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Already Saturated Bay Area Braces for Yet Another Dangerous Winter Storm

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Two men putting up sandbags in front of a door in a an urban neighborhood.
Sandbags are placed outside the headquarters of Everlane, a clothing retailer, on Folsom Street in San Francisco on Jan. 3, 2023. (Beth LaBerge/KQED)

As wind gusts picked up late Wednesday morning, the Bay Area braced for another dangerous winter storm that's expected to pummel much of Northern and Central California this afternoon, and continue into Thursday morning.

The squall, set to slam a region already saturated by a deluge on New Year's Eve, is forecast to cause widespread flooding, along with washed-out roads, power outages from downed trees, and the "likely loss of human life," the National Weather Service said. With nearly all of Northern and Central California under flood watches and high-wind warnings, the agency warned of "impassable roads, mudslides/landslides [and] rapid rises in rivers/creeks," and took the unusual step of advising residents to prepare "go-bags" and insurance documentation in advance.

"When the main cold front comes through later this afternoon and into the evening hours as it sweeps across the Bay Area, that's when we are going to see the heaviest rainfall and the strongest winds," said NWS meteorologist Roger Gass. "And along with that, we're going to see those wind [gusts] increase to about 60 mph in some of the coastal locations as well as in the higher terrain of the region."

California officials asked drivers to stay off the roads unless absolutely necessary and stay informed by signing up for updates from emergency officials for notices on downed trees and power lines, and flooding.

“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 storm is one of three so-called atmospheric river storms in the last week to reach the drought-stricken state. Trees are already stressed due to three years with limited precipitation. Now, suddenly saturated ground and heavy wind mean they're more likely to fall over, possibly knocking down power lines or creating 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 Wednesday.

On Wednesday morning, Gov. Gavin Newsom proclaimed a state of emergency throughout California to support relief efforts, including the mobilization of the state's National Guard and the use of federal assistance to support highway repairs and other local response efforts. State officials said critical resources had been placed in 12 counties throughout the state — including Contra Costa, Sonoma, Sacramento and Marin — amid major concerns over flooding and mudslides.

The state also activated its flood operations center to closely monitor reservoirs and provide technical support and sandbags to local agencies.

In advance of the storm, a handful of evacuation orders and warnings were issued throughout Santa Cruz County, particularly in mountainous areas burned by 2020's CZU Lightning Complex fire.

In advance of the storm, officials in the South San Francisco Unified School District, which serves more than 8,000 students, said all schools in the district would be closed on Thursday "out of an abundance of caution."

Residents are being urged to prepare and hunker down, as counties scramble to pass out thousands of sandbags, activate emergency operations centers and ready water rescue teams.

In the Bay Area, 8,500 sandbags distributed by officials weren’t enough to reach demand.

Authorities are advising people to secure objects outside that might blow over, rake leaves away from drains, have a flashlight and radio handy in case of a power outage and sign up for emergency alerts.

Brian Garcia, a warning coordination meteorologist with the National Weather Service, said the rain is not necessarily the top concern with this storm.

"We will get the rain and we will get flooding and we will get issues from it, but the marquee thing for this is the wind and the saturated soils," he said, noting that high winds are expected throughout the region, even at lower elevations. "It’s just gonna knock a ton of trees over, and unfortunately in our area, trees fall on people and they will kill people."

Between 1 and 3 inches of rain is expected in urban areas, with up to 5 inches at higher elevations, Garcia added, enough to spur the strong likelihood of flooding across the region, including towns along the Napa and Russian rivers — with the Russian River expected to reach flood stage by Thursday.

Robert O’Neill, an insurance broker who lives and works just south of San Francisco, said he lined up to get sandbags for his garage and for a co-worker’s home to prepare for the storm. The city's Public Works Department, which temporarily ran out of sandbags on Wednesday morning, had resumed distribution by the early afternoon.

O'Neill said he plans to leave the office early and head home, where he has go-bags packed with clothes, medicine, electronic chargers and important papers, along with three days’ worth of water and nuts, protein bars and sleeping bags.

“We’re in a big city, so we wouldn’t be too stranded too long, but you never know,” he said. “It doesn’t make sense not to be prepared.”

The whiplash between severe drought and rapid rainfall is a clear marker of climate change affecting California, said UCLA climate scientist Daniel Swain. Despite the immediate danger it poses, the storm could ultimately help the state begin to claw back from years of devastating drought, although the benefits will not necessarily last, he said.

"This is really going to help a lot with the short-term drought in Northern California, perhaps even erase short-term drought conditions," he said. "But it's going to take a lot more to completely obviate the longer-term, multiyear drought impacts."

And more storms are on the way after this one: Another deluge is forecast to hit the state this weekend, with another system expected to arrive early next week.

This story includes reporting from KQED's Laura Klivans and Ted Goldberg, and The Associated Press.




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