The intensity of the storm hitting California on Thursday is expected to echo an event in 2008, when high winds triggered widespread power outages and heavy rain caused localized flooding.
In other respects, the storm may resemble one in 2006 that caused serious flooding in the Central Valley and along the coast.
However it’s measured, this storm is expected to be a shock after three years of drought that have gripped California. We’ve grown plenty familiar with dry weather. Now we have a reminder of what winter is supposed to feel like. No single storm can end the drought. But this one seems certain to bring enough rain to ease the pain.
This storm is considered a classic “Pineapple Express” event: An atmospheric river that sweeps past Hawaii, drawing a stream of moisture across the Pacific Ocean from the tropics. Such storms, sometimes called a “horizontal hurricane,” have caused the worst flooding in California history and usually come with strong winds.
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This one is no exception. The storm is predicted to cause power outages, downed trees and significant localized flooding.
Here are the details on what to expect, and how to help.
The California Department of Water Resources and National Weather Service expect flooding on a number of major rivers in the north state.
On the upper Sacramento River, the river is expected to exceed flood stage at six locations. The most worrisome is in Red Bluff, where the river is projected to crest 4.5 feet above flood stage at about 8 p.m. Thursday, said Mitch Russo, chief of river forecasting at DWR.
“That’s comparable to the stage that occurred in 2006, and that indicates we would have extensive flooding problems in the low lying areas of Red Bluff,” Russo said.
The Butte and Sutter bypasses on the Sacramento River are expected to flood, taking some pressure of the main river channel – as they are designed to do. But the Yolo Bypass is not expected to flood.
On the coast, the Eel, Russian and Napa rivers are also expected to exceed flood stage on Friday, although not by much and not for long. Even so, low-lying agricultural areas and rural buildings could experience flood damage.
The Napa River may pose the biggest concern. At the city of Napa, it is expected to reach an elevation of 25.6 feet – about a half foot above flood stage – early Friday morning. That will cause flooding in rural areas, but it could be worse if the storm parks itself in the wrong place at the wrong time.
In the Sacramento area, local creeks and urban drainages are expected to see flooding as well. The usual culprits include streams such as Arcade Creek, Deer Creek and the Cosumnes River.
City and county officials are urging residents to help keep storm drains clear, especially since strong winds are likely to set loose a lot of fresh leaf litter and fallen branches that may clog drainages.
“The best tools we have are alert neighbors and rakes to clear out those gutters when you see something back up,” said Erin Treadwell, a spokeswoman with the city of Sacramento.
Treadwell said nine crews were on city streets Wednesday clearing piles of leaves and lawn trimmings. That’s the number of crews the city has on a typical Wednesday. Treadwell said the city couldn’t go beyond that because crews also had to collect garbage and recycling.
Officials at the Sacramento Municipal Utility District expect power outages, some possibly for an extended period. They are urging residents to be prepared.
The 2008 storm snapped utility poles in half, knocked power lines down and threw 150,000 customers into the dark.
“It looks like a mirror of that 2008 storm, but the wind speed will be sustained over a longer period of time,” SMUD spokesman Chris Capra said. “We will have all hands on deck, with line crews, troubleshooters all responding to outages.”
Capra warned that SMUD will not, however, send crew members up poles when winds are at their peak, and that may mean some areas will experience power outages for a longer periods, until winds die down.
SMUD also will prioritize its outage response, sending crews first to situations where public safety is at risk, such as a live power line lying in a street, and secondly, to large outages where many people are affected.
Capra suggested area residents prepare for the storm by charging their cellphones, and making sure flashlights have fresh batteries. Residents of rural areas should stock up on drinking water. Capra also suggested having a manual can opener and some canned food.
If your power goes out, check first with neighbors to see if their power is out. If their power is not out, your house breaker switch may have tripped.
Officials urge people to stay off the roads if they can, especially in the Sierra Nevada, where blizzard conditions and up to 3 feet of snow are forecast at highway passes. In the Sacramento metro area, the worst of the rain is expected Thursday between 1 p.m. and 7 p.m., so those who can adjust commute times or work from home should consider doing so.
“We want to caution people to watch out for flooding in the roadways. If you see a flooded roadway, do not try to go through it,” said California Highway Patrol spokesman Chad Hertzell. “You may stall your vehicle and be dead in the water. We will try to get you out, but we may be delayed. Last week we couldn’t do everybody all at once.”
Caltrans maintenance chief Kris Kuhl said crews have been busy this week on local freeways cleaning out drains, filling potholes and making sure water pumps are in working order. The agency has backup generators ready to keep pumps working, in case of electrical outages.
Freeways were hit with flooding and stalled cars during heavy rainfall last week. A pump failed on I-80 near the Marconi curve, and another pump on Highway 99 failed to work because thieves had stolen the copper wiring.
“We urge travelers to check road conditions before they leave,” he said, suggesting people who plan to travel on freeways first check road conditions to look for congested spots, crashes, and flooded areas. The Caltrans Quickmap website is a useful tool.
Sacramento International Airport officials recommend that fliers leave home early because road conditions on the way to the airport may cause slowdowns. High winds may cause flight delays, officials said. They suggest travelers contact their airlines to confirm flight schedules before leaving for the airport.
Airport officials are preparing for the potential of some localized flooding and electrical outages on the airport site. They have stockpiled sandbags and have backup generators in place. “We have electricians, plumbers, and maintenance on call 24 hours,” spokeswoman Laurie Slothower said.
Sacramento Regional Transit is planning normal service, said general manager Mike Wiley.
San Francisco, Oakland and Novato school districts in the Bay Area announced closures for Thursday, citing concerns about students having transportation problems and campuses potentially being understaffed, according to the San Francisco Chronicle. Schools in Glenn County are closed as well.
In the Sacramento area, a handful of charter and private schools are planning to close Thursday, including all California Montessori Project campuses and Sacramento Waldorf School.
But public school districts in the region plan to hold classes.
“We do not plan to close schools unless there is significant damage to the campus or prolonged power or water outages,” said Trent Allen, spokesman for the San Juan Unified School District.
Many administrators across the Sacramento region, however, are prepared to change course depending on weather and road conditions early Thursday.
“There will be a lot of dialogue going on at 4 and 5 a.m. in the morning,” said Placer County schools chief Gayle Garbolino-Mojica. “This happened with the Rim fire. There were conference calls at 10 p.m. and 4 a.m. in the morning.”
Stephen Repsher, headmaster at Sacramento Country Day School, said parents have been told to expect an email at 6 a.m. Thursday and Friday alerting them as to whether school will be canceled. He and other administrators will be looking at wind velocity, traffic problems, the amount of rain and flooding, and power outages to determine if school should take place.
“If there is any doubt, I will cancel school,” Repsher said. “I want to make sure everyone is safe.”
Many districts are considering canceling after-school activities Thursday. Sacramento City Unified’s website warns parents to check with their child’s school to see if after-school activities have been canceled. Sacramento Country Day has already canceled an annual parents-girls volleyball game and a staff holiday party set for Thursday.
Since September, when the devastating King fire burned through 97,717 acres of timberland and watershed north of Pollock Pines, agencies have been working to protect water supplies and wildlife habitat from possible mudslides.
Agencies including the U.S. Forest Service and the Sacramento Municipal Utility District have been conducting helicopter “helimulching” flights, dropping tons of rice straw to hold fragile hillsides and promote regrowth. They hope to resume the flights as soon as dry weather returns.
On Wednesday, crews shifted to more immediate concerns by building earthen berms to help prevent roadways from washing out and to keep sediment from fouling the upper American River and nearby tributaries.
Higher in the mountains, heavy trucks dumped rock into natural drainage passages framed by blackened Ponderosa pines.
“What we want to do is slow the water down and reduce the corrosive impact on the soil,” said Barrett McMurtry, a U.S. Forest Service engineer.
The approaching storm presented a particular problem for SMUD, which operates two reservoirs – Brush Creek and Slab Creek – amid the King fire terrain.
SMUD engineer Grant Nelson said crews were working Wednesday to widen roadside culverts to prevent them from getting clogged with debris. Crews were also putting in metal grid drainage caps above some mountain drainage passages to protect reservoirs and hydroelectric systems.
“This is going to be a heavy storm, and the faster the rain comes down, the more erosion occurs,” Nelson said.
The Sacramento County Department of Human Assistance, in collaboration with Sacramento Steps Forward, made motel vouchers and bus passes available for homeless families and individuals to get out of the storm. Vouchers became available at 4:30 p.m. Wednesday.
Sacramento Steps Forward will distribute the vouchers through its outreach team working with service providers.
Placer County, in partnership with the American Red Cross, will open shelters at the Placer County Fairgrounds in Roseville and the Gold Country Fairgrounds in Auburn. The county's Welcome Center at the DeWitt Center will be opened after hours as an “awake shelter” for people who want to get out of the rain.
The Gathering Inn, a homeless shelter program in Roseville, will open shelters in both Roseville and Auburn. The shelter in Roseville opens at 3:30 p.m. People in Auburn can obtain transport to the Auburn shelter site at 4:30 pm at D St. and Richardson Drive, at the Gazebo.
State government services
No state agencies plan to close due to the storm, but some may reconsider based on weather conditions.
The state’s policy gives departments room to maneuver when confronting the potential impact of a big storm, said Lynda Gledhill, deputy communications secretary for the state Government Operations Agency.
“We want people to be safe, obviously,” she said, so state managers and supervisors can adjust staffing as necessary. “It’s within the normal realm of how we do business.”
The California Environmental Protection Agency, for example, plans to keep its 1001 I St. headquarters open for business on Thursday, but is “leaving it up to the discretion of our boards and departments” whether to let any of their total 5,500 workers take time off.
A number of state parks have been closed due to the storm, mainly in coastal areas and the Sierra Nevada. In Mendocino County, campers have been evacuated from MacKerricher and Van Damme state parks until the storm passes.
The Sacramento Zoo announced on its Twitter feed that it would be closed Thursday due to predicted high winds.
The B Street Theatre in Sacramento said it will do its best to find alternative dates for ticket holders who decide they can’t make it to Thursday’s show. The theater is scheduled to show a musical called “Spinning Into Light” and is planning to have “special goodies” at the concession stand for those who attend, said managing director Bill Blake.
“As long as we have power, we will have shows,” Blake said.
The Sacramento Kings said their show will go on as well, a Thursday night game vs. Houston. The team has its generators ready and is in touch with SMUD in case of a loss of power, said Kings spokeswoman Laura Braden. If the weather gets bad enough, all outdoor employees, such as door security personnel, will be moved inside, she said.
Call The Bee’s Matt Weiser at (916) 321-1264. Follow him on Twitter @matt_weiser. The Bee’s Tony Bizjak, Ryan Lillis, Diana Lambert, Jon Ortiz, Dale Kasler, Loretta Kalb and Peter Hecht contributed to this report.