California emergency officials bracing for dangerous storm, flooding

Thousands of “boots on the ground” and millions of sandbags were deployed across California this weekend, as state officials help residents prepare for a deluge of rain with high winds expected to cause severe flooding, power outages, downed trees and landslides.

Meteorologists with the National Weather Service anticipate that the most significant rainfall, damage and threat to life will likely hit the central and southern coastline, including the Los Angeles and San Diego metro areas. But Santa Cruz County’s San Lorenzo River and Santa Clara County’s Guadalupe River are expected to reach flood stage.

In anticipation of the statewide impact, Gov. Gavin Newsom has mobilized more than 8,500 emergency operations staff from California’s policing, fire and transportation agencies, as well as the National Guard, according to Nancy Ward, director of the California Governor’s Office of Emergency Services.

Besides 7 million sandbags, Ward said swift-water rescue teams, high-water vehicles, sheltering supplies for almost 40,000 people — such as food, cots, blankets and water — and other emergency response resources are pre-positioned.

Notably, she said her team is also planning to make cautionary calls to almost 2 million Californians in some of the most disaster-prone areas — an initiative modeled after a previous voter registration campaign. These messages will be shared in English, Spanish, Korean, Tagalog, Vietnamese and Mandarin, in addition to standard emergency alerts, warnings and evacuation orders pushed to phones, posted on Calalerts.org and shared on social media.

“These next storms are going to be impactful and dangerous,” Ward said during a press conference Saturday. “They pose a threat to our state, and they’re the most dangerous natural disasters that we have – killing more people from storm damages and flooding than wildfires every year.”

In a replay of this week’s storm, most Bay Area residents will be see 2 to 3 inches of rain from late Saturday night until Monday morning, with 4 to 6 inches or more dumping on the Santa Cruz Mountains, North Bay hills and Big Sur. Strong winds could cause power outages on Sunday, and the rain is likely to back up storm drains and cause minor flooding on local creeks and some roads.

Santa Cruz County warned on Saturday afternoon that San Lorenzo River water levels are expected to surge to 3 feet above flood stage by noon Sunday in Paradise Park and Felton Grove north of Santa Cruz. Both neighborhoods flooded in the severe storms of January last year and were put under evacuation orders. And fire officials warned residents of low-lying areas such as Rio del Mar Flats and Soquel — which also flooded in January 2023 — to “prepare a go-bag in case of evacuation.”

In Southern California, the forecast is for a much stronger punch. Rain totals are expected to be twice as high, with up to 6 inches in Los Angeles — half the city’s average yearly rainfall — and as many as 12 inches at higher elevations.

While it appears that the Bay Area will likely avoid some of the most severe impacts this week, the Guadalupe River that runs through San Jose in Santa Clara County was one of five locations that is expected to reach flood stage, according to Karla Nemeth, director of the state Department of Water Resources.

During the atmospheric river storms that soaked the region in January 2023, San Jose officials said the city narrowly avoided a slew of widespread damage from creeks topping their banks, but flooding still inundated communities further south near Morgan Hill and Gilroy.

Nemeth said her team will update their flood forecasts every six hours, especially as 16 other river systems may also reach “flood monitor” stage. In the meantime, she said reservoirs across California have already started releasing water to make space for incoming precipitation.

But Californians shouldn’t necessarily expect to see a fallout similar to last year’s weeks-long onslaught of storms, according to Eric Schoening, a meteorologist with the National Weather Service, especially compared to the few waves of wet weather that pre-empted this weekend’s atmospheric river.

“We do have some wet ground that will enhance flooding potential, but it’s not the longer term setup we had last year,” Schoening said. “That said, this individual storm has the potential for very significant impacts, so this storm could have just as big — if not bigger — impacts than any individual storm for last year.”

There’s good news on the horizon.

While additional showers may continue across the state from Wednesday to Saturday, he said Tuesday will likely be the last day of significant rainfall.

“It looks like we’ll have a break in the storm activity through much of the middle of February,” Schoening said. “Our outlooks for (those weeks) show drier-than-usual conditions across the state of California.”

Kim Johnson, director of the California Department of Social Services, said her teams have prioritized focus on people who are homeless or unsheltered, older, medically vulnerable, disabled and living in congregate facilities.

She said Californians can download a personal emergency planning template from chhs.ca.gov, and the state’s “friendship line” is also available for older adults to access non-emergency emotional support calls at 1-888-670-1360.

While Caltrans crews may preemptively block off some of the most at-risk roadways, residents are urged to postpone any non-essential travel until the storm passes. Officials reminded motorists that 6 inches of water can down an adult, 12 inches of water can sweep away vehicles, and 2 feet of water can move an SUV or truck.

Anale Burlew, chief deputy director at CalFire, implored residents to avoid unnecessary dangers and help look out for loved ones and neighbors, but just in case, the department has helicopters, hoists and other rescue equipment at the ready.

“Is your life, the life of your loved ones or the life of our first responders worth driving in flooded waterways or not following evacuation guidance? The answer is no,” Burlew said. “Please be considerate of ensuring that we are all taking precautions to ensure that we are not putting our fellow responders – as well as our community members – at risk.”

Staff writer Ethan Baron contributed to this report.

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