SACRAMENTO — The second Pacific storm of the week whipped through waterlogged Northern California on Saturday, dumping heavy rain on the valleys and snow in the Sierra Nevada and triggering limited flooding.
Pounding rains caused a massive mudslide that blocked U.S. 50, which links the resorts of South Lake Tahoe to Sacramento, for the second time this year. The slide began late Friday when a wall of mud and rock came roaring about 1,500 feet down a fire-scarred hillside overlooking the south fork of the American River and briefly trapped several motorists on a stretch of the major artery near Riverton, 50 miles east of the capital.
"It's very unstable and it's very treacherous," said Caltrans spokesman Jim Drago, who indicated that it could take days to remove the mud and debris and repair the damage to the highway.
While highway repair crews struggled through the rain to open an alternate route, state flood center officials were breathing a sigh of relief that the fast-moving storm failed to produce as much runoff into rivers--still swollen from New Year's flooding--as had been feared Friday.
"We did have a major winter storm. Fortunately for everybody, it has brought less rain than we thought," said Eric Butler, director of the state's flood operations center in suburban Sacramento.
Still, the downpour--as much as 2 inches in some spots--prompted flooding in agricultural areas, including Napa Valley vineyards, and forced anxious residents and store owners to aggressively protect their property with sandbags and heavy plastic sheeting.
Rain-slicked roads also contributed to numerous car crashes, including a fatal one late Saturday in Laguna Hills. Authorities couldn't provide any details late in the night on the fatal crash near the Moulton Parkway and El Toro Road.
The New Year's flood caused $1.6 billion in losses when a deluge struck the state and forced thousands of people to flee their homes. Some of those same people were taking precautions Saturday to avoid being victims for a second time.
State flood watchers were keeping a wary eye on rivers, especially the San Joaquin River system, where they are worried that heavy flows could trigger a potentially major break in saturated levees or flooding later this week downstream near Manteca.
"We're not in the clear. Certainly there is more rain in the forecast," Butler said. "We have a flood control system that is severely damaged. It's in repair. It's still at risk in many places for levee breaks."
As they braced for more rain late Saturday and today, state officials voiced the most concern about the closure of U.S. 50, caused by a landslide reported about 11:20 p.m. Friday.
Drago said a portion of the hillside that had been charred by a fire several years ago was saturated with water and just "gave way." He said several people were quickly rescued from cars.
"If we get some cooperation [from the weather] we can get in there and remove the trees" and other material, Drago said, adding that crews were on both sides of the slide beginning the cleanup process.
The slide could be the winter's second major blow to the Tahoe tourist industry, still recovering from a shutdown of the roadway after the New Year's flooding. The artery, which links ski resorts and casinos to the rest of Northern California, was reopened Jan. 17.
Despite the latest road closure, business was brisk Saturday at the Red Hut Cafe in South Lake Tahoe, with the restaurant full of customers who had made their way to the resort for Super Bowl weekend.
"The town is full, and it's wonderful and we had a good day at both of our restaurants," said Nancy Gardner, who owns the Red Hut and another eatery. "People are here. They are skiing. . . . The casinos are busy. I have seen no difference" in business because of the road closure.
The storm shuttled through the state quite quickly. Butler said that on the Russian River north of San Francisco, as much as 2 inches of rain had fallen by 4 a.m. Saturday before the storm began to fizzle out.
By late afternoon along the Napa River, flood waters were receding from nearby vineyards.
"Yes, there's been a lot of flooding," said one St. Helena vineyard owner. She said storm waters raised the water level in her vineyards of zinfandel and cabernet grapes as much as five feet.
But by late afternoon, she said the water had gone down almost completely. "It doesn't last for more than an hour in our particular place," she said. "In other areas it's going to be another story."
Even before Saturday's storm, the winter of 1997 was shaping up to be among the wettest on record. And the wet months of February and March are still ahead.
In the past 50 days, one monitoring station at Blue Canyon along Interstate 80 in the Sierra Nevada has recorded 66 inches of precipitation--rain and snow--or nearly as much as it usually gets for the entire rainy season.
"We've had a season's worth of rain in a month and a half," said Mike Ekern, a meteorologist with the National Weather Service.
Even though flood fighters said they had "dodged a bullet" Saturday, they were preparing for two more storms that were expected to hit today and later in the week.
The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers was busy shoring up three weak levees, including one near Chico and another near the small town of Nicolaus.
A third "flood fight" was beginning along the San Joaquin River near Manteca, according to a corps spokesman. Due to high winds, waves of water were beginning to erode the levee.
State officials were keeping a close eye on reservoirs along the San Joaquin, including Friant Dam, where operators on New Year's had almost lost control because of flood waters. On Saturday, as 2 inches of rain fell, they were releasing maximum flows downstream to clear space for flood water.