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California Storm Forces Flood Rescues but Spares Montecito


Senior deputy Jeff Farmer with the Santa Barbara County Sheriff office checks the Montecito Creek to make sure it is flowing correctly, March 22, 2018.

A powerful storm that swelled California rivers, flooded streets and triggered water rescues throughout the state moved on early Friday, leaving only a few stray showers in its wake.

Though the three-day storm had spared communities a repeat of the deadly debris flows following a deluge earlier this year, it dumped record rainfall in some parts and unleashed flooding that led to dramatic rescues Thursday from Los Angeles in Southern California all the way to Folsom, some 400 miles (645 kilometers) to the north.

Most flood and weather warnings were rescinded but flooding remained possible along the Middle Fork Feather River in northeastern California. Winter storm warnings were posted across the top of the state and along the Sierra Nevada for heavy snow expected from new weather systems arriving Friday and expected to last through the weekend.

Authorities lifted evacuation orders for some 30,000 people Thursday in disaster-weary Santa Barbara County, which includes Montecito, where mudslides killed 21 people and inundated hundreds of homes in January.

"We dodged a bullet when this storm did not reach its full potential and actually veered off to the north and south of us," Santa Barbara County Sheriff Bill Brown said at a news conference.

Meanwhile in San Luis Obispo County in central California, rescuers reported pulling 10 people from the Salinas River in separate incidents throughout the day Thursday. A helicopter plucked six people from the water while swimmers got the others, said Paso Robles Fire Chief Jonathan Stornetta.

"I was swimming and going from tree to tree," Monica Johnson, among those rescued from the Salinas River, told KSBY-TV.

Johnson, her boyfriend and their dog were rescued from the river by helicopter after they got trapped on an island trying to cross it.

"The guy, I told him, `Thank you,' the guy that grabbed me up," she said. "He wasn't sitting there making me feel panicking. He made me feel safe."

Rescuers pulled a man and his dog from the Los Angeles River and in Folsom, a man had to jump from the roof of his car to a rescue boat after he got stuck in floodwaters.

Some 80 miles (129 kilometers) east of Santa Barbara, passers-by helped rescue a couple whose car had turned upside down in rushing water on a neighborhood road, according to video posted by the Santa Clarita Valley Sheriff's Department. Another video showed the moment a passer-by jumped onto the overturned SUV and broke out a back window before pulling out the driver.

Meanwhile, various problems arose in Tuolumne County, in the central part of the state

"We had a very heavy rain cell that came through and caused a great deal of havoc throughout the county," Sheriff Jim Mele said at a news conference. "This cell was very powerful."

One couple stranded atop a chicken coop had to be rescued after their home and cars were flooded, and a dam leak in the Sierra Nevada foothills prompted about three dozen people to evacuate. A full dam failure was averted.

Not far from the dam in the small community of Groveland, flooded streets caused minor property damage and students at two schools had to shelter in place because buses weren't able to reach them. They were later released to their parents.

"We had basically a river going through downtown Groveland," Mele said, adding that waters also dislodged two propane tanks from a home. The tanks hit a car and a home but no damage was reported.

Authorities began praising the storm for dropping a good dose of much-need water in the area, where drought conditions have recently gone back to extreme or severe levels.

"We're still in a drought so this was a good rain, and we could use more of the good rain," National Weather Service meteorologist Mark Jackson said.

The county saw between 2 to 5 inches (5 to 13 centimeters) of water in coastal areas, 4 to 6 inches (10 to 15 centimeters) in foothills and mountains and 8 to 10 inches (20 to 25 centimeters) in parts of the central coast.

Thousands of people fled Montecito and neighboring communities in advance of the storm, just as they had during previous rains and last year during a wildfire that became the largest in state history as it destroyed more than 1,000 buildings, mostly homes.

In Los Angeles County, authorities canceled some planned mandatory evacuations because of a projected decrease in rainfall but kept others in place because of debris flows in one canyon area stripped bare by wildfires.

A large chunk of a hillside fell away in a Los Angeles canyon that burned last year, but no one was hurt.

The storm also toppled a pine tree across one neighborhood street and a eucalyptus tree into a home in another neighborhood. No one was injured.

The storm came ashore earlier in the week as a so-called atmospheric river, a long plume of Pacific moisture that is also known as a "Pineapple Express" because of its origins near Hawaii.

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