LOS ANGELES – Storm-wracked California struggled to clean up and repair extensive damage on Wednesday as torrential rain eased in many areas, although thunderstorms were possible in the north on Wednesday and another powerful front was expected on Friday.
At least 17 people have died as a result of the storms that have hit the state. The number is likely to rise, Gov. Gavin Newsom said Tuesday during a visit to the picturesque Santa Cruz Coast town of Capitola, which was hit hard by surf and flooding last week.
A pickup truck driver and a motorcyclist were killed Tuesday morning in the San Joaquin Valley when a tree struck by lightning fell on them, authorities said.
More than half of California’s 58 counties have been declared disaster zones, the governor said.
The latest storm, which began Monday, was one of a series of storms that began late last month and could cost more than $1 billion to repair, said Adam Smith, a disaster expert at the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, according to the Los Angeles Times.
Crews worked to reopen major highways that had been closed by mudslides, waterlogged or swamped by mud, while more than 10,000 people who had been ordered to leave seaside towns on the central coast were allowed to return home.
Among them is Montecito, an affluent Santa Barbara County community home to Prince Harry and other celebrities, where a landslide killed 23 people and destroyed more than 100 homes five years ago.
Still, thousands of people living near rain-swollen streams and rivers remain under evacuation orders. In the San Joaquin Valley, raging waters from Bear Creek flooded part of the town of Merced and nearby Planada, a small farming community along the highway leading to Yosemite National Park.
All 4,000 Planada residents were ordered to leave Tuesday morning. Neighborhoods were under water, and cars were submerged on their roofs. Residents who were ordered to evacuate carried whatever they could salvage on their backs, leaving them in the rain.
Other evacuations were ordered due to levee breaches in parts of Monterey County.
The latter atmospheric river — a long plume of moisture stretching toward the Pacific Ocean that can drop staggering amounts of rain and snow — has shrunk in some areas. Light to moderate rain and thunderstorms are expected in Northern California on Wednesday. A longer storm system was forecast to last from Friday until January 17th.
Despite the rain, much of the state remained in extreme or severe drought, according to the US Drought Monitor.
The storms may help locally, “but won’t solve the long-term problems of the drought,” said Rick Spinrad, administrator of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.
Damage from the storm included washed-out roads and seaside businesses flooded by 20-foot (6-meter) surf that pounded Santa Cruz County.
Many areas experienced unprecedented amounts of rain combined with strong winds and even hail and lightning that felled trees and damaged power lines.
More than 75,000 homes and businesses across the state were without power late Tuesday night, according to the website Poweroutage.us.
Mudslides damaged some homes in the expensive slopes of Los Angeles, while further up the coast, a body of water damaged 15 homes in rural Orcutt, Santa Barbara County.
Kevin Costner, winner of Best Actor in a TV Drama Series for Yellowstone, was unable to attend Tuesday’s Golden Globe Awards in Los Angeles due to the weather. Host Regina Hall said he took refuge in Santa Barbara because of the flooding.
A tree fell on a commuter bus in San Francisco Tuesday, causing no injuries, while lightning struck the city’s famous Transamerica Pyramid without damage. Strong winds also blew part of the roof off a large apartment building.
Some people found themselves in small settlements flooded with water and mud.
“We’re all stuck here,” Brian Briggs said as he described a terrifying night in which the flood unleashed mudslides in remote Matilia Canyon, burying one home and cutting off the only road to nearby Ojai. Canyon Creek began flooding yards and the surrounding hills, which had been stripped of vegetation during the 2017 Thomas Fire, began to plunge into darkness.
Mudslides swept sheds, gazebos and outbuildings into the creek, Briggs said. After helping his neighbors up the hill, he returned home to find his fence destroyed by mud up to his waist.
On Tuesday, a helicopter dropped off 10 sheriff’s deputies to help residents of dozens of homes in the canyon.
The wet and windy weather has left many homeless people in California in dire straits. At least two homeless people in Sacramento County have died and more than a dozen people have been rescued from a homeless encampment on the Ventura River.
Theo Harris, who has lived on the streets of San Francisco since 2016, fortified his shelter with a tarp and zip ties on Tuesday and took his girlfriend in after her tent was flooded.
“The wind was treacherous, but you just have to pull yourself together and stay dry,” Harris said. “Rain is a part of life. It will be sunny. It will rain. I just need to get my boots on and not give up.”
Associated Press reporters John Antczak and Stephanie Dazio in Los Angeles, Jenny Harr and Olga R. Rodriguez in San Francisco, Kathleen Ronine in Sacramento, Noah Berger in Merced and Seth Borenstein in Denver contributed to this report.
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