'Brutal' Severe Rain Is Coming to an Already Flood-Damaged California

'Brutal' Severe Rain Is Coming to an Already Flood-Damaged California

The third atmospheric river event in 10 days is forecast to dump more than six inches of additional water over parts of the already soaked west coast.

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Highway 101 in South San Francisco was flooded on December 31, 2022.
Highway 101 in South San Francisco was flooded on December 31, 2022.
Photo: Jeff Chiu (AP)

At least one person died, more than 1,000 prison inmates were evacuated from a county jail, and a levee broke amid flooding on New Year’s Eve in Northern California. A so-called “atmospheric river” brought more than five inches of rain to downtown San Francisco on December 31, making it the second wettest day in over 170 years of record keeping in the city. Elsewhere in the Bay Area rainfall totals exceeded four inches.

The New Year’s Eve atmospheric river was the second major precipitation event to sweep through West Coast states last week. An earlier storm led to at least five deaths in Oregon, all related to car crashes, reported The New York Times. Combined, the storms flooded creeks, rivers, roadways, and buildings. All that rain triggered landslides. In their wake, the atmospheric rivers left debris covered highways, sinkholes, power outages, and other damaged infrastructure.

Now, another major atmospheric river—likely to be the largest of the three—is forecast to bring much more rain to California. The National Weather Service is predicting widespread rainfall of 3 to 6 inches across the state from Wednesday to Thursday. In northern California and the coastal mountain ranges, rainfall could locally exceed those amounts. “Recent rainfall has left soils saturated and susceptible to flooding and rapid runoff concerns. Sensitive terrain will also have the potential for landslides,” NWS wrote.

Along with the rain, heavy winds up to 70 mph are forecast in some coastal areas. And, in the high Sierras Nevada mountains, snow will fall instead of rain—at possible rates of up to three inches per hour, causing white out conditions.

“To put it simply, this will likely be one of the most impactful systems on a widespread scale that this meteorologist has seen in a long while,” a Bay Area NWS meteorologist said in a Monday night forecast discussion. “The impacts will include widespread flooding, roads washing out, hillside collapsing, trees down (potentially full groves), widespread power outages, immediate disruption to commerce, and the worst of all, likely loss of human life,” that forecast continued. “This is truly a brutal system that we are looking at and [it] needs to be taken seriously,” the meteorologist concluded.

Though California and the rest of the West have been in dire need of water, suffering from extensive and significant drought, when so much rain falls all at once, it inevitably causes problems. Parched soils don’t readily absorb water, so most of it quickly becomes run-off. Burn scars from wildfire compound the issue—as scorched soil is even less absorbent. Together drought, recent fires, and heavy rain is a recipe for rock and mudslides—which closed roads around Northern California over the weekend.

Preparation for the oncoming storm has already begun, as clean-up from the previous storm continues. People around the Bay Area were filling sandbags to place around their homes and businesses on Tuesday—during a brief lull between rains.

Though atmospheric rivers are a common phenomenon in the West, and are responsible for most of California’s rain—some research suggests they are becoming more intense and frequent as climate change worsens. Click through to see a glimpse of the damage California is already dealing with.

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Highway 50

Highway 50

Traffic camera video still showing flooding
Highway 50 in El Dorado County was shut down by floods on New Year’s Eve.
Image: Caltrans District 3 (AP)
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State Route 299

State Route 299

Landslide debris on highway
The heavy rain triggered landslides that also blocked roads, like this one on State Route 299 in Trinity County. Areas burned in recent wildfires are particularly susceptible to landslides.
Photo: Michah Crockett (AP)
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State Route 271


State Route 271

Photo of landslide on road
Another landslide was apparent in Mendocino County, where State Route 271 was closed.
Photo: CALTRANS DISTRICT 1 (AP)
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Sinkhole

Sinkhole

Workers repair sinkhole
Flooding left behind other infrastructure damage, like this sinkhole in Daly City.
Photo: Haven Daley (AP)
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Harrison Road in Salinas

Harrison Road in Salinas

Photo of truck on flooded road
The water made for dangerous driving conditions across Northern California throughout the holiday weekend. On New Year’s Eve, Harrison Road in Salinas was flooded.
Photo: Nic Coury (AP)
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Alameda County

Alameda County

Photo of debris on road
Niles Canyon Road in Alameda County was also covered in debris following a landslide.
Photo: California Highway Patrol Dublin Area (AP)
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Sierra Snowfall

Sierra Snowfall

Photo of trucks on snowy road
At higher elevations, all that precipitation fell as snow, not rain—stranding drivers on icy Interstate 80 near the Nevada border.
Photo: California Highway Patrol Truckee (AP)
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Flooded Buildings


Flooded Buildings

Building after flood
In the Bay Area, residents have begun clean-up efforts and preparation for another possible round of floods. Restaurant owner, Sylvan Mishima Brackett, points to the level flood waters rose to on January 1 in his San Francisco business.
Photo: Brontë Wittpenn (AP)
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Preparing for What’s Next

Preparing for What’s Next

People fill sandbags
In preparation for the next round of rain, people in South San Francisco fill sandbags on Tuesday.
Photo: Haven Daley (AP)
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Flood Watch

Flood Watch

Flood watch map
Most of Northern California and the Bay Area are under a flood watch Wednesday and Thursday.
Image: NWS Bay Area
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