Winter storm brings rain, wind and some snow

February 26, 2011 12:38:08 AM PST
A freezing storm system is moving across Northern California, offering the slight chance that San Francisco could see its first snow in 35 years.

The National Weather Service says the low-pressure system brought heavy rains and strong winds overnight and will be followed by a drop in temperatures and more precipitation Friday night and Saturday.

The storm created the prospect of San Francisco getting a dusting of snow, but the chances of a white winter in the city are getting slimmer. Weather Service forecaster Bob Benjamin says there's a 10 percent chance of flurries in the city.

The storm already has dumped more than 2 feet of snow in the Sierra Nevada. Forecasters say more than 3 feet could fall in the highest elevations by the end of the weekend.

Freezing temps could damage North Bay crops

Although the threat of snow at lower elevations has passed for people in the North Bay, a bigger issue remains -- ice.

While snow did not work its way down to some of the lower levels, Lake County woke up to several inches worth. No cars got through Hwy 175 above Middleton on Cobbs Mountain Friday morning without 4-wheel drive or chains.

"In my time I haven't seen too many cold fronts that come after very warm period of time," said Daphne Blackmer who runs a nursery at Central Valley Building Supply in St. Helena. She describes this once warm, now cold again winter season as a climate double-cross that fooled some plants into early blooms, and now jeopardy.

Frost or ice on a plum tree can end a season before it begins.

"It will take all of its flowers off, and if it were actually a fruiting plum, you might lose your crop for this year," said Blackmer.

The possibility of snow doesn't worry most growers in the area. But ice? Absolutely.

"We cover everything that's young and tender, because if it does get frost damage, it won't grow quite as quickly," said Adam Keefer, who works at as high profile a garden as there is Napa County, or anywhere, because it belongs to the world renowned French Laundry restaurant in Yountville, where clients expect perfection and the chefs demand it.

Friday morning, the gardening staff covered up some emerging Tokyo turnips, just to be safe.

"Well, it's been 28 in the past," said French Laundry's Tucker Taylor. "We have this frost protection, and if it does snow, snow acts as an insulator."

"The worst-case scenario is that we don't get snow and it drops to 20 degrees and things really do freeze here," said Blackmer.

Grapevines, on the other hand, are not a cause of concern because they remain dormant at this type of year. It's nature's way of protecting them.

Treacherous conditions atop Mt. Hamilton

Snow did fall overnight at Mt. Hamilton in San Jose, and during the day it was a mixture of rain, hail, strong wind and tiny bit of sunshine. But the only constant was the bitter cold.

When the snow didn't come to them, the enthusiastic and impatient went to the snow. Mt. Hamilton is like a magnet, pulling people to its peak from the valley floor.

Braving the windchill at 4,200 feet is nothing compared to braving 19 miles of a narrow and winding road.

"I was scared the whole way," said Shanaseey Dagnino of San Jose. "I had so much anxiety holding on to the seat the whole time."

The last 7-mile stretch to the top is University of California property leading to Lick Observatory is intended for research, not crowds.

"There's no ambulance service up here and oftentimes no cell phone service, and today we don't even have electricity," said Lick Observatory deputy director John Wareham.

Astronomers were able to work Friday using a generator. But conditions can be overpowering. Resident astronomer Elinor Gates remembers the blizzard of 2001.

"We had 2.5 feet of snow and it drifted to six or seven feet in places and we were snowbound up here for a number of days," Gates.

If the thought of a snowball fight at Mt. Hamilton is tempting, remember the first battle is with the pavement.

"Definitely a dangerous drive," said San Jose resident Afshin Bayegan.

The Lick Observatory is urging the public, for their own safety, that they not travel up the mountain.

Warming centers

San Jose is opening 10 warming centers for residents who need shelter from the cold, rainy--and possibly snowy--weather expected this weekend.

The centers will be open from 8 a.m. to noon on Saturday and Sunday. Mona Favorite-Hill, a spokeswoman for the city's parks and recreation department, said that period has been predicted to be the coldest.

"Whenever the National Weather Service issues an extreme weather alert, we open our large community centers," Favorite-Hill said. "We encourage our vulnerable populations ... to come."

All people are welcome at the centers, Favorite-Hill said. The warming centers are located at the Almaden, Berryessa, Camden, Evergreen, Seven Trees, Mayfair, Roosevelt, Southside and Cypress community centers as well as the Willows Senior Center.

Anyone with questions about the centers is asked to call the city's call center at (408) 535-3500.

Elsewhere around the Bay Area, St. Anthony's in San Francisco, Safe Harbor Shelter in South San Francisco, and Maple Street Shelter in Redwood City are each increasing their bed counts to accomodate more people. In East Palo Alto, the We Hope Warming Shelter will be open overnight providing food and shelter.

For information on warming center in Santa Clara County, click here.

Ferry cancellations

The Alameda Harbor Bay Ferry canceled its Friday morning service due to stormy weather, a ferry manager said.

The ferry, which runs between Harbor Bay Isle in Alameda and San Francisco's Ferry Building, announced the cancellation at 6:05 a.m., ferry manager Earnest Sanchez said.

The morning ferry service, which normally begins at 6:30 a.m., was canceled due to high winds.

"We expect to resume service tonight with the 4:35 p.m. departure from the San Francisco Ferry Building," Sanchez said.

Power outages

Thousands of Bay Area residents were without power this morning, largely due to stormy weather in the region, PG&E officials said.

The Peninsula was hit hardest, with 2,800 customers without power as of 10:45 a.m., PG&E spokeswoman Fiona Chan said.

The South Bay had 460 customers without power, San Francisco had 40, the East Bay nearly 20, and the North Bay about 400, Chan said. PG&E officials are urging customers to use caution as the stormy weather persists.

If an outage occurs, customers should battery-operated flashlights in lieu of candles, Chan said.

Officials recommend unplugging or turning off all electric appliances to avoid overloading circuits when power returns.

Downed power lines should be treated as "live" or energized, and customers should call 911 and notify PG&E, she said.

Rain in the South Bay

The Santa Cruz Mountains were hit with heavy downpours and high wind gusts. Caltrans monitored the roads and main corridor on Hwy 17.

Friday's rain caused some small hazards like falling rocks and minor mudslides.

"Well, we're anticipating snow, but we didn't get the snow. As predicted, the ground is getting really saturated with water and now we're into slides, the usual slides on Highway 17," Caltrans Maintenance Supervisor Russell Ellinworth said.

There has been a lot of water washing over the highway in some parts. If you're driving, you have to be careful and take it slow because you will hydroplane for a second.

Snow is still a definite possibility and the elevation at the summit is about 1,800 feet. Caltrans says its crews will continue to be out in full force, all day Friday and through Saturday night ready for any snowfall.

San Francisco rain

Parts of San Francisco got some heavy rain, causing some trouble for drivers on Highway 101 who were hydroplaning on the exit on-ramp. Officials closed the ramp for a few minutes because it was too dangerous to drive.

On the intersection of Buchanan and Pine, a 30-foot tree fell at around 7 a.m. and crews quickly arrived to assess the damages and clean the roadways. There were no injuries, but a phone line was hit.

"Some winds came through early this morning and knocked the tree down. It took down the phone lines, so we called our crew and they responded immediately," Tim Hines from the Department of Public Works said. "We were actually prepared for this, we've had meetings about it, what could happen for this weekend and the winds, the ice on the roads, so we are geared up and ready for this."

In the Ocean View neighborhood, some power lines came down because of a fallen tree and about 360 customers lost power for a few hours.

There were a few issues for commuters on the Bay Bridge due to water accumulation and drivers were caught off guard, since they were hitting it at full speed. There was not a lot of traffic, so they were going quite quickly when they hit the water.

The Department of Public Works is ready for more storm weather with sandbags and in case more weather-related incidents occur.

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The Associated Press and Bay City News contributed to this report


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