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California's 'Pineapple Express' relents, with some areas starting cleanup efforts

Dominic King, owner of My Thai Beach, surveys storm damage in his restaurant in Capitola, California.
Nic Coury
Dominic King, owner of My Thai Beach, surveys storm damage in his restaurant in Capitola, California.

Updated January 5, 2023 at 9:50 PM ET

Some areas of California are finally getting some relief Thursday evening after a massive "Pineapple Express" winter storm walloped the state's coastal and inland areas with strong winds, heavy rain and snow on Wednesday into Thursday.

By late Thursday afternoon, René Mendez, city manager for the Bay Area city of Watsonville, was cautiously optimistic that the worst of the storm was over.

"It wasn't as intense as we expected. Obviously, weather's unpredictable, as we know, but we were prepared," he said. "It's still sprinkling, still raining, but things are calmer."

Evacuation orders in the city were lifted, and city officials began assessing the area for storm damage. Though things were improving, Mendez said he was warning residents to stay aware in the hours that follow, as California and nearby areas are expected to get more rain.

"For right now, we think we're out of the woods. Our residents can go back to their homes and hopefully get a little bit of sense of normalcy again," Mendez said.

The storm left its mark elsewhere, however.

Trees and power lines were toppled, knocking out electricity and blocking roads and highways. In San Francisco, a tree fell directly on a car, briefly trapping a family inside (more on that below).

"The storm prompted evacuation warnings across the northern part of the state. It triggered landslides. It closed roads really all over the place," member station KQED's Kevin Stark told NPR early Thursday.

"The winds were particularly strong, gusting up to 85 mph in some parts of the Bay Area," Stark added.

As of around 4:30 p.m. local time Thursday, more than 100,000 power customers in California were still without electricity, according to Poweroutage.us. That was an improvement from the early hours of Thursday, when nearly 196,000 accounts were without power.

The intense weather was brought on by a "potent Pineapple Express," the National Weather Service said this week, using the term for an atmospheric river that brings moisture-rich, low-pressure waves from around the Hawaiian Islands to the Pacific Coast.

It's the third time heavy precipitation from an atmospheric river has hit California since Christmas.

Here are scenes and updates from areas that have endured the storm.

A 2-year-old dies after a tree falls on a home

A fallen redwood tree rests on a mobile home where 2-year-old Aeon Tocchini was killed in Occidental, California.
Terry Chea / AP
A fallen redwood tree rests on a mobile home where 2-year-old Aeon Tocchini was killed in Occidental, California.

The danger posed by falling trees and tree limbs was tragically highlighted Thursday after a 2-year-old boy, Aeon Tocchini, was killed when a redwood tree landed on the mobile home in Occidental, Calif., that he and his family were living in, authorities announced.

In downtown San Francisco, winds snapped a mature landscaping tree at its base and dropped it onto a Honda sedan, trapping a family in its car next to the San Francisco Public Library's main branch. Firefighters, who used chainsaws to rescue the family, reported that the occupants were OK.

"Fallen trees are everywhere in the Bay Area with this current storm," BART — or Bay Area Rapid Transit — stated in a tweet, noting that trees had taken down power lines used by transit trains.

Roads and piers damaged or closed in many areas

The Capitola Wharf in Capitola, Calif., was damaged by storm waves, as see here on Jan. 5.
Nic Coury / AP
The Capitola Wharf in Capitola, Calif., was damaged by storm waves, as see here on Jan. 5.

About 50 miles southeast of the tragedy of the toddler, a 19-year-old woman died after driving onto a partly flooded road in Fairfield, Calif., on Wednesday morning. The driver's vehicle hydroplaned and hit a utility pole, KQED reported.

Swaths of the Sierra Nevada mountain range are under an avalanche warning through Friday morning. The National Weather Service's office in Reno, Nev., issued a high alert, citing "very dangerous avalanche conditions" due to a combination of high winds and heavy snowfall.

In many areas, emergency officials continued to urge people to stay off the roads. Along with flash floods and mudslides, roads were littered with broken trees, power lines and other debris. At higher elevations, some highways have closed because of whiteout conditions.

Officials in California's Santa Cruz County are seeing "significant damage" from the storm, saying that enormous waves and high tides have damaged piers along the coastline.

In Monterey County, a portion of Highway 1 was closed Thursday morning "due to flooding with waves reaching the roadway," the state's transportation department said at the time. It later reopened.

But another area of Highway 1 was only to shut down later in the day due to a rock slide, photos on the transportation department's Twitter account show.

The storms are far from over, officials warn

In Sausalito, rough conditions dislodged the city's landmark bronze sea lion sculpture from its base; officials say it "is still attached by several bolts" and can be repaired.

In Los Angeles and other areas, meteorologists warned on Thursday morning that the storm wasn't over, even if people saw patches of clear sky: "The morning will be the rainiest period," reported forecaster Belen De Leon of NBC Los Angeles.

"Periods of rain and snow will continue into the afternoon and evening," the National Weather Service's office in Sacramento said on Thursday morning, adding that people might see isolated thunderstorms.

California and nearby areas are caught in a streak of wet weather. And while water-laden atmospheric rivers have historically been seen as a balm for drought-stricken areas, the quick succession of storms is particularly dangerous, as new rounds of high winds hit places where the soil is already saturated with water. The risk rises even more in places where wildfires have left burn scars — land with even less ability to absorb moisture.

Unfortunately, even more rain is on the way.

"Meteorologists here sometimes talk about what they call the 'storm parade,' which refers to us having a series of atmospheric rivers back to back to back," KQED's Stark said. "That's really what's happening right now: We're looking at having another series of big storms this weekend and even into next week."

Mendez, the Watsonville city manager, said he is strongly advising residents to "be prepared in case we need to evacuate again."

Copyright 2023 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Bill Chappell is a writer and editor on the News Desk in the heart of NPR's newsroom in Washington, D.C.
Eric Westervelt is a San Francisco-based correspondent for NPR's National Desk. He has reported on major events for the network from wars and revolutions in the Middle East and North Africa to historic wildfires and terrorist attacks in the U.S.
Jaclyn Diaz is a reporter on Newshub.

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