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Northern California 5-Year-Old Swept Away by Floodwaters

Firefighters initially responded to a call about 8 a.m. regarding a vehicle in the San Marcos Creek crossing. A mother and her 5-year-old son were trying to cross a road that had been flooded.

Cars drive by a sign warning of storms hitting the Bay Area on Jan. 7, 2023, in Sausalito, California. The San Francisco Bay Area continues to get drenched by powerful atmospheric river events that have brought high winds and flooding rains. The storms have toppled trees, flooded roads and cut power to tens of thousands.
(Justin Sullivan/Getty Images/TNS)
(TNS) - Rescuers called off the search for a 5-year-old boy swept away by floodwaters as powerful winter storms continued to pummel Northern California, causing rivers to swell to dangerous levels across the region.

The search was canceled Monday afternoon when conditions became unsafe for divers to continue looking, according to Tony Cipolla, spokesperson for the San Luis Obispo County Sheriff’s Office.

Firefighters initially responded to a call about 8 a.m. regarding a vehicle in the San Marcos Creek crossing near Wellsona Road outside San Miguel, Cipolla said. A mother and her 5-year-old son were trying to cross a road that had been flooded. After their car started to get swept away by the creek, both jumped out of the car.

The mother was rescued by a nearby property owner, but the boy continued down the floodwaters, according to Cipolla. He added that authorities constantly reevaluate conditions and will resume their search if it becomes safe to do so.

Cipolla warned residents to stay away from low-lying areas and to find an alternative route if there’s water on the roadway.

Elsewhere in San Luis Obispo County, a motorist died after entering a flooded portion of Avila Beach Drive, according to the California Highway Patrol’s Coastal Division.

The cyclone battering the state, which is expected to dump several inches of rain across the region through Tuesday, is the latest in a parade of atmospheric rivers that have pummeled the state over the last 10 days, according to the National Weather Service.

The unrelenting extreme weather has produced giant swells that have wreaked havoc on coastal communities, strong winds that have toppled trees and knocked out power for thousands and intense rain that’s helped push rivers and creeks to flood stage. Officials say more wet weather is on the horizon.

“This is just the middle of what has already been a very wet and active pattern — and what is expected to be one, really, for at least another week or so,” said Daniel Swain, a climate scientist at UCLA.

On Monday, several rivers approached — or exceeded — flood level. The pounding rain washed out roads and sent already saturated soils sliding, further snarling traffic across the region. Santa Cruz County — still reeling from significant damage along the coast from last week’s storm — was again experiencing some of the worst damage.

Early Monday, evacuations were underway and major flooding was reported in Felton Grove and Paradise Park after the San Lorenzo River rose over its banks and flowed out into the surrounding community. Videos posted on social media showed muddy water covering cars and rising up to stop signs in Felton Grove as the San Lorenzo River raged nearby, filled with logs and other debris.

With roadways flooded, rescue crews struggled to get into neighborhoods where residents reported being trapped in their homes and cars. The crews launched a personal watercraft to get through water.

The San Lorenzo River crested at about 24 feet shortly before 8 a.m. and continued to recede as rain subsided slightly across the county, according to National Weather Service data.

Colin Eppard, 32, a Watsonville resident, drove by the San Lorenzo River on Monday morning during his commute and saw the river waters rush into the ocean, where it created a standing wave.

“I’ve never seen the San Lorenzo flowing like I’ve seen it right now,” he said.

Eppard, an avid surfer, said waves have started to break at certain surf spots along the coastline that only show up after “gigantic” storms like this one.

“Just driving along the coastline and watching the last two big pushes of these storms, I jokingly said to my wife that this could rearrange the whole coastline and it quite literally has,” he said.

The inclement weather forced Shane Terry, 33, a Felton resident, to take the day off Monday. He was starting his morning commute to San Francisco, where he works as a produce distributor, but turned back in his SUV when he encountered roads covered in about 3 feet of water.

Terry lives near the San Lorenzo River and watched Monday morning as its waters touched the bottom of the bridge spanning Graham Hill Road.

“I don’t think I’ve ever seen it this bad,” Terry said. “There was one storm like eight years ago that was really big, and a lot of streets couldn’t handle the water, but I don’t think it’s ever gotten this high.”

Flooding and landslides across the region made travel challenging as people evacuated.

Southbound Highway 17 was blocked between San Jose and Santa Cruz, as was both north and southbound U.S. 101, just south of Gilroy, at Highway 25. Areas in the Santa Cruz Mountains along Highway 9 between Santa Clara County and Santa Cruz were largely closed due to flooding and landslides.

“Travel will be extremely difficult, if not impossible, throughout the county this morning. We are urging people to stay at home if possible,” Santa Cruz County wrote on Twitter.

Evacuation warnings in Santa Cruz County included towns east and southeast of Santa Cruz, including Soquel, Seacliff, Rio del Mar and Watsonville, which borders the Pajaro River.

In Soquel, the parking lot behind JJ’s Saloon was 3 inches deep with mud. That didn’t stop patrons from gingerly — or not — stepping through the muck to get a drink.

Bartender Jeff Ferreira, 56 — son of bar owner Judy Ferreira — said JJ’s Saloon has been flooded three times since New Year’s Eve. The worst, he said, was last week when the river rose and flooded downtown. He pointed to photos on his phone showing water in the back parking lot that had gone up and over the back stairs to the bar.

“Had to be a couple of feet,” he said, showing another video of a flooded Soquel Drive, which had waves and ripples on its surface.

Nearby, the seaside town of Capitola, which sustained severe damage during last week’s storms, also faced additional flooding Monday.

Joshua Fisher, a property manager in downtown Capitola, said a few of his buildings were inundated — including the Left Coast Sausage Worx on San Jose Avenue — a block from the beach.

He said the high surf pushed the swollen river’s waters — and debris — into the streets. “Trees, propane tanks, the waves just pushed everything” into downtown, he said.

At the entrance of Esplanade, the small street that parallels the beach in downtown Capitola, Craig French stood talking with Mick and Patty Ruth. French, former president of the Santa Cruz County Board of Supervisors, said the destruction, waves and swollen river reminded him of the storm in 1982 — when waves crushed the end of the wharf and parts of town flooded.

“We haven’t seen anything this bad in 40 years,” he said.

Mick Ruth, a former Capitola mayor, agreed. Although, he said, the rain so far hasn’t been quite as bad as 1982. He said they’d recorded 18 inches over a 24-hour period in the mountains that year. This year has been wet — he’s recorded 32 inches since Sept 1.

“And it’s not over yet,” he said.

In Monterey County, the Carmel River reached flood stage Monday morning and the Pajaro and Big Sur rivers could follow later in the day, forecasters warn. The rising Carmel River prompted officials to issue an evacuation warning along the Carmel Valley.

At Robles del Rio in the Carmel Valley, the river had risen to 11.65 feet, above the flood stage at 8 1/2 feet.

River levels were expected to climb to 11.9 feet by 1 p.m. At that level, the weather service said, many homes in low-lying areas all along the Carmel River are threatened, including near Camp Steffani, and the Carmel Lagoon area.

Residents along the edge of the river worked quickly to place sandbags outside their homes as the waterway raged.

Swain noted the atmospheric river is kind of “draped along the Central Coast” with the heaviest rainfall from about Monterey County into Santa Barbara County, although there are also heavy rains extending southwest and northeast, he said. One big concern is that the atmospheric river is going to slow down a bit along the Central Coast, bringing instability that may maximize rainfall rates.

There are also potential convective elements such as thunderstorms, which are “the kinds of conditions that have a tendency to produce significant flash flooding and debris flows in the transverse ranges of Southern California, in particular along the Big Sur coasts,” he said.

“This is a major, potentially life-threatening event, but it also, I don’t think we can call it the catastrophic flood that California has been worried about,” he added. “This is neither as intense nor as long in duration nor as widespread as the kind of events that we are talking about, although it certainly gives us a taste of what things look like as we head a little bit more in that direction.”

It’s not just the total amount of rain that matters, but how quickly it falls, Swain said, noting that “rainfall rates during the storm — or the maximum amount of precipitation per hour — have been pretty high, and that is indeed why we’re seeing such significant flooding in some areas.”

He said portions of the Bay Area and Northern California may even see some sunshine this afternoon, but it will be short lived as another intense pulse of strong winds and heavy downpours moves in Monday evening.

“Don’t be fooled by the sunny breaks in Northern California later today — there is more on the way imminently within the next 12 hours,” he said.

Late Sunday, President Joe Biden approved an emergency declaration for California which authorizes the Federal Emergency Management Agency to coordinate disaster relief efforts and provide emergency resources, the White House said in a statement.

“We expect to see the worst of it still in front of us,” Gov. Gavin Newsom said Sunday. “We’re anticipating very intense weather coming in (Monday) and Tuesday morning.”

Newsom warned residents not to “test fate” as the brunt of the latest storm hits the state, adding that they should adhere to evacuation warnings and listen to public safety officials. A dozen people have died in the series of storms in the last 10 days, more civilians than have died in wildfires in the last two years.

Those killed include a 2-year-old boy who died when a tree fell on his home in Sonoma County last week and two homeless people — 40-year-old Rebekah Rohde and 61-year-old Steven Sorensen — who died in storm-related incidents in Sacramento County over the weekend, officials said.

“These floods are deadly and have now turned to be more deadly than even the wildfires here in the state of California,” Newsom said.

The San Francisco Bay Area is expected to see 3 to 5 inches of rain and gusts reaching up to 45 mph from the weather system. The Sierra Nevada will likely see heavy snow exceeding 6 feet across higher elevations through Tuesday night.

National Weather Service forecasters warned that the cumulative effect of successive heavy rains could lead to additional flooding, including rapid water rises and mudslides. Areas near recent wildfire burn scars will be most at risk for debris flows, according to forecasters.

About 90,000 Pacific Gas & Electric customers remain without power across the state. The utility noted in a statement that it has more than 4,000 workers responding to the storm and attempting to restore service.

“In some portions of the service area, high winds, flooding, and soil instability issues have made it unsafe for crews to work, which may lead to extended outages for our customers,” the utility said in a statement.

Early Monday amid a downpour, cars proceeded gingerly along the peninsula’s Highway 280, which runs along the San Andreas Fault through the foothills of the Santa Cruz Mountains. Usually a high-speed thoroughfare — where traffic seems to cruise around 80 mph — the few drivers who were out were crawling, taking the occasional hydroplane with care.

Along Woodland Avenue in Menlo Park, where emergency officials warned that the San Francisquito Creek could flood, sandbags were piled high along the creek edge in segments. Several driveways were also barricaded.

Creek monitors showed the San Francisquito rising quickly Monday, approaching flood stage at the Pope Chaucer Bridge, which connects Palo Alto and Menlo Park.

Evacuation warnings or orders were also issued in parts of Santa Clara, Alameda, Sacramento and Sonoma counties, with forecasts suggesting that swollen rivers could flood businesses and homes.

The weather service Monday issued flash flood warnings for the Dolan fire burn scar in Monterey County, along with portions of Santa Cruz, Watsonville and Scotts Valley. The agency also issued flood warnings for the Carmel River at Robles Del Rio in Monterey County and the Russian River in Guerneville.

Flooding along some rivers could happen even after the rain stops Tuesday because of continuing runoff, said Brayden Murdoch, a meteorologist with the National Weather Service in the Bay Area.

“Some of the peaks are actually going to be between systems,” he said. “But there’s already quite a strain on some of our main rivers in the area as well as lagoons and deltas.”

The Santa Clara Valley Water District on Sunday issued an “extreme weather alert” warning of possible flooding in the coming days in Palo Alto, Menlo Park, Sunnyvale, Morgan Hill and Gilroy.

Evacuation warnings were issued downstream of two full reservoirs in Santa Clara County: the Uvas Reservoir northwest of Gilroy, whose water flows into Uvas Creek; and the Pacheco Reservoir, which empties into Pacheco Creek alongside Highway 152 — a main route between the San Francisco Bay Area and Interstate 5.

Alameda County issued evacuation warnings for the hills east of Hayward and Fremont and west of Pleasanton. Sacramento County issued an evacuation order for the Wilton area along the Cosumnes River, whose waters breached levees over New Year’s Eve, killing three motorists whose bodies were found in or near submerged cars near Highway 99.

California Department of Water Resources Director Karla Nemeth called the storm system “extraordinary,” but also “another climate signal” of California’s worsening swings between extreme conditions.

The state is coincidentally experiencing both a drought emergency and a flood emergency, she said.


(Rust reported from Capitola, Fry from Orange County, Smith and Lin from Los Angeles County and Rong-Gong Lin II from San Francisco. Times staff writer Ruben Vives contributed to this report.)


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