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Latest California atmospheric river storm quickly turns deadly

The latest in a series of atmospheric river storms barreled into California Wednesday and was already being blamed for at least two deaths. It brought high winds and rain that threatened widespread flooding and prompted evacuation orders in many areas, including a high-risk coastal town where mudslides killed 23 people in 2018.

The huge storm toppled a redwood tree that crashed into a mobile home in Sonoma County on Wednesday evening, killing a toddler, Occidental Fire Chief Ron Lunardi told CBS News. He said the boy, about two-to-two-and-a-half-years old, was inside with his parents, who weren’t hurt. Rescuers couldn’t use helicopters due to the weather, Lunardi said, so he brought the boy in his pickup truck to nearby paramedics.

Police in the San Francisco Bay Area city of Fairfield say a 19-year-old resident was killed Wednesday morning when her vehicle hydroplaned into a utility pole on a partially flooded road.

Massive Storm Brings Flooding Rains And Damaging Winds To California
The canopy at a Valero gas station rests on the ground after being toppled by high winds on January 04, 2023 in South San Francisco.

Getty Images

Almost 200,000 customers in the state were in the dark as of shortly after midnight California time Thursday, mostly in the storm-wracked region, according to PowerOutage.us.

The storm was expected to dump up to 6 inches of rain in parts of the San Francisco Bay Area, where most of the region would remain under flood warnings into late Thursday night. In Southern California, the storm was expected to peak in intensity overnight into early Thursday morning, with Santa Barbara and Ventura counties likely to see the most rain, forecasters said.

“We anticipate that this may be one of the most challenging and impactful series of storms to touch down in California in the last five years,” said Nancy Ward, the new director of the California Governor’s Office of Emergency Services.

The Bay Area office of the National Weather Service didn’t mince words about the storm’s potential, calling it “truly a brutal system that we are looking at and needs to be taken seriously,” according to CBS Bay Area.

The station said, “Rain from the latest atmospheric river storm was pounding the Bay Area and Northern California Wednesday evening, bringing widespread flooding, mudslides and traffic issues, while gusty winds brought down trees and left tens of thousands without power.”

Severe Weather
An empty vehicle is surrounded by floodwaters on a road in Oakland, Calif., on Jan. 4, 2023.

Godofredo A. Vásquez / AP

San Francisco Mayor London Breed said at a news conference that the city was “preparing for a war.” Crews cleared clogged storm drains, tried to move homeless people into shelters and passed out emergency supplies and ponchos to those who refused to go.

The city distributed so many sandbags to residents that supplies temporarily ran out.

Powerful winds gusting to 85 mph or more forced the cancellation of more than 70 flights at San Francisco International Airport and downed trees and power lines. City firefighters rescued a family after a tree fell onto their car. The fire department reported “large pieces of glass” fell off the Fox Plaza tower near the Civic Center, although no injuries were reported. It was “highly possible” the damage to the skyscraper was wind-related, the department tweeted.

The new storm left more than 100,000 customers in the San Francisco Bay Area and Central Coast without power.

The storm is one of three so-called atmospheric river storms in the last week to reach the drought-stricken state. 

NOVATO, CALIFORNIA - JANUARY 4, 2023: Warning messages for driv
Warning messages for drivers are posted along US Highway 101 in Marin County before a powerful storm arrived to the area in Novato, Calif. on Jan. 4, 2023.

Melina Mara /The Washington Post via Getty Images

California Gov. Gavin Newsom declared a state of emergency to allow for a quick response and to aid in cleanup from another powerful storm that hit just days earlier.

In Southern California, evacuations were ordered for those living in areas burned by three recent wildfires in Santa Barbara County, where heavy rain forecast for overnight could cause widespread flooding and unleash debris flows.

County officials didn’t have a firm number for how many people were under evacuation orders, but Susan Klein-Rothschild, a spokesperson in the county’s emergency operations center, said sheriff’s deputies went door-to-door and contacted at least 480 people.

Among the towns ordered to evacuate was Montecito, where five years ago huge boulders, mud and debris swept down mountains through the town to the shoreline, killing 23 people and destroying more than 100 homes. The town is home to many celebrities, including Oprah Winfrey and Prince Harry and his wife, Meghan.

“What we’re talking about here is a lot of water coming off the top of the hills, coming down into the creeks and streams and as it comes down, it gains momentum and that’s what the initial danger is,” Montecito Fire Department Chief Kevin Taylor said.

unstable cliffs near PCH
Unstable cliffs loom over the Pacific Coast Highway in Dana Point, Calif. as heavy rains threaten to create road-closing landslides.

Robert Gauthier / Los Angeles Times via Getty Images

Elsewhere, a 45-mile stretch of the coastal Highway 1 running through Big Sur was closed Wednesday evening in anticipation of flooding and rock falls. Further north, a 25-mile stretch of Highway 101 was closed due to several downed trees.

Drivers were urged to stay off the roads unless absolutely necessary, especially with heavy snow expected in the mountains.

The storm came days after a New Year’s Eve downpour led to the evacuations of people in rural Northern California communities and the rescue of several motorists from flooded roads. A few levees south of Sacramento were damaged.

On Wednesday, authorities in south Sacramento County found a body in a submerged car – one of at least four victims of flooding from that storm.

Evacuation orders were in place in Santa Cruz County’s Paradise Park along the swiftly moving San Lorenzo River, as well as in areas along the Pajaro River. Residents who fled wildfires in the Santa Cruz Mountains in 2020 were packing their bags as the towns of Boulder Creek, Ben Lomond and Felton were all warned they should be prepared to evacuate.

Sonoma County authorities issued an evacuation warning for a string of towns along the Russian River, which was expected to reach flood stage on Thursday.

The storms won’t be enough to officially end the state’s ongoing drought, now entering its fourth year. The U.S. Drought Monitor showed that most of California is in severe to extreme drought. Since the state’s major reservoirs are low, they have plenty of room to fill with more water from the storm, officials said.

Trees already stressed from years of limited rain are more likely to fall now that the ground is suddenly saturated and winds are heavy. That could cause widespread power outages or create flood hazards, said Karla Nemeth, director of the state’s Department of Water Resources.

“We are in the middle of a flood emergency and also in the middle of a drought emergency,” she said during an emergency briefing.

CBS News’ Patrick Torphy contributed reporting.

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