Thousands flee homes as atmospheric river brings snow, strong winds and flooding to parts of California

US

Nearly 10,000 Californians have been forced to flee their homes after widespread flooding and snow was triggered by an atmospheric river across the state.

Several major highways and rural communities were blocked off after swelling rivers burst their banks, and creeks overflowed in Santa Cruz County, south of San Francisco.

Authorities in the town of Soquel are urging people to stay indoors, as flooding destroyed the town’s Main Street, trapping some in their homes.

Teacher Heather Wingfield from the town said she was trapped in her home after the nearby Bates Creek rushed through Soquel.

“It’s horrible,” she said. “Hopefully no one has a medical emergency.”

She added that water infrastructure has been washed out for her and her neighbours.

Several feet of water also covered nearby Watsonville, while a burst river bank in Springville washed a road away.

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There has also been flash floods in the foothill town of Kernville, with the river, known locally as “killer Kern”, continuing to rise.

One Kernville local claimed the river has tripled in size overnight.

No injuries have so far been reported, but evacuation orders are in place across the region in central California.

State Parks swift water technicians Jeremy Paiss and Bryan Kine transport Lizbeth Hernandez to safety after her truck was swept away by flood waters along Paulsen Road in Watsonville, Calif., Friday, March 10, 2023. Hernandez, who does not swim, stood on the roof of her truck for over an hour until Paiss and Kine could reach her and paddle her to safety. (Shmuel Thaler/The Santa Cruz Sentinel via AP)
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Pic: AP

An atmospheric river is a bed of moisture in the atmosphere that carries wet air from the tropics, and dumps heavy snow and rain across another region.

They can be up to 375 miles wide, and stretch to be more than 1,000 miles long, and are usually seen as an important source of rainfall for the region.

It’s the latest atmospheric river to dump rain across the state in recent weeks, with the governor Gavin Newsom declaring emergencies in 34 counties, while the White House approved a disaster declaration, which should provide financial relief to California.

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There could be more trouble in the Sierra Nevada too, as snow on the mountains begins to melt, contributing to further flooding, some forecasters have said.

Water flows along Truckee River, flanked with snow on the riverbanks during sunset in Truckee, Calif., Friday, March 10, 2023. (Stephen Lam/San Francisco Chronicle via AP)
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Melting snow is expected to cause further problems Pic: AP

Lake Oroville, a huge reservoir in California and home to the tallest dam in the US, has seen its spillways opened for the first time in four years, due to the excessive volume of water in it.

State officials are hoping to harness the excess rainfall for use later in the year to help deal with inevitable droughts across California.

Governor Newsom has signed an executive order in recent days, allowing farmers and water agencies to store more water in underground aquifers.

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