The ‘storm train’ targeting California could rival El Niño in the winter of 1998

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The parade of severe storms to hit Northern California could lead to one of the strongest seasons since the wild El Niño winter of 1997-98, given the relentless pace of incoming weather systems. with little relief.

It’s not even an El Niño year.

Already, Northern California and the Central Valley have been hit by a series of historic storms, flooding homes, cars, and restaurants. holiday home highways and underpasses. At least two dead: A 72-year-old man was hit by a falling tree in Santa Cruz on New Year’s Eve. motorist In a submerged car near where the Cosumnes River overflowed into Sacramento County and flooded Highway 99.

There is no escape from the raging storm. Even after Wednesday’s strong event, more storms are expected through mid-January, when they will hit hard from the afternoon into the night. The National Weather Service for the San Francisco Bay Area issued a rare warning that Wednesday and Thursday’s storms pose a purple “extreme” threat, the worst category on a five-point scale. An “extreme” threat is expected for the valleys and foothills of the Sacramento area on Wednesday.

The Los Angeles area is expected to face a “major” threat from the storm Wednesday and Thursday, a level two risk.

“In the last week and a half, we have had little rainfall. So the ground is saturated,” said Warren Blier, chief scientist for the National Weather Service’s San Francisco Bay Area office. “Essentially none of this soaks into the ground and it all runs off,” increasing the risk of flooding.

Wind gusts could reach up to 60 mph in parts of the Bay Area and Sacramento, and up to 80 mph in the coastal hills. Power lines are expected to be disrupted and mass blackouts are expected.

“In addition, this storm will be accompanied by very strong winds and may be stronger than the last storm. The combination of saturated soil and strong winds could cause several trees to fall,” Blier said. “With this incoming system, it’s hard to imagine a scenario that’s more likely to be impactful than what we think, as well as something that could actually happen.”

The recent rains have weakened the root system of many trees. There was a two-hour period on New Year’s Eve when gusts of about 60 miles per hour knocked down many trees and caused power outages, said Craig Shoemaker, a meteorologist with the National Weather Service office in Sacramento.

In this storm, “the winds will be strong, but they will last,” Schoiker said. “Thus, we expect a number of [downed] trees and lights.

Landslides and mudslides are expected and authorities have issued coastal flood warnings. “Districts, parks and roads may be flooded,” forecasters said.

Wednesday’s event will not be a “just-in-time” storm. According to forecasters, “it looks like a storm train of systems will move across the Pacific Ocean and affect much of NorCal for at least the next week, and possibly. [theMartin Luther King Jr. holiday] day off.”

More storms are expected this weekend, followed by a moderate to strong atmospheric flurry Monday through Tuesday, and another storm late next week ahead of a three-day weekend.

“The cumulative effect of these storms could be quite debilitating,” the weather service said.

The current storm pattern is unlike anything Northern California has seen in years. By the time it’s over, downtown San Francisco may have had one of the heaviest three to four weeks of rainfall on record, Blier said. One of those memorable storm trains occurred during the historic El Niño winter of 1997-98, a season that ended with 17 deaths and more than half a billion dollars in damages in California. .

There is no El Niño this year, but instead there is a weak La Niña involving colder-than-normal waters along the Pacific coast. La Nina brings drier conditions to California, but this winter the correlation between the two isn’t always there.

The first batch of rain forecast for Wednesday morning’s commute shouldn’t cause any major problems. “If conditions look calmer than expected this morning, don’t let your guard down,” the weather service said.

The worst part of the storm is expected Wednesday afternoon and Thursday night, when “heavy rains will lead to urban flooding and small streams and overburdened basins,” the report said. meteorological service.

“Stay home,” San Francisco Fire Chief Jeanine Nicholson said at a news conference. Government officials in the region reported a shortage of sandbags as residents rushed to prepare for flooding.

city San Jose and San Mateo County declared a state of emergency and Santa Cruz County declared a local disaster ahead of Wednesday’s storm. San Jose officials order Homeless people living along several rivers, including the Coyote, Guadalupe and Penetencia, should be evacuated. San Jose neighborhoods along Coyote Creek experienced significant flooding in 2017.

San Mateo County officials said the New Year’s storm threatened sewage treatment plants, forced firefighters to pull fire trucks out of floodwaters and prompted the evacuation of a trailer park and housing community for agricultural workers. An evacuation advisory is in effect for rural coastal areas of southern San Mateo County, particularly in the area burned by the 2020 CZU Lightning Complex Fire, one of the world’s most destructive wildfires. state history.

A flash flood warning has been issued for the Russian River near Guerneville in Sonoma County. Officials are predicting moderate flooding on the river on Thursday. city Watsonville A mandatory evacuation order has been issued for areas near the Pajaro River and Salsipuedes Creek in Santa Cruz County. Santa Cruz County suffered $10 million in damage from previous hurricanes.

San Francisco Bay Ferry stopped Wednesday on routes serving South San Francisco and Harbor Bay in Alameda, citing strong southerly winds as a threat to terminals.

The previous storms were already impressive. During the 36-hour period that ended at 4 a.m. on New Year’s Day, the weather service predicted 1½ to 2 inches of rain would fall on San Francisco. In fact, 5.46 inches of rain fell on downtown San Francisco on New Year’s Eve – the second wettest day on record, which dates back to 1849.

Downtown Sacramento had one of the wettest Decembers on record at 9.5 inches. That’s nearly half of the city’s average annual rainfall of 18.2 inches. Stockton and Modesto set all time records For the rains in December, Etikshi said.

The flooded Cosumnes River, which flows 53 miles from the Sierra Nevada to the Central Valley, posted the second-highest flow on record. A portion of the Cosumnes River about 25 miles southeast of downtown Sacramento was flowing at 65,143 cubic feet per second on New Year’s Eve afternoon.

“We’ve had a lot of rain with this system — we’re talking two-day totals of seven to 10 inches in many areas of the Sierra foothills,” Shoemaker said.

That easily surpassed the previous peak flow record of 49,700 cubic feet per second set on Feb. 10, 2017 – the same week that strong storm surges threatened the stability of the retaining wall at Lake Oroville, California’s second-largest reservoir. . , 75 miles away, forced a major evacuation.

The highest river flow record on the Cosumnes River was set the year before the El Niño winter of 1997-1998. The winter of 1996-97 brought deadly New Year’s floods and billions of dollars in damage, and on January 2, 1997, the Cosumnes River peaked at 93,000 cubic feet per second.

Fortunately, Wednesday’s storm is not expected to flood areas around the Cosumnes River. The heaviest rain for the Central Valley will be headed north, Shoemaker said.

There is a high risk of possible thunderstorms during Wednesday’s storm, which “may bring more rapid downpours,” Shoemaker said.

For the Sacramento area, the main concern for the Bay Area is a line of storms poised to move through mid-January.

“We are very concerned about the continued risk of flooding and strong winds in the future. It could affect some of the bigger rivers as it rains,” Shoemaker said.

While the nature of each of these storms is impressive, the total rainfall recorded so far in the Northern Sierra – a key indicator of the health of California’s reservoirs – is nowhere near enough to predict the end of the drought. is in sight.

Water levels in many California reservoirs remain well below historical averages.

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