Third storm hits with rain, frigid temps

January 5, 2008 5:15:54 PM PST
A third storm in as many days took aim at California on Saturday -- this one packing lightning and frigid temperatures that threatened to send utility crews running for cover and slow efforts to restore power to nearly a half-million people.

At least two deaths were blamed on the storms. One person died early Saturday when a vehicle was swept off a flooded road in Southern California. A transportation worker in Northern California also died after he was struck by a falling branch on Friday.

Rain and wind from the new storm arrived in the state capital even before the last one finished dumping more than 5 feet of snow in the Sierra Nevada. Combined the back-to-back storms were still on pace to dump as much as 9 feet of snow on mountaintops.

In Southern California, thousands of residents were urged to remain away from homes that could be threatened by flooding and slides in wildfire-scarred areas, but mandatory evacuation orders were lifted.

To the east, a deluged canal levee ruptured near Reno, Nevada sending 3 feet of water flowing through 800 homes and trapping 3,500 people in the town of Fernley early Saturday. Residents were rescued by helicopters and school buses. The canal carries Truckee River water to farms.

A 25-year-old Corona woman died when her pickup truck was swept into a flood channel in Chino, a San Bernardino County community east of Los Angeles.

The woman and her boyfriend unwittingly drove onto a flooded road because someone removed a barricade. The woman called 911 around 1 a.m. to say the truck was sinking, police Lt. Al Cheatham said.

Rescuers found Rene Valencia, 36, of Corona, clinging to a tree. He was treated for cuts, bruises and hypothermia. The body of the woman was found about 1 1/2 miles downstream. Her name was withheld.

For all the snow, rain, ice and flooding, meteorologists said final calculations on Saturday proved the second of the three storms would be remembered most for its dangerous wind gusts.

The National Weather Service recorded gusts up to 165 mph on mountaintops northwest of Lake Tahoe on Friday, while gale-force winds in valleys throughout Northern California flipped tractor trailer trucks, closed airports and sent trees crashing onto houses, cars and roads.

Saturday's storm promised weaker winds, peaking at 45 mph in the mountains, but the colder air mass also was expected to spin off lightning bolts that could halt efforts to restore power. Utility companies said they were concerned even minor winds could topple more trees and cause additional power outages because the first two storms had soaked tree roots.

In higher elevations, avalanche warnings were posted for the backcountry of the central Sierra.

"If you take the wind gusts, the snowfall and all of it together, it's definitely one of the biggest storms we've experienced in a number of years," said meteorologist Scott McGuire with the National Weather Service. "The 165 mph wind gust is very impressive, no one here's heard of a bigger one."

More than 450,000 homes and businesses from the San Francisco Bay area to the Central Valley were without power Saturday, down from more than 1.6 million Friday, according to Pacific Gas & Electric and other regional utility providers. Some residents in remote coastal and mountain areas could be without power for several more days, said PG&E spokesman David Eisenhauer.

Additional rain and snow is expected to blanket Northern California through Thursday.

Southern California Edison said about 252,000 customers had experienced outages since Friday night but only about 6,530 were still out Saturday, according to spokesman Gil Alexander. In Los Angeles, technicians worked to restore electricity to more than 14,000 city utility customers.

The National Weather Service office in Reno, Nev., said weather spotters had reported 2 feet to 3 feet of snow in the Lake Tahoe basin by Friday night, while remote sensors and ski areas in the high Sierra had recorded up to 5 feet by Saturday.

Along the southern rim of Lake Tahoe, the snow was still falling Saturday afternoon at Heavenly Mountain Resort, which had received about 4 feet by Saturday afternoon, said resort spokesman Russ Pecoraro.

"The forecasters are comparing it to a 1995 storm when we got 10 feet -- that hasn't quite materialized yet, but we'll see," he said.

In Southern California's Modjeska Canyon, part of a wildfire burn area, the rain left a thick coating of mud on roads but the area seemed otherwise unscathed Saturday.

Gene Corona, 72, worked in hip boots and a raincoat as he used a shovel to repair erosion in a channel he had dug to carry water away from his home.

"I made the rounds last night, every hour on the hour, whenever stuff started breaking through," he said. "I saved my house. It's my home, and insurance doesn't cover mudslides."

In fire-scarred San Diego County, authorities had placed 95,000 automated warning calls to residents of burn areas, but the region also appeared to have avoided significant problems.

"It looks like we escaped what we had feared, which was significant debris flow and flooding," said Holly Crawford, a spokeswoman for the county Office of Emergency Services.

A voluntary evacuation was in effect at an apartment complex northwest of downtown Los Angeles because of flooding and a small mudslide.

East of Los Angeles, heavy snow warnings were issued Saturday for the mountains of San Bernardino and Riverside counties above 6,000 feet.

Santa Anita Park in Arcadia was forced to cancel Saturday's horse races because its track was soaked by 5 inches of rain, and state lottery officials in Sacramento said that computer glitches due to the storm kept them from publicizing Friday's winning numbers and could complicate operations through early next week. Cold and wet weather is continuing today with high waves crashing into Bay Area coastlines and snow dusting three regional mountain peaks, according to the National Weather Service.

Friday's powerful Arctic system, said to be the strongest to hit the Bay Area in years, swept some areas with winds exceeding 80 mph and dropped several inches of rain.

The strongest part of the system has moved through the Bay Area, Anderson said, but it will continue bringing stormy weather through Sunday.

Sunday the Bay Area is expected to experience numerous showers and scattered thunderstorms, some of which may produce small hail. High temperatures in the lower 50s and variable winds between 5 mph and 10 mph are expected.

Residents can expect light snowfall on Mount St. Helena in the Napa, Sonoma, and Lake county area, Mount Diablo in Contra Costa County, and Mount Hamilton in Santa Clara County, according to Anderson.

A break from the stormy weather is expected Monday, when the region will be between systems, according to Anderson. Another storm system is expected to move into the area Tuesday, he added.

Bay Area severe weather resources
Click here for Information on sandbag pick-up locations, flood trackers, river gauges, flood preparedness, hotlines and emergency resources. Bay CIty News and the Associated Press contributed to this report


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