Major storm hits drought-stricken California

San Francisco | Reuters — A Pacific storm lashed drought-parched northern and central California on Thursday with heavy rain and high winds, knocking out power to tens of thousands of homes, disrupting flights, washing out roads and prompting school closures in the Bay Area.

Nearly 240 departing and incoming commercial flights had been canceled at San Francisco International Airport by late morning, and delays for other flights averaged two hours, airport duty manager Bob Ritiski said.

A downtown San Francisco subway station serving the financial district was closed through the morning commuter rush because of a power outage, and the city’s electrified bus system was halted in many areas, transit officials said.

Several thoroughfares and freeway intersections were flooded in the San Francisco area, including the westbound lanes of Interstate 280 in the East Bay suburb of El Cerrito, according to the California Highway Patrol.

Winds howled through Sacramento, the state capital, rattling buildings and whipping through trees before dawn, followed by heavy downpours as the morning commute was getting started.

The U.S. National Weather Service issued flash-flood, heavy-surf and high-wind advisories, warning that torrential rains could lead to mudslides in foothill areas scarred by wildfires earlier in this year.

The storm was expected to provide only a small measure of relief from California’s record, multi-year drought that has forced water managers to sharply reduce irrigation supplies to farmers and prompted drastic conservation measures statewide, weather officials said.

As much as a metre of snow is predicted this week for the higher elevations of the Sierra Nevada mountain range. But meteorologists said many months of rainfall would be needed to pull the state out of the drought.

Storm heading south

The Shasta Lake area of northern California received 13 cm of rain overnight, and up to 10 cm were expected in California’s Central Valley, the state’s agricultural heartland, as well as in Sacramento, the weather service said.

“The fact that it looks like so much of it is going to fall in such a short period of time, that’s one of the major concerns,” weather service meteorologist Charles Bell said.

Pacific Gas and Electric reported nearly 227,000 customers lost power during the storm on Thursday morning. Cities in the peninsula area south of San Francisco were hardest hit by outages.

Several Bay Area school districts, including San Francisco, Oakland and Berkeley, canceled classes due to the storm.

The storm was expected to spread by Thursday night into southern California, in what would be the area’s second major storm in a week. A third storm system has been forecast for this weekend.

Municipalities handed out sandbags to help residents ward off flooding and reminded them to stock emergency supplies — routines that had become unfamiliar amid the drought.

Supermarkets were emptied of bottled water on Wednesday night. At a SaveMart supermarket in Sacramento, shoppers combed the aisles for prepared foods that could be served without cooking in the event of a long blackout.

Reporting for Reuters by Curtis Skinner and Emmett Berg in San Francisco, Sharon Bernstein in Sacramento and Steve Gorman and Dan Whitcomb in Los Angeles.

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