California weather: Storm death toll rises to 16 as flooding, mudslides prompt evacuations

ByNouran Salahieh, Jason Hanna and Joe Sutton, CNN, CNNWire
Tuesday, January 10, 2023
California storm death toll rises to 16 amid unrelenting rains
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The California storm death toll has reached at least 16 as relentless rain forces evacuations in places like Montecito and Santa Cruz due to flooding and mudslides.

LOS ANGELES -- More rain is dropping across California on Tuesday, threatening more flooding and disruption as part of a parade of storms that have forced thousands to evacuate and prompted dozens of rescues in recent days and left more than 16 dead in recent weeks.

More than 20 million people across California are under flood alerts as the risk of mudslides also spreads to the Los Angeles and San Diego areas.

Further north, in San Francisco, a flash flood warning was issued until 3:30 p.m., according to the National Weather Service. The warning, which covers about a million people, comes as strong thunderstorms move onshore, bringing with them heavy rain, powerful winds and hail.

Across central California, weather service officials had received more than two dozen reports of strong winds by Tuesday afternoon as the rain moved in.

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Tuesday's rain is part of a wave of atmospheric rivers -- long, narrow regions in the atmosphere that can transport moisture thousands of miles -- that have thrashed the West Coast in the last several weeks. The storms have led to dangerous flooding and mudslides and prompted evacuations across the state, with much of California getting rainfall totals that are 400% to 600% above average in that time.

Several more inches of could fall across much of the state Tuesday, after 2 to 7 inches fell over 24 hours ending Monday night 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.

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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.

Two motorists killed: In interior California's San Joaquin Valley, a tree fell on a pickup truck on State Route 99 in Visalia early Tuesday, killing the driver and leading to the death of a motorcyclist who crashed into the tree, the California Highway Patrol said. That brings the state's death toll in recent storms to at least 16, including the 14 that Gov. Gavin Newsom's office announced Monday evening.

Child missing: A 5-year-old boy 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 resumed Tuesday morning after a suspension for poor weather conditions Monday afternoon.

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: Evacuations also have been ordered for about 32,000 people in parts of Santa Cruz County outside San Jose, the county said. In the coastal town of Aptos, water on Tuesday morning covered the streets of a neighborhood and came up to numerous homes.

Power outages: Storms have downed utility lines, contributing to power outages. More than 158,000 homes, businesses and other utility customers were without electricity service in California as of 2 p.m. local time, according to PowerOutage.us.

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.

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.

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.

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.

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