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

Drivers barrel into standing water on Interstate 101 in San Francisco, Calif., on Wednesday, as a bomb cyclone storm hit the West Coast with heavy rains and powerful winds.
Josh Edelson
AFP via Getty Images
Drivers barrel into standing water on Interstate 101 in San Francisco, Calif., on Wednesday, as a bomb cyclone storm hit the West Coast with heavy rains and powerful winds.

A massive "pineapple express" winter storm is buffeting California's coastal and inland areas with strong winds and heavy rain and snow. After arriving on Wednesday, the storm brought floods and yet more rain on Thursday morning.

"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.

Trees and power lines have been 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).

As of around 9 a.m. local time, more than 166,000 power customers in California were 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 warned 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 round of heavy precipitation from an atmospheric river to hit California since Christmas.

Here are scenes and updates from areas enduring the storm.

A family is safe after a broken tree traps them in their car

In downtown San Francisco, winds snapped a mature landscaping tree off at its base and dropped it onto a Honda sedan, trapping a family in their 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, noting that trees had taken down power lines used by transit trains.

Roads are treacherous in many areas

At least two deaths have been linked to the bad weather. In Sonoma County, a tree fell on a home in the small town of Occidental Wednesday night, killing a child believed to be under 2 years old, according to local newspaper The Press Democrat.

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

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

In many areas, emergency officials are urging 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 due to whiteout conditions.

Officials in California's Santa Cruz County are seeing "significant damage" from the storm, adding 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. No estimated time for reopening," the state transportation department said.

The storm is 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 warn that the storm isn't over, even if people see 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 NWS office in Sacramento said, adding that people could see isolated thunderstorms.

After the rain comes yet more rain

California and nearby areas are caught in a streak of wet weather. And while water-laden atmospheric rivers are historically 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," 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."

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.