Torrential rain, wind lashes the North Bay, bringing flooding, power outages and water rescues
A devastating “bomb cyclone” pummeled the West Coast Sunday, leaving North Bay residents to scramble from rising waters to dry ground, water rescue crews to pluck stranded individuals to safety and tens of thousands of others to sit for hours in the dark without power. It was the most powerful storm in more than a generation, experts say.
A torrent of rain, fueled by what meteorologists described as an “atmospheric river,” wreaked havoc starting Saturday night, worsening throughout the day before easing locally Sunday evening.
At a time when so many have prayed for rain during a drought-stricken year, the storm surpassed its forecasted strength, unleashing driving sheets of rain throughout the day. Even in the late afternoon, as rains appeared to slacken in Santa Rosa — which recorded nearly 8 inches over a 24-hour period beginning at 5 p.m. Saturday — the weather service predicted another 1 to 2 inches for parts of Sonoma County.
“It’s likely there will be records set, definitely,” NWS meteorologist Jeff Lorber said Sunday evening.
Forecasters, though, plan to wait until early Monday to confirm records since rain was still continuing to fall Sunday night.
Sonoma County rainfall totals, from 5 p.m. Saturday to 5 p.m. Sunday, were: 7.83 inches in Santa Rosa; 7.19 inches in Rohnert Park; 4.26 inches in Petaluma; and 4.76 inches in Healdsburg.
The Sonoma Valley region recorded 8.55 inches, and Venado, in the county’s western hills north of Guerneville, had 8.92 inches.
According to the San Francisco-based Golden Gate Weather Services, which maintains the Bay Area Storm Index, Sunday’s was the strongest storm in the Bay Area in 26 years.
Fierce accompanying winds toppled power lines and trees, splitting the roof of a Guerneville home and damaging vehicles elsewhere. And, as many as 25,000 Sonoma County homes and businesses lost power during more than a dozen separate outages, according to Pacific Gas & Electric Co.
By Sunday night, that number had been decreased to just over 15,000 customers.
The “bomb cyclone” is a rare meteorological event. It forms when air pressures drops sharply, strengthening the incoming storm. The result: Deep tropical moisture thousands of miles away in the Pacific Ocean creates a high-powered ribbon of moisture known as an “atmospheric river.”
The weekend storm stretched from Oregon to central California, as howling winds and driving rain triggered mudslides, floods and snow in some mountain passes.
In Sonoma County, the downpour replenished, at least for the moment, waterways sharply diminished by the long dry summer and the lengthy drought. A water level gauge on the Russian River in Guerneville showed the river spiking from less than 6 feet to nearly 12 feet by 2 p.m.
The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration predicts the river’s level will more than double that amount by Monday morning, but doesn’t anticipate any river flooding. The National Weather Service maintained flash flood warnings for urban areas and small streams in Sonoma County throughout the day and until at least 6 p.m. on Sunday.
Forecasters warned it’s too early to measure the storm’s impact on the drought in Sonoma County. Any temporary relief the rains brought to this wildfire-prone region came at a cost as the storm’s intensity resulted in significant amounts of chaos and damage.
The day saw several rescues by boat, as authorities raced against rising water and responded to emergency calls.
Around 11 a.m., Geyserville firefighters saved three men, one woman and a dog from a homeless encampment on an island in the Russian River after the surrounding waters threatened to overwhelm the small land mass.
“They didn’t expect the waters to rise as quickly as they did,” Cloverdale Fire Protection District Battalion Chief Rick Blackmon said of the encampment residents.
South of the intersection of highways 121 and 12 near Schellville, firefighters rescued seven men in their mid-20s who were trapped by an overflowing creek, possibly while on a duck-hunting trip, according to Schell-Vista Fire Protection District Chief Mike Mulas.
Officials hunted for a suitable boat to cross the floodwater, reaching out to both the U.S. Coast Guard and other local duck hunters, according to a supervisor at RedCom, the county’s dispatch agency.