California braces for powerful atmospheric river storm

An aerial view shows the damage after rainstorms caused a levee to break, flooding Sacramento County roads near Wilton, California, U.S., January 1, 2023.
Fred Greaves | Reuters

Another atmospheric river storm is threatening California with flooding, landslides, and power outages on Wednesday as millions of residents recover from several destructive storms, one of which caused a levee breach this weekend.

Flood watches are in effect across Central and Northern California, where the ground has become more saturated and vulnerable to flooding and rapid runoff. The new storm is expected to compound the damage in the already-battered region and is forecast to bring up to four inches of rain and winds up to 40 miles an hour to the valleys, according to the Weather Prediction Center.

Officials in the city of Watsonville and Santa Cruz County have issued mandatory evacuation orders for communities at high risk of flooding on Wednesday. San Mateo County, located south of San Francisco, declared a local state of emergency and activated its emergency operations center.

“Prepare now for flooding, downed trees, and power outages,” National Weather Service forecasters in the San Francisco Bay Area said Tuesday evening, warning residents that the weather system would bring major rain and wind.

In south Sacramento County, responders are attempting to repair part of a 34 mile levee system along the Cosumnes River, which protects land made up mostly of vineyards and cattle ranches, before the storm is set to arrive on Wednesday.

A view of landslide on the highway 92 West in San Mateo County as heavy rainstorm hits West Coast of California, United States on December 31, 2022.
Tayfun Coskun | Anadolu Agency | Getty Images

The new storm is part of a series of atmospheric river storms that climate scientists forecast will continue this month. Atmospheric rivers are relatively long, narrow streams in the atmosphere that transport most of the water vapor outside of the tropics, according to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.

Daniel Swain, a climate scientist at UCLA, said there are at least two additional atmospheric river storms forecast in the next five days that could lead to more severe flooding.

“This is not just a one-and-done. This is an ongoing sequence,” Swain said. “The big flood risk comes with this succession of progressively stronger storms, which looks like the pattern we’re in.”

Atmospheric rivers contribute up to 50% of California’s annual precipitation and drive about 84% of flood damage in the western U.S. While recent heavy rains have brought a degree of relief to the drought-imperiled California, scientists warn that the storms won’t immediately alleviate severe deficits in the state’s groundwater and soil moisture.

Gov. Gavin Newsom’s office said on Twitter that the state’s operations center is at its highest emergency level and its flood operations center is coordinating efforts like bringing sandbags to local residents. Officials said the state is setting up shelters and is prepared to deploy staff to hospitals and ambulance strike teams.

Cars are piled up next to a wheelchair submerged in the water after rainstorms caused flooding in Sacramento County, in Wilton, California, U.S. January 2, 2023.
Fred Greaves | Reuters

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