatively long, narrow channel of wind transports water vapor from the tropics. The current atmospheric river pummeling California is called a "Pineapple Express," because the moisture arrived from the tropics near Hawaii.

The columns of highly concentrated moisture move with the weather, and when they make landfall, they can produce heavy rain or snow. Atmospheric rivers with the largest amounts of water vapor and strongest winds can lead to severe rainfall, causing mudslides and property damage.

The storm drops several inches of rain and washes out roads

Crews assess storm damage, which washed out North Main Street in Soquel, Calif., Friday, March 10, 2023.
Nic Coury / AP
/
AP
Crews assess storm damage, which washed out North Main Street in Soquel, Calif., on Friday.

After heavy rain hit parts of the state on Friday, more than 9,000 residents were under evacuation orders, according to the Associated Press. The rain flooded major highways, roads, rivers and creeks in Northern and Central California. Further west, areas along the Sierra Nevada Mountains, like in South Lake Tahoe, got heavy, dangerous snowfall.

By mid-afternoon, rain tapered off in the Bay Area, according to the National Weather Service.

That wasn't before the storm brought several inches of rainfall to the area and some reported damage. The NWS reported that King City, Calif., received more than 12 inches of rain over 48 hours.

A large section of a road in Soquel, a town in Santa Cruz County, was completely washed out by the storm, stranding residents. Mudslides closed roads elsewhere in the county, according to emergency responders. Crews worked to clear debris by late morning.

In Oakland, part of the roof of a Peet's Coffee distribution center collapsed, killing one worker and injuring another woman early Friday morning, according to the city's fire department. Investigators told a local television news station that they aren't ruling out the roof's collapse as being storm related.

Lake Tahoe faces threat of avalanche threat

Residents on the eastern part of the state around Lake Tahoe were under a serious weather warning due to heavy amounts of snowfall.

The Sierra Avalanche Center warned, "Widespread avalanche activity is expected to occur with heavy loading of the snowpack from rain and high intensity snowfall. Travel in, near, or below avalanche terrain is not recommended."

Caltrans District 3, which maintains the state highway system in Northern California counties, showed the extent of the massive amount of snow that fell on Highway 50 overnight during an avalanche control operation.

The Tahoe Daily Tribune reported that the roofs of at least two businesses in South Lake Tahoe collapsed due to snow load.

More storms are coming

The downpour is expected to lighten by Sunday in the central region, offering some respite, before a second atmospheric river brings heavy rain on Monday and Tuesday, with lingering showers on Wednesday, said Ochs from the National Weather Service.

In northern California, areas with higher elevation are expected to see heavy, wet snow. Meanwhile, creeks and streams in the foothills of the Sierra Nevada are forecast to be the most vulnerable to flooding from rain and snowmelt. Most parts of the region is under a flood watch until Sunday morning.

Copyright 2023 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Juliana Kim
Juliana Kim is a weekend reporter for Digital News, where she adds context to the news of the day and brings her enterprise skills to NPR's signature journalism.
Giulia Heyward
Giulia Heyward is a weekend reporter for Digital News, based out of New York. She previously covered education and other national news as a reporting fellow at The New York Times and as the national education reporter at Capital B News. She interned for POLITICO, where she covered criminal justice reform in Florida, and CNN, as a writer for the trends & culture team. Her work has also been published in The Atlantic, HuffPost and The New Republic.