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California storms persist with deluges, mudslide threats, killing at least 14

Firefighters have searched for a missing child and conducted rescues


Flooding from huge amounts of rain is seen in a neighborhood near Watsonville, Calif. on Monday.

Photo/Brontë Wittpenn/San Francisco Chronicle via AP

UPDATE ( 1:10 p.m. CT, Jan. 10):

Associated Press

LOS ANGELES — California saw little relief from drenching rains Tuesday as the latest in a relentless string of storms swamped roads, turned rivers into gushing flood zones and forced thousands of people to flee from towns with histories of deadly mudslides. At least 14 people have died since last week.

The storm prompted a few tornado warnings early Tuesday and brought heavy snow to the Sierra Nevada a day after dumping up to 14 inches (36 centimeters) of rain at higher elevations in central and Southern California.

Miles of Sierra highways were subject to chain requirements and closures due to whiteout conditions, and avalanche warnings were posted in the backcountry. The Eastern Sierra’s Mammoth Mountain ski resort reported 4.5 to 5.5 feet (1.4-1.7 meters) of snow, with more expected.

After a brief respite, another storm was expected to barrel into parts of the state beginning Wednesday, adding to the misery and further saturating areas already at risk of flooding.

The storms threatened coastal and riverside towns and left more than 200,000 homes and businesses without power early Tuesday, according to the website, which tracks utility reports.

The weather service issued a flood watch through Tuesday for the entire San Francisco Bay Area, along with Sacramento Valley and Monterey Bay. Areas hit by wildfires in recent years faced the possibility of mud and debris sliding off denuded hillsides that have yet to fully recover their protective layer of vegetation.

The storm — the latest extreme weather event to kick off 2023 — was expected to bring enough rain to exacerbate ongoing flooding and heighten the risk of mudslides, forecasters said.

Forecasters also warned that southwestern California could see 60 mph (97 kph) wind gusts at the peak of the storm, while some areas could receive up to a half-inch (13 millimeters) of rain per hour.

The death toll from the storms that began last week climbed from 12 to 14 on Monday, after two people were killed by falling trees, state officials said.

California state highway authorities said late Monday that parts of U.S. and state highways were closed because of flooding, mud or rockslides, heavy snow or car spinouts and truck crashes. The closures included northbound lanes of U.S. 101, a key coastal route.

Evacuation orders were issued in Santa Cruz County for about 32,000 residents living near rain-swollen rivers and creeks. The San Lorenzo River rose to flood stage, and drone footage showed numerous homes sitting in muddy brown water, the top halves of autos peeking out.

A 5-year-old boy vanished in floodwaters Monday on the central coast. The boy’s mother was driving a truck when it became stranded near Paso Robles. Bystanders managed to pull her free, but the boy was swept out of the truck and carried away, probably into a river, said Tom Swanson, assistant chief of the Cal Fire/San Luis Obispo County Fire Department.

A roughly seven-hour search for the missing boy turned up only his shoe before officials called it off as water levels became too dangerous for divers, officials said. The boy had not been declared dead, said spokesperson Tony Cipolla of the San Luis Obispo County Sheriff’s Office.

About 130 miles (209 kilometers) to the south, about 10,000 people were ordered to evacuate in Santa Barbara County.

The entire seaside community of Montecito — home to Prince Harry, Oprah Winfrey and other celebrities — was ordered to flee on the fifth anniversary of a mudslide that killed 23 people and destroyed more than 100 homes in the coastal enclave.

County officials ordered 20 homes evacuated in the area of Orcutt after flooding and a sinkhole damaged up to 15 homes.

Jamie McLeod’s property was under the Montecito evacuation order, but she said there was no way for her to “get off the mountain” with a rushing creek on one side and a mudslide on the other. The 60-year-old owner of the Santa Barbara Bird Sanctuary said one of her employees came to make a weekly food delivery and also became stuck.

McLeod said she feels fortunate because her home sits on high ground and the power is still on. But she tires of the frequent evacuation orders since the massive wildfire followed by the deadly landslide five years ago.

“It is not easy to relocate,” McLeod said. “I totally love it, except in catastrophe.”

Ellen DeGeneres shared an Instagram video of herself standing in front of a raging creek near the Montecito home where she lives with her wife, actor Portia de Rossi. She said in the post that they were told to shelter in place because they are on high ground.

Some miles down the coast another town, La Conchita in Ventura County, was ordered evacuated. A mudslide killed 10 people there in 2005.

In Ventura County, the Ventura River reached its highest level on record at more than 25 feet (8 meters) on Monday. Firefighters using helicopters rescued more than a dozen people trapped on an island in the surging waters. The water level quickly dropped to minor flood stage levels overnight.

The storm also washed 3 feet (1 meter) of mud and rock onto State Highway 126, stranding a long line cars and big-rig trucks. Crews worked into the night to pull them free.

In Los Angeles, a sinkhole swallowed two cars Monday night in the Chatsworth area. Two people escaped by themselves, and firefighters rescued two others who had minor injuries, authorities said.

The National Weather Service warned of a “relentless parade of atmospheric rivers” — long plumes of moisture stretching out into the Pacific that can drop staggering amounts of rain and snow. The precipitation expected over the next couple of days comes after storms last week knocked out power, flooded streets, and battered the coastline.

President Joe Biden issued an emergency declaration Monday to support storm response and relief efforts in more than a dozen counties.

Much of California remains in severe to extreme drought, though the storms have helped fill depleted reservoirs.

Associated Press journalists Janie Har and Olga R. Rodriguez in San Francisco; Amy Taxin in Orange County; Andrew Dalton in Los Angeles; Nic Coury in Aptos; Martha Mendoza in Santa Cruz and Haven Daley in Felton contributed to this report.


By Christian Martinez, Noah Goldberg, Luke Money and Alexandra E. Petri
Los Angeles Times

LOS ANGELES — Five years to the day after storm-induced mudslides ravaged Montecito, the entire town was ordered to evacuate as a deadly winter storm plowed through the area.

Evacuation orders were also issued for parts of Santa Barbara and the nearby communities of Carpinteria and Summerland due to Monday’s deluge.

The weather took a deadly turn in San Luis Obispo County, where floodwaters swept away a 5-year-old boy and a motorist died after entering a flooded roadway.

The conditions prompted officials to plead that residents stay home.

“This is not a day to be out doing anything if you don’t have to,” said Santa Barbara County Sheriff Bill Brown.

The storm’s force and duration was readily apparent, with videos from the area showing normally tame creek beds transformed into raging torrents, roads choked with water and debris and, in one case, a person kayaking down a street swamped by windshield-high water.

In Montecito, the storm called to mind the devastating January 2018 mudslides that killed 23 people, destroyed 130 homes and caused hundreds of millions of dollars in damage.

On Monday afternoon, Ryan Ausanka-Crues walked about 100 feet from his home on East Valley Road to a bridge over Montecito Creek. The creek was full and roaring, the sound of tumbling boulders emanating from the muddy water.

“I was there a couple of hours ago and took a video,” Ausanka-Crues said. “It’s wild.”

During the 2018 mudslides, his home was spared from damage, but his neighbors’ was not. Still, Ausanka-Crues said he had no plans to leave yet.

“I feel pretty good this year, but you never know,” he said.

The evacuation in Montecito is largely due to the types of hazards that can come with steep terrain and wildfire burn scars, said Michael Anderson, state climatologist at the California Department of Water Resources.

“When you get heavy rain waves like this, it makes the land more prone to landslides and debris flow,” he said. “And to make sure that we don’t repeat the incidents after the Thomas fire, they wanted to evacuate people from that area.”

In addition to Montecito, the evacuation order applies to residents of Toro Canyon, Padaro Lane from Via Real to Santa Claus Lane and Sycamore Canyon, and all campgrounds from Rincon Beach to Gaviota Beach.

Another evacuation order was issued about 2 p.m. for the Serena Park area due to flooding. Cal Poly San Luis Obispo said it was evacuating its agriculture facilities, including the Cal Poly Creamery, amid concerns about the Shepard Reservoir needing to release floodwaters. The campus core is not affected by the evacuation.

An evacuation shelter has been established at Santa Barbara City College’s Wake Campus at 300 N. Turnpike Road.

In Santa Barbara, confused tourists and business owners took photos of flooded buildings. A BMW SUV was stranded in 2 feet of water in the middle of Gutierrez Street.

Nearby, in Goleta, the storm forced Rudy Ramirez, 55, and his wife and four sons to ride out the torrent in their truck. The family was returning home to Santa Maria from a vacation in Big Bear when the 101 Freeway shut down, leaving them stranded. Since all hotels were booked, they had no option but to spend the night in the truck.

“I’m not feeling good about it, but we have no other choice. You go on vacation thinking you’re gonna relax. Now look where we are,” Ramirez said with a laugh.

The mountains of Santa Barbara County have received more than 10 inches of rain, the National Weather Service said. That area, as well as parts of Ventura County, “will remain under the gun through early evening with periods of heavy rain.”

The weather service reported flash floods in parts of Santa Barbara and Ventura counties. At the 101 Freeway and Bath Street, several vehicles were stuck due to a flash flood, according to the National Weather Service. Mud and debris were reported at State Route 192 and Willowglen Road on the northern edge of Santa Barbara, as well as in the 6900 block of Gobernador Canyon Road east of Carpinteria.

Much of southwestern California was under watches and warnings for floods, high wind and high surf, according to the National Weather Service, with many of the advisories stretching into Tuesday. A flash flood warning is in place in northern Ventura County and northwestern Los Angeles County until 9 p.m.

In Ventura County, evacuation orders are in effect for the Ventura Beach RV Resort and the community of La Conchita — where a mudslide killed 10 people in January 2005. Officials are also keeping a wary eye on the Ventura River, which has been the site of homeless encampments and is at risk of flooding.

According to Ventura County Fire Capt. Brian McGrath, 18 people have been rescued from islands and areas under bridges along the Ventura River.

In San Luis Obispo County, rescuers called off the search for a 5-year-old boy swept away by floodwaters Monday afternoon when conditions became unsafe for divers to continue looking, according to Tony Cipolla, spokesperson for the county Sheriff’s Office.

Firefighters responded to a call about 8 a.m. regarding a vehicle in the San Marcos Creek crossing near Wellsona Road outside San Miguel, Cipolla said. A mother and her 5-year-old were trying to cross a road that had been flooded. After their car started to get swept away by the creek, both jumped out of the car.

The mother was rescued by a nearby property owner, but the boy continued down the floodwaters, according to Cipolla, who added that authorities constantly reevaluate conditions and will resume the search if it becomes safe to do so.

Cipolla warned residents to stay away from low-lying areas and to find alternate routes if there’s water on the roadway.

Elsewhere in San Luis Obispo County, a motorist died after entering a flooded portion of Avila Beach Drive, according to the California Highway Patrol’s Coastal Division. Evacuations have been ordered in several neighborhoods near the Salinas River in Paso Robles.

The rain has wreaked havoc on roads. As of 3:30 p.m., the northbound 101 Freeway was closed at Highway 33 through Santa Claus Lane, and again at Gaviota in Santa Barbara County. Highway 154 is closed in both directions. In San Luis Obispo County, Highway 1 was closed in both directions from Education Drive to Yerba Buena Street due to flooding.

The storm has also forced the closure of Santa Barbara Airport and the cancellation of classes Monday and Tuesday at the University of California, Santa Barbara.

The Santa Barbara County Fire Department said at a news conference Monday that various agencies had stepped up staffing and activated rescue patrols in anticipation of heavy rains Monday evening. Mark Hartwig, Santa Barbara County fire chief, reported downed power lines, trees and at least one rescue in the Refugio canyon area.

Authorities in San Luis Obispo County received calls of fallen trees and rock and mudslides on several roads, the Public Works Department said in a tweet Monday.

The storm is the latest in a series of atmospheric rivers lashing the Golden State. The most significant impact is in Northern California, prompting concerns over flooding and hazardous winds. Late Sunday, President Biden approved an emergency declaration for the state.

“This (storm) will be quite strong, very energetic, delivering a lot of rain plus strong, gusty winds,” said David Sweet, a meteorologist for the National Weather Service in Oxnard.

The atmospheric river, or warm plumes of airborne moisture from the Pacific Ocean, are expected to bring two waves of intense rain to Southern California through Tuesday evening, weather experts said. The National Weather Service’s Storm Prediction Center warned of marginal risk of isolated strong to severe thunderstorms late Monday into Tuesday. The center also warned of the possibility of brief tornadoes.

Another storm is likely this weekend, forecasters say.

The storm is predicted to pick up in intensity before tapering off Tuesday evening. Rainfall amounts in Los Angeles County are expected to reach 2 to 4 inches along the coast and in coastal valleys and 4 to 8 inches in the foothills and mountains, especially south-facing slopes.

Wind gusts could top 60 mph at the coast and 70 mph in the mountains. Snow will likely remain above 7,500 feet.

A high wind warning is in effect for San Luis Obispo and Santa Barbara counties until 10 p.m. Monday and in the Los Angeles County mountains and the Antelope Valley until 7 p.m. Tuesday. A wind advisory went into effect Monday at noon until 10 p.m. for portions of southwest California, including the Catalina and Santa Barbara Islands and Ventura and Los Angeles counties.

High surf advisories are in effect through 4 p.m. Tuesday for the beaches of Ventura, San Luis Obispo and Santa Barbara counties, with dangerous rip tides and waves reaching 12 feet in some areas.

Urban and small-stream flooding is likely, Sweet said.

Areas that were damaged in previous wildfires pose serious hazards. In unincorporated L.A. County, evacuation warnings were issued from 6 p.m. Monday through 8 p.m. Tuesday near the area of the Lake fire and the north end of the Bobcat fire burn scars because of the possibility of mud or debris flows, according to county officials.

The warning included parts of the communities of Lake Hughes and Kings Canyon: near the 20000 block of Pine Canyon Road; the 18000 block of Ellstree Drive; the 46000 block of Kings Canyon Road; the 1800 block of Newvale Drive; and the 43000 block of Lake Hughes Road. The warning for the Bobcat fire burn area includes, at the north end, the Juniper Hills and Valyermo areas along the foothills of the San Gabriel Mountains.

L.A. County Public Works issued a Phase 2 mud flow forecast for the Fish fire area near Duarte from Monday evening to Tuesday at 8 p.m.

Rain and strong winds were spreading into Orange and southwestern San Bernardino counties Monday, along with gusty south-to-southeast winds. Parts of Orange, San Bernardino and Riverside counties were under a flood watch through Tuesday evening, and a wind advisory that took effect at 4 p.m. Monday extends until 4 p.m. Tuesday in the inland and coastal areas of Orange County, according to the National Weather Service in San Diego.

Monday’s storm comes on the heels of a series of weather systems last week in California that pummeled coastal communities and left more than 400,000 without power on Sunday.

The atmospheric river is essentially “draped along the Central Coast,” slamming the area from Monterey County into Santa Barbara County with the heaviest rainfall, with some downpours extending northeast and southwest, Daniel Swain, a climate scientist at UCLA, said.

“This is just the middle of what has already been a very wet and active pattern — and what is expected to be one, really, for at least another week or so,” Swain said.


(Los Angeles Times staff writers Rong-Gong Lin II, Richard Winton, Summer Lin and Hayley Smith contributed to this report.)


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