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Dire warnings of flooding, power outages and mudslides as storms hit California

JUANA SUMMERS, HOST:

A powerful storm is battering large swaths of California today. It's bringing heavy rains and high winds to some areas already saturated by multiple storms in recent weeks. The National Weather Service has sent out dire warnings that flooding, power outages and mudslides are possible. NPR's Eric Westervelt is tracking the storm from the San Francisco Bay area. And, Eric, I've been looking at the weather service's satellite images of this huge storm, and they look really ominous. What's the latest?

ERIC WESTERVELT, BYLINE: Yeah, this is a big storm. And, you know, the rain has started to hit parts of northern and southern California. But they're saying the worst of the storm, this massive band of moisture known as an atmospheric river, is going to get more intense later this evening and into Thursday morning. The weather service, Juana, tweeted out, you know, those asking, where's the storm? It's still coming. And they noted that these blue dots in the giant image of the swirling storm you mentioned are lightning flashes. The governor's office today said the state's likely facing the most challenging series of storms it's seen in the last five years. So, Juana, people are kind of holding their breath right now, hoping for the best as more intense rain and wind are starting to hit the state.

SUMMERS: And California Governor Gavin Newsom has already declared a preemptive state of emergency, and a few communities have also already ordered evacuations ahead of the storm. What can you tell us about that?

WESTERVELT: Yeah, a handful of areas did that, including Watsonville and Santa Cruz County south of San Francisco. The city issued some mandatory evacuations for areas of the city that are prone to flooding, that usually get flooding and, you know, to try to get vulnerable residents, the elderly, to safety. They've opened up an evacuation center. And that's really because a similar weather system moved through the state over the New Year's holiday weekend, causing some dangerous flooding to both homes and businesses in some areas, including parts of San Francisco, Sacramento and Watsonville. And, Juana, the big fear really is that the ground is just, you know, oversaturated from all these storms. And this is the third since Christmas weekend. And this new one, combined with strong winds, could cause some serious damage. I talked with Alison Bridger. She's a meteorologist and climate scientist at San Jose State University.

ALISON BRIDGER: So it's a very strong storm. Plus, a juicy plume of moisture and atmospheric river gives us the possibility of quite a lot of rain, which means all the new rain waters is not going to sink in as well. It's going to run off. And so we're going to have more localized flooding, not to mention trees coming down, mudslides.

WESTERVELT: The good news, Juana, is cities have had a few days to prepare for this, have been handing out lots of sandbags, putting up barriers in places that flood, activating their emergency plans and warning people, hey, stay off the roads if you can, especially in these places that have seen some recent wildfires. And so they're more prone to mudslides and flooding.

SUMMERS: The irony, though, is that drought-parched California really needs rain, right?

WESTERVELT: Yeah, desperately. I mean, the past three years have been the state's driest on record. And one storm won't get us out of the drought problem. Many of California's largest and most important reservoirs are still far below their historical averages. So I would say Californians are having a bit of a love-hate relationship with this storm. As one meteorologist put it to me today, this rain is really, really good right up until the moment, you know, we're knee deep in floodwater. Another good thing I'll mention briefly, these storms have been incredible for the snowpack in California, which is a major source of both drinking and farming water. The snowpack in the Sierra mountains is off to its best start in 40 years.

SUMMERS: Briefly, before I let you go, Eric, I understand there are even more storms on the way in the coming days.

WESTERVELT: Yeah. Saturday into Sunday, there's yet another storm coming. It does not look to be nearly as powerful as this one, Juana. But, again, more rain and a saturated ground, the worry is, you know, storm after storm after storm is going to start to really take a toll.

SUMMERS: NPR's Eric Westervelt in Berkeley, Calif. Eric, thanks, and stay safe.

WESTERVELT: You're welcome. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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.