California weather: Death toll from parade of storms reaches 14 as flooding, mudslides prompt evacs

ByNouran Salahieh, Jason Hanna and Joe Sutton, CNN, CNNWire
Tuesday, January 10, 2023
Death toll in California reaches 14 amid relentless storms
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California weather: A parade of storms is forcing evacuations in places like Montecito and Santa Cruz, CA due to flooding and mudslides.

LOS ANGELES -- Another powerful storm is moving into Southern California after forcing thousands to the north to evacuate, prompting dozens of water rescues, causing widespread damage and bringing to 14 the tally of people killed in the state's parade of storms in recent weeks.

More than 11 million people in western Los Angeles, San Luis Obispo, Santa Barbara and Ventura counties were under a flood warning Tuesday morning, while some 34 million people across California -- about 10% of all Americans -- are under flood watches as the risk of mudslides also shifts to the Los Angeles and San Diego areas.

LIVE UPDATES: San Francisco sees half a year's worth of rain in last 2 weeks

Tuesday's storms are just the latest in a wave of atmospheric rivers to thrash the West Coast in recent weeks. The stormy parade has led to dangerous flooding and mudslides and prompted evacuations across the state, with much of California getting 400% to 600% above-average rainfall totals in that time.

Over 24 hours as of Monday night, 2 to 7 inches of rain had fallen across much of the state's lower elevations. It was wetter in the mountainous areas of Southern California, where more than a foot of rain fell from Sunday to early Tuesday, particularly along the Ventura and Santa Barbara County mountains.

The greatest threat for new flooding Tuesday is in the mountains just east of Los Angeles, where 2 to 4 more inches of rain could fall.

"Today's heavy rain will further exacerbate ongoing flooding while prolonging the risk of ... mudslides," the Weather Prediction Center said Tuesday, no small threat for California soil already scarred by historic drought and devastating wildfires.

From north to south in the Golden State this week, flooding, mudslides or threats thereof have led to evacuations, road closures and desperate rescues. On Monday, trees crashed down, homes lost power and major roadways were turned into rivers or otherwise closed as storms unleashed powerful winds and heavy downpours.

In Santa Cruz County just southwest of San Jose, Rachel Oliveria stayed home Monday as water from a nearby river rose and flooded her residence.

"It just came really quick," Oliveira said. "Within a matter of minutes, it was from across the street all the way into our yard, and it went really fast."

A wrap of recent developments:

Driver killed: On California's central coast, a driver died Monday afternoon after entering a flooded roadway in Avila Beach, roughly a 180-mile drive northwest of Los Angeles, the San Luis Obispo County Sheriff's Office said. As of Monday afternoon, at least 14 people in California have died because of recent storms -- "more lives than wildfires in the past two years combined," Gov. Gavin Newsom's office said Monday.

Child missing: A 5-year-old was swept away by floodwaters Monday morning near the Salinas River in San Miguel, about a 215-mile drive northwest of Los Angeles, authorities said. An hourslong search for the child was suspended Monday afternoon "because the weather had become too severe and it was not safe anymore for first responders," San Luis Obispo County Sheriff's Office spokesperson Tony Cipolla told CNN.

Montecito evacuated: In Southern California, the entire oceanside town of Montecito -- a haven for the rich and famous -- was ordered to evacuate Monday because of significant flooding, mudslides and debris flows. Also ordered to evacuate: Residents nearby, including in parts of Santa Barbara, Carpinteria and Summerland. Montecito got a whopping 9.89 inches over 24 hours ending late Monday.

Evacuations in Northern California: In Santa Clara County, which surrounds San Jose, about 32,000 people were under evacuation orders Monday afternoon, and more people could be asked to leave Tuesday.

Major road closures: Flooding has closed numerous roadways this week, including parts of the seaside Pacific Coast Highway (State Route 1) in Southern California, officials said. US 101 was closed Tuesday in places like Ventura -- about 70 miles west of Los Angeles -- with receding floodwater leaving a muddy mess. Between Fresno and Shaver Lake, a rock slide -- caught on video by police -- crashed onto State Route 168 Monday, closing that road.

Video shows homes, highways near Gilroy flooded following major storm

President Joe Biden on Monday approved a measure to support California's efforts to respond to the storms that for weeks have whacked the state like cascading dominoes.

Flash flooding will be likely in and around Los Angeles through late Tuesday afternoon.

And while storm-battered parts of central and Northern California will see some respite early Tuesday, it will be short-lived, forecasters say. Yet another atmospheric river -- a long, narrow region in the atmosphere that can transport moisture thousands of miles -- will hit from Northern California into the Pacific Northwest on Wednesday, the prediction center said.

"When all is said and done, precipitation totals over the next few days will be in the 3-7 inch range through the Transverse Range of southern California, northward along the central to northern California coast ranges and through the Sierra," the center said.

Swollen rivers, water rescues and broad damage

Montecito -- located between the Santa Ynez Mountains and the Pacific Ocean in Southern California's Santa Barbara County -- got Monday's evacuation orders on the five-year anniversary of a 2018 mudslide that killed 23 people as mud and boulders the size of houses plowed down hillsides, splintering more than 100 homes and rupturing a gas main, according to the state's Office of Emergency Services.

Cars traversed flooded streets Monday as water raged in a nearby creek in Montecito and mud oozed down a hillside, video from CNN affiliate KEYT showed. Roads were impacted by boulders, debris and flooding, Santa Barbara city officials reported.

Santa Barbara County Sheriff Bill Brown asked county residents to shelter in place Monday evening as travel became a nightmare with rockslides, flooded roads and closed highways.

Crews in Santa Barbara County have responded to more than 200 incident calls due to the heavy rains, according to Captain Scott Safechuck, spokesperson for a Santa Barbara County Incident Management Team.

Around 10 to 15 homes were damaged due to flooding in the county on Monday, according to Santa Barbara County Fire, which released images showing a flooded neighborhood and a sinkhole that developed.

MORE: Experts explain how CA is simultaneously in a drought and flood emergency

To the north, on the central coast, Santa Cruz County saw widespread damage Monday, according to images from Cal Fire. The San Lorenzo River swelled 14 feet in just over four hours Monday morning as heavy rain pounded the region, putting the river in a major flood stage.

Fast-moving water in Santa Cruz knocked out a bridge and flooded state parks, video showed.

The National Weather Service reported a "possible levee breach" along the Pajaro River Monday morning and warned of "life threatening flash flooding."

Also on the central coast, in San Luis Obispo County, authorities urged residents south of the Arroyo Grande Creek Levee to evacuate to higher ground immediately Monday evening.

The deluge prompted numerous water rescues throughout the state Monday, as rising waters trapped drivers.

In Southern California, just northwest of Los Angeles, at least 18 people were rescued Monday by the Ventura County Fire Department, including multiple people who were stranded on an island in the Ventura River, fire officials said.

That included several people who were clinging to branches of floodwater-surrounded trees. Rescuers helped those people get onto and climb a ladder to a bridge above, video tweeted Monday by the fire department shows.

As rainfall intensified Monday night, officers in Ventura County's Moorpark were working to rescue stranded drivers on State Route 126, according to the California Highway Patrol. State Route 126 was closed from Fillmore City limits to Fairview Canyon.

In central California's Monterey County, the sheriff's office and the Coast Guard rescued two people and a dog who were trapped by floodwaters, the sheriff's office said in a post on Facebook.

Rainfall records fall across the state

The rains dropped Monday night into Southern California, threatening flash flooding and mudslides from Los Angeles to San Diego -- particularly across fire-scarred areas.

Parts of downtown Los Angeles have already seen between 1 to 3 inches of rainfall, with the higher elevations around the city seeing 2 to 5 inches by early Tuesday.

"Nearly all of California has seen much above average rainfall totals over the past several weeks, with totals 400-600% above average values," the Weather Service said. "This has resulted in nearly saturated soils and increasingly high river levels."

Downtown Santa Barbara received 6.37 inches as of early Tuesday -- the wettest day on record for the downtown area.

San Luis Obispo McChesney Field also had its wettest day on record, with daily rainfall of 4.10 inches surpassing the previous record of 3.68 inches. Meanwhile, Moorpark had its second rainiest day on record with 4.02 inches.

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