Northern California storms taper – but impact lingers

A tornado briefly touched down in South Natomas, a Rio Linda church was flooded and the Sacramento River reached its highest point in 20 years Wednesday as the effects of a multiday storm continued to ripple through the region.

But the heavy rain and snow that had pounded Northern California since Saturday mostly stopped, several highways and local roads reopened and the region largely avoided major flooding or widespread property damage.

Sacramento received 5.4 inches of rain during two “atmospheric rivers” from Saturday through Tuesday, the first time since 1999 that the city had seen that much rain in four days, state data show. Another two-tenths of an inch fell early Wednesday as the rain dissipated. A similar amount of rain will likely fall Thursday during morning showers, according to the National Weather Service.

The gentler weather allowed people in the Sierra Nevada to start digging out. Authorities opened Interstate 80 over Donner Pass after closing it for more than a day. Most ski resorts remained closed on Wednesday, though they expect to be open for what’s expected to be a very busy weekend.

Wednesday’s scariest moment may have been the South Natomas tornado, which featured wind speeds of 70 miles per hour. It crossed a neighborhood on Rio Tierra Avenue between Northgate Boulevard and Northstead Drive just after midnight.

Though brief and relatively weak, the tornado snapped several trees in half, tore two awnings down and tossed roof shingles. Some of the debris was sent into a shopping mall parking lot across the street.

Tree limbs were tossed onto Rio Tierra Avenue, which closed for several hours. The tornado traced a path 50 yards wide and nearly half a mile long.

Anyone living outside South Natomas can still witness the storms’ impact simply by crossing Tower Bridge near downtown Sacramento. The Sacramento River rose to a level of more than 29 feet at the bridge early Wednesday, its highest level since the floods of 1997, according to data from the state Department of Water Resources.

That was still about 4 feet below flood stage, however.

Hydrologist Alan Haynes, of the federal government’s California Nevada River Forecast Center, said the Sacramento and American rivers will continue to run high for a few days, even as the weather improves. Late Wednesday afternoon, the state announced it had opened 15 more gates on the Sacramento Weir, the flood safety valve on the Sacramento River 4 miles north of downtown, to allow more water to flow into the Yolo Bypass. Thirty-five of the structure’s 48 gates are now open.

“There’s still quite a bit of water coming down from the north, and from Folsom,” Haynes said.

Despite fears of flooding, the rural community of Wilton in southern Sacramento County escaped serious damage Wednesday, even as the nearby Cosumnes River topped flood stage levels by about a foot.

For many in Wilton, the storms proved little more than an inconvenience.

“We love water and we love the river,” said Sandy Stovall, who bought a Wilton ranch with her husband, Lonnie, after the 1997 floods. They have built up flood defenses over the last 15 years. As skies cleared Wednesday, the ground still muddy and soaked, the Stovalls moved cows from high ground back to their normal grazing area.

“Since my husband built the levee we have not had concerns about our house getting ruined,” she said.

The Church of Rio Linda wasn’t as fortunate. It filled Wednesday with about 2 feet of floodwater from Dry Creek. The small church just last year raised more than $10,000 at bake sales to purchase flood insurance for 2017.

“Fortunately, a lot of people are ready to help,” said Robert Sanchez, a Rio Linda resident and churchgoer.

Phillip Reese: 916-321-1137, @PhillipHReese Reporter Jessica Hice contributed information for this article.

Related stories from Sacramento Bee