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Northern California escapes flooding

A series of warm, wet storms had Northern California authorities preparing for widespread flooding, but they got lucky.

December 02, 2012|By Scott Gold, Los Angeles Times
  • A car sends up plumes of water as it passes through a flooded underpass in San Rafael, Calif. as utility workers labor to repair a downed power line.
A car sends up plumes of water as it passes through a flooded underpass in… (Noah Berger, Associated…)

The last in a series of punishing storms swept through Northern California on Sunday, leaving downed power lines, cracked tree limbs and buckets of rain — but not, it appeared, the disastrous flooding that authorities had feared.

Since Wednesday, a string of storms had passed through the region. Each passed over an unusual band of tropical moisture hovering above the Pacific. That was the root of the concern: Officials feared that the warmed storms would leave a torrent of rain rather than snow, and flooding was feared along at least seven rivers.

"If this was a more typical cool event, a lot of that would have been snow and wouldn't have run off into the rivers," said Eric Kurth, a National Weather Service meteorologist in Sacramento.

The rains came — nine inches east of Sacramento; a foot in Paradise, near Chico.

"We're seeing some of the most intense rain we've seen," Kurth said.

Some rivers, such as the Napa, began topping their banks. Roughly 100,000 homes and businesses lost power, powerful winds knocked over a truck on the Richmond-San Rafael Bridge, and Bay Area Rapid Transit train service was disrupted briefly after a power outage. And the threat was not over; the Russian River in Sonoma County could overflow its banks Monday.

But in several communities, calamity was narrowly avoided.

Authorities had warned, for instance, that flooding could be most severe along the Truckee River north of Lake Tahoe. According to the Truckee Police Department, the river reaches its flood point near the city of Truckee at 41/2 feet; authorities had predicted that a storm could swell the river to 71/2 feet.

Then, just in time, the temperature dropped to freezing, and officials were heartened to see wet snow, not rain. Rather than snow levels remaining at 10,000 feet and above, as predicted, areas as low as 7,000 feet were being blanketed.

Vic Ferrera, the Nevada County Emergency Services manager, said that although there was standing water in some parking lots, the threat of significant flooding had subsided by Sunday afternoon. Evacuation centers had been established but were empty, so far.

"We're basically on the back end of it now," Ferrera said. "It looks like the Truckee River is not a threat."

In the city of Napa, too, authorities had distributed more than 8,000 sandbags and braced for the worst. But the latest storm moved through more quickly than had been predicted, and officials said in a recorded message to residents that flooding of the Napa River would be limited to rural and agricultural areas. Riverside parks and the city's Promenade were closed as a precaution.

Flood warnings were also canceled in Santa Cruz and Santa Clara counties.

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