Cars submerged, vineyards flooded as storm slams California

By Andrew Hay
Snow capped mountains are seen behind the downtown Los Angeles skyline, California, U.S., February 12, 2019. REUTERS/Lucy Nicholson

By Andrew Hay

(Reuters) - Rain, snow and high winds slammed California on Wednesday, submerging cars and flooding vineyards as the wettest storm of the winter hit the U.S. West Coast, sparking weather warnings from Arizona to Washington state.

Among the hardest hit areas was northern California, with rain driven by winds of up to 75 mph (120 kph) pounding parts of Sonoma County's wine country.

In the Sacramento Valley, flood warnings were in effect from Chico to Stockton as the warm "Pineapple Express" tropical system brought rain to the mountains, melting snow and swelling creeks.

Cars plowed through standing water on San Francisco streets and water reached the wing mirrors of an abandoned car on a flooded Santa Cruz road. A woman was injured when a tree fell on a home in Carmel, and falling trees knocked out power to houses in Atherton near Palo Alto, according to tweets from the National Weather Service (NWS) and local authorities.

"The (Pineapple) Express is no joke," said Bob Oravec, meteorologist with the NWS's Weather Prediction Center in College Park, Maryland.

The system gets its name from a flow of moisture, known as an atmospheric river, that heads east from waters near Hawaii to soak the U.S. West Coast.

The storm will deliver another round of rain and snow through Thursday and Friday, taking new snowfall over 8 feet (2.4 meters) in some Sierra Nevada Mountain passes.

"The big thing that we could see as life threatening would be mountain travel that will become very dangerous," said NWS meteorologist Cory Mueller.

It is one of a string of West Coast storms that have swelled snowpack in California to above-average levels, delighting farmers and skiers following years of drought.

To the north, Oregon and Washington were also pounded with rain and snow, and a section of Interstate 90 in Washington was closed in both directions due to avalanche dangers.

WILDFIRE BURN AREAS RISK MUDSLIDES

Areas around Los Angeles could see over 5 inches (13 cm) of rain trigger flash flooding and mudslides, especially near recent wildfire burn areas, the NWS warned.

The problem was not just the amount of rain, but its intensity.

"It's going to be heavy and fast," said Oravec. "Debris flows and mudslides are a risk in any area scorched by the wildfires. There's little to no vegetation to slow that water down."

(Reporting by Andrew Hay, additional reporting by Rich McKay, editing by Louise Heavens and James Dalgleish)