Evacuations near Central California dam as storm swells rivers, smashes rainfall records
March 15, 2023 Updated Wed., March 15, 2023 at 8:41 p.m.
LOS ANGELES – Surging rivers. Sliding rocks. Flooded towns.
The 11th atmospheric river storm of the season left a trail of soggy misery in California as it broke decades-old rainfall records and breached levees this week.
In the Tulare County city of Porterville, residents on both sides of the Tule River were ordered to evacuate Wednesday morning as levels rose at Lake Success, sending water running over the spillway at Schafer Dam.
“The amount of water coming off the hillsides is elevated, and (it has) expedited the need for us to get out of the area,” Tulare County Sheriff Mike Boudreaux said in a video update around 1 a.m., noting that officials were going door to door to evacuate residents.
About 100 homes lie between the spillway and Road 284, Boudreaux said. Emergency shelters are open at the Exeter Veterans Memorial Building, Porterville College Gym and Dinuba Memorial Hall.
Lake Success saw a significant increase in inflows over night with about 19,064 cubic feet of water rushing in per second as of Wednesday morning, according to state data. Visalia and Porterville have declared a state of emergency.
Elsewhere in the state, storm clouds were beginning to clear Wednesday, though many impacts are expected to linger.
Nearly 200,000 people remained without power statewide, many in the San Francisco Bay Area, where classes were canceled at more than a dozen schools in Cupertino.
In the Los Angeles area, mud and trees tumbled down a hillside in Baldwin Hills overnight, trapping several cars. Multiple daily rainfall records were set by large margins Tuesday, including 2.54 inches in Santa Barbara, breaking a record of 1.36 inches set in 1952, and 2.25 inches in Oxnard, beating 1930’s mark of 1.46 inches. Los Angeles International Airport saw 1.97 inches, smashing a record of 0.43 of an inch set in 1982.
In the San Bernardino Mountains, heavy rain melted dense snowpack and sent torrents of water rushing down streets. In Sacramento, reports of surfers and kayakers on the surging American River prompted warnings from the county.
The Fresno Fire Department responded to an apartment complex where a very large tree had toppled onto the building, displacing at least five adults and five children, said spokesman Jonathan Lopez-Galvan. The tree also damaged two vehicles and took out a utility pole, though no people were injured.
Perhaps the most lasting impact of the storm will be in the flooded community of Pajaro in Monterey County. A levee breach on the Pajaro River late Friday sent stormwaters rushing into the migrant town of about 3,000 people, prompting widespread evacuations and cutting off potable water to the area.
State and county officials were working to stabilize the breach, but there was no official timeline for when it will be fixed.
“We want people to get back into their homes as soon as possible, and we’re going to do whatever we can to make that happen,” county spokesman Nicholas Pasculli said during a news briefing Tuesday. “But there’s going to be cases, without a doubt, that people will not be able to return to some of their homes.”Officials were also keeping a close eye on the nearby Salinas River, which remained swollen at Bradley and Spreckels on Wednesday morning.
“They’re still in flood stage at the gauges, and it will take a while until they recede,” said Jeff Lorber, a meteorologist with the National Weather Service in the Bay Area.
Though the rains have mostly stopped, additional rises in the rivers are expected due to runoff, Lorber said. “It’s still very saturated, the soil, so moisture that’s pooled up in the mountains will take a while to filter down into the valleys.”
In Southern California, officials were similarly eyeing the Conejo Creek in Camarillo, which peaked Wednesday morning and spurred a flood warning in the area. Roadway flooding is expected, including around the Ventura community of Leisure Village, said Rose Schoenfeld, a meteorologist with the weather service in Oxnard.
The storm spurred incidents of “mud and rock slides on the roads and roadway flooding overnight,” Schoenfeld said, including flooding on the 105 Freeway near Long Beach Boulevard. “There are travel impacts for sure all around the region.”
Officials in Santa Barbara County reported that the storm had created a waterfall in Tucker’s Grove Park, noting that the “flowing water will find its way to San Antonio Creek and eventually drain into the ocean.”
In Orange County, Supervisor Katrina Foley declared a local state of emergency on Tuesday to support storm responses in the area, prompted in part by a hillside collapse in Newport Beach that threatened some homes and sent a chunk of bluff tumbling down.
“My hope is that there is no further sliding on the shore, but if these three homes fall, a cascading effect may happen to the 50 other homes on the bluff and we must be prepared in case that happens,” Foley said in a statement.
Gov. Gavin Newsom expanded his state of emergency Tuesday night to include Orange, Alpine and Trinity counties, meaning 43 of California’s 58 counties are now covered by the proclamation. More than 30 flood watches and warnings are in effect from the National Weather Service.
Forecasters said rain should taper in most areas by Wednesday afternoon. However, another atmospheric river is likely to hit the state next week.
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