A powerful and dangerous storm lashed the region Sunday, downing trees and utility lines, leaving more than 130,000 households and businesses without power and prompting evacuation orders in San Mateo and Santa Cruz counties amid the growing risk of flooding.
The “atmospheric river” storm drenched much of Northern California with 3 to 6 inches of rain as it swung in off the Pacific Ocean. Parts of the North Bay received even more rain — up to 10 inches in one spot. And with the rains came punishing gusts of wind.
“We want people to stay inside indefinitely. And off the roads for the next six hours,” said Justin Stockman, a Santa Clara County Fire Department spokesman.
Nearly 131,000 Pacific Gas & Electric customers in the San Francisco Bay Area were without power as of Sunday afternoon, with various outages being reported in Pacific Grove, Monterey, Carmel and Pebble Beach as well.
Strong winds overturned a tractor-trailer and a semi on the Richmond-San Rafael bridge on Sunday afternoon, leaving two lanes closed, according to the California Highway Patrol, while “extreme flooding” was reported in downtown San Rafael.
“Many of the roadways are under 2 feet of water and are impassable or otherwise closed,” the police department warned. “The flooding is anticipated to worsen, due to another high tide in addition to the rainfall levels from the atmospheric river.”
The storm wreaked havoc throughout Northern California. In Plumas County, a rock slide left debris across all lanes of Highway 70, according to sheriff’s deputy Chandler Peay. In the Sierra Nevada, falling rocks closed a portion of Old Donner Road between Truckee and the summit.
Evacuations have been ordered in several areas across several coastal zones in San Mateo and Santa Cruz counties, largely in anticipation of heavier rains and possible mudslides and debris flows Sunday evening.
The areas include the Last Chance and Swanton road areas of Santa Cruz County, as well as properties near Año Nuevo State Park, Whitehouse Canyon Road and areas south of Gazos Creek Road east of Highway 1, along with Butano State Park and the community of Barranca Knolls, west of Cloverdale Road. The communities of Loma Mar and Dearborn Park also were included in the order, along with the community of Butano Canyon. (See map below.)
Authorities there urged people to be on guard for downed trees and the potential for mudslides.
The storm — the strongest to hit the Bay Area in two years — is part of a massive atmospheric system that includes a river of moisture being pulled up from the tropics and a “bomb cyclone” hitting the Pacific Northwest with the power of a major hurricane, meteorologists said.
A cold front associated with the “bomb cyclone” — an area of rapidly decreasing pressure that was forecast to hit Oregon and Washington state — swept across the region, bringing with it a “ribbon” of moisture from the Pacific Ocean.
“It’s almost like a plow, and it’s pushing up all this warm and moist air,” said Brayden Murdock, a meteorologist with the National Weather Service.
While the moisture was expected to put an end to the region’s fire season, it left wildfire-swept areas prone to mudslides and debris flows.
A handful of people showed up late Sunday morning at Half Moon Bay High School, which became an evacuation site amid the threat of flash flooding. Among those was Norm Armstrong, 64, whose house narrowly survived the CZU Lightning Complex fire in August 2020.
More than a year after evacuating for that blaze, he lamented having to flee once again — this time, due to the threat of flash flooding running off from that burn scar. He and his wife brought supplies to last two or three days.
“It is just a regular drill for us now,” Armstrong said.
Firefighters in Santa Clara County scrambled to clean up downed trees and electrical wires.
“The bulk of what we’re responding to is up along Highway 17,” said Stockman, who added that auto collisions have decreased during the day as more people became aware of the storm’s danger. “The scary thing we’re starting to see today, the trees are coming down at such a high frequency.”
Rainfall totals were highest in the North Bay. Mt. Tamalpais received 10.51 inches of rain from noon Saturday through noon Sunday, while 5 to 6 inches fell in Santa Rosa, according to National Weather Service rain gauges.
The heaviest rain in the Santa Cruz mountains wasn’t expected to begin falling until after 4 p.m. on Sunday.
Meanwhile, a 65 mph gust of wind was reported at Los Gatos at 8:32 a.m., and a 62-mph gust was recorded at Mt. Umunhum.
“The winds are stretching out pretty far ahead of this system,” Murdock said. “It’s going to be wind first, rain later.”
Mt. Tamalpais was forecast to receive 12 to 13 inches of rain from late Saturday through Monday morning, Murdock said. San Francisco could see 7 inches, and the East Bay hills 5 inches. Most of Santa Clara County is forecast to receive 1.5 to 2 inches, and the Santa Cruz Mountains could get 7 inches of rain.
“It’s a marathon,” Murdock said. “It will be a long few hours, with such heavy rain coming through.”
The map below shows the evacuation zones.
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