Montecito evacuated amid giant California storms; 5-year-old swept away by floodwaters; sinkhole swallows vehicles: Updates

LOS ANGELES — Exactly five years after a devastating mudslide killed 23 people and destroyed more than 100 homes in coastal Montecito, California, about 10,000 residents of the Santa Barbara County community and its surrounding canyons were ordered to evacuate Monday amid the downpours that continue to pound the state.

The National Weather Service said up to 8 inches of rain had fallen in 12 hours, and plenty more was expected. In the late afternoon, the service's Los Angeles office tweeted out a warning about "DANGEROUS LIFE THREATENING FLASH FLOODING'' in Santa Barbara and Ventura counties.

The canyon communities under evacuation orders around Montecito are below hillsides burned bare in recent years by wildfires. There were also evacuations in the city of Santa Barbara.

Showbiz personalities like Oprah Winfrey and Ellen DeGeneres and former sports stars Troy Aikman and Jimmy Connors were among the celebrities impacted by the 2018 disaster in Montecito, now also home to Prince Harry and Meghan Markle.

The death toll from the onslaught of violent storms sweeping California rose to 14 on Monday as two major episodes promised more devastation and up to a foot of rain. The death toll does not include a 5-year-old boy who was swept away by floodwaters and whose fate remains unknown.

The weather service warned that parts of the Sacramento area, which has been battered by high winds and overwhelming rains, could see 12 inches of rain by Wednesday night.

Santa Cruz County has also taken a big hit: Mudslides closed both southbound lanes of scenic Highway 17 and the Browns Valley Road Bridge collapsed into the small river beneath it.

"Two of the more energetic and moisture-laden parade of cyclones ... are aiming directly for California," the weather service forecast said. "The cumulative effect of successive heavy rainfall events will lead to ... rapid water rises, mudslides and the potential for major river flooding."

The first episode hit the state early Monday and was expected to dump up to 5 inches of rain on the central California coast, the weather service said. Another, due Tuesday, will primarily target locations farther south into Southern California.

"Flooding from Northern to Central California is expected to be widespread, even catastrophic in some locations around the coastal mountains and the northern and central Sierra," AccuWeather meteorologist Joe Bauer said. He said more than a dozen monitored river locations are forecast to be above flood stage.

President Joe Biden, citing "emergency conditions resulting from successive and severe winter storms, flooding, and mudslides," declared a federal emergency late Sunday, ordering federal assistance to supplement state, tribal and local response efforts.

NEWSOME DECLARES STATE OF EMERGENCY:California Gov. Newsom asks Biden administration to declare federal emergency ahead of brutal storms

Other developments:

  • The U.S. Forest Service issued an avalanche warning until Wednesday for the greater Lake Tahoe area. Parts of the eastern Sierra Nevada are also under avalanche warnings.
  • Residents of Santa Cruz, Santa Clara and Solano counties in the greater San Francisco Bay Area and Monterey in central California are under evacuation orders or warnings.
  • Nearly 140,000 homes and businesses across the state were without power early Monday, according to the tracking website
  • The Los Angeles area braced for up to 8 inches of rain in foothill areas. High surf was expected through Tuesday. Wind gusts could exceed 60 mph at the coast and 70 mph in the mountains, prompting the weather service to post a wind advisory for portions of southwest California through 10 p.m. Monday. 

WHAT IS AN 'ATMOSPHERIC RIVER'? These rivers of water vapor can extend thousands of miles.

Vehicles submerged in water, sinkhole swallows 2 cars in Los Angeles

The major storm will affect southern California through Tuesday and is expected to bring heavy rain, damaging winds, and a slight chance of thunderstorms, the weather service in Los Angeles warned Monday.

Widespread and significant flooding is expected on urban roads and rivers, the weather service said. Storm conditions will also cause hazardous driving conditions and potential power outages.

There is a potential for as much as 8 inches of rain in the Los Angeles foothill area late Monday and Tuesday. The weather service also issued high surf advisories along the coast.

Vehicles were seen submerged in water Monday in some parts of the city. A sinkhole swallowed two vehicles in the Chatsworth area, in northeast Los Angeles, late Monday. Authorities said two people escaped by themselves and firefighters used ropes and an aerial ladder to rescue two others who had minor injuries.

18 people rescued from Ventura River amid flash flood warning

Eighteen people were rescued after being trapped on an island in the Ventura River in western Ventura County on Monday afternoon amid heavy rain and flooding.

The Ventura County Fire Department reported that of the 18 victims, one person required medical attention for minor injuries, seven people were rescued using a ladder, seven others were rescued by the aerial team and four people were able to walk out.

The county was hit with severe flooding and mudslides due to continuous heavy rain from the latest atmospheric river. A flash flood warning was issued for all of southern Ventura County, which is expected to last through Tuesday as another storm front moves into the area overnight.

Flash flood warning in Santa Cruz and surroundings

The weather service's Bay Area office issued a flash flood warning through 3:45 p.m. PST for Santa Cruz and surrounding communities, home to more than 260,000 people and 75 schools. The bureau also tweeted a video showing Highway 101 -- a major artery -- "has turned into a moving river'' and advising motorists not to drive into flood waters. 

Evacuation orders were issued in Santa Cruz County for about 32,000 residents living near rapidly rising rivers and creeks, according to Melodye Serino, the deputy county administrative officer.

Parts of the community of Felton in the Santa Cruz Mountains were inundated when the San Lorenzo River crested over its banks Monday morning, leaving cars partially submerged.

School teacher Nicole Beardsley, who grew up and lives in Felton, told the San Francisco Chronicle she was heading for work when she came to a submerged car on a flooded section of road and turned around.

“I’ve never seen the river this high before,” Beardsley told the newspaper. “I’ve seen it come up to the bridge there and the road wasn’t drivable, but it wasn’t up this high.”

Some residents took a relaxed attitude to the turmoil.

Nicole Martin, a third-generation owner of the Fern River Resort in Felton, said her clients sipped coffee, sat on cabin porches amid towering redwood trees and were “enjoying the show” as picnic tables and other debris floated down the river.

Surging waters halt search for boy swept away into river

The life of a 5-year-old boy who was carried away by floodwaters hung in the balance Monday after rescuers in central California had to call off the search for him around 3 p.m. when conditions on the surging Salinas River became too dangerous to continue.

The boy’s mother was driving a white truck when it became stranded in floodwaters just before 8 a.m. near Paso Robles, according to Tom Swanson, assistant chief of the Cal Fire/San Luis Obispo County Fire Department.

Swanson said bystanders pulled the mother out of the truck but the boy was carried out of the vehicle by the water and swept downstream.

A Caltrans worker directs traffic at a freeway entrance as the U.S. Freeway 101 is closed near Montecito, California

6 feet of snow forecast in Sierra

The Sierra Nevada will likely see heavy snow exceeding 6 feet across the higher elevations before the snow tapers off Wednesday morning, forecasters said. The state Department of Transportation warned motorists to stay off mountain roads after closing a stretch of U.S. 395 in Mono County, along the Eastern Sierra, because of heavy snow, ice and whiteout conditions.

Mammoth Mountain, an Eastern Sierra ski resort, already has received nearly 10 feet of snow, the National Weather Service reported.

A tree collapsed and ripped up the sidewalk damaging a home in Sacramento, Calif., Sunday, Jan. 8, 2023.

Why could the latest storm be so damaging?

California Gov. Gavin Newsom, who had sought the federal emergency designation earlier Sunday, said the death toll from almost two weeks of storms had reached 12. And he warned that the worst impacts of the storms might have been felt yet.

"California is in the middle of a deadly barrage of winter storms and we are using every resource at our disposal to protect lives and limit damage," Newsom said.

AccuWeather experts say the unrelenting "atmospheric rivers" have saturated much of the state and bloated rivers and streams, leaving the state susceptible to "extreme and historic levels" of storm damage.

A CLOSER LOOK:Graphics show how the coastal state has been drenched

HOW AN ATMOSPHERIC RIVER DEVELOPS:Graphics show atmospheric river soaking California's Bay Area

Atmospheric rivers are ribbons of water vapor in the sky that can extend thousands of miles from the tropics to the western U.S. At 250 to 375 miles wide, they provide the fuel for massive rain and snowstorms that can cause flooding along the West Coast.

On Sunday alone, one thunderstorm moving into the Sacramento region was producing up to a half-inch of rain per hour.

Sacramento County struggles to recover

In the state capital, tens of thousands of electricity customers remained without power Monday, down from more than 350,000 after gusts of 60 mph knocked trees into power lines, according to the Sacramento Municipal Utility District. Sacramento City schools were closed Monday because six campuses had no electricity.

The weather service posted a flood advisory for much of the Sacramento Valley, northern San Joaquin Valley and surrounding foothills. The Sacramento County Office of Emergency Services ordered residents of Wilton, about 20 miles southeast of downtown Sacramento, to evacuate Sunday night. Wilton is home to about 6,000 people.

"Flooding is imminent. Out of an abundance of caution, residents must leave now before roads become impassable," the office of emergency services said in its evacuation order.

Contributing: The Associated Press