Pfieffer Bridge in Big Sur is impassible

Crumbling Bridge Splits Big Sur Community

The Central Coast of California has been a hot spot for activity this year. The normally quaint and quiet Big Sur area is one of the wettest and most rugged in all of Coastal California. In the past year, the area has seen the region’s largest ever fire (Soberanes), and its highest winter rainfall accumulation in over a decade. Although the latest winter storms in February have pulled the area out of a six year long drought, it also has also–quite literally–split the Monterey County community in two.

Heavy Rains Damage Monterey County Roads and Bridges

Since the beginning of the year, the well-traveled section of Highway 1 through Big Sur has seen over 15 inches of rain, and its steep hillsides have endured numerous land and mud slides. Consequently, a 50-mile stretch of the highway has been closed to facilitate a major cleanup effort for the better part of a month. What’s worse is that the Pfeiffer Canyon Bridge (in the Soberanes Fire area) has actually buckled due to the support columns moving from heavy runoff during early February’s rain events. Highway 1 has had a hard closure there, making the highway impassible since February 12th.

Pfieffer Bridge in Big Sur is impassible

The Pfeiffer Bridge in Big Sur has been impassible since February 12, 2017

As a result, tourists have had to deal with very long detours and local residents have been left stranded. The bridge’s support columns have shifted a significant distance from their operational location and have made the bridge unable to support the minimum mandated weight. Cal trans crews are working on plans to demolish the bridge into 3 manageable sections for removal and then begin the yearlong process of building a new structure. Crews have spent the weeks since the bridge damage discovery moving demolition equipment into place using helicopters.

On March 13th, the demolition process began with a 6,000 pound wrecking ball. After a few hours of work the crews realized that in the current configuration, the wrecking ball could not get enough downward force to break up the bridge. Parts were ordered to change the configuration and demolition personnel were set to try again on March 15th.

Impact to Big Sur Residents Could Last Months

While the road crews focus all their efforts on getting more sections of the Highway open, around 400 residents have been unable to drive from their homes, relying only on their supplies at home. Due to the lengthy closure, affected homeowners have run low on food and water. Some are resorting to travelling by foot to get hundreds of pounds of food while others are utilizing rations that have been flown into locations by helicopter.

A plan is underway to actually build a new hiking trail (1/2 mile foot path) that can be used by homeowners to get around the Pfeiffer Bridge closure. The trail is being constructed by California Conservation Crews and numerous volunteers, and will take some time to complete. The use of the trail will be limited to residents and can only be used during specific hours.

For emergency responders, the closure situation causes a different problem in terms accessing residences during future emergency situations. The new bridge will take months to construct and the Big Sur Volunteer Fire Brigade is responsible for the safety of residents on both sides of the closure. As a solution, the brigade has actually split into two response areas but, at this point, cannot access all of their response territory. Currently, there is a contingency plan in place to use a Medivac helicopter to get people out that may need medical attention. The Big Sur Medical Center, which is also affected by the closure, has continued to receive medical resupply, including daily prescriptions that area residents need. The sense is that local authorities seem confident in the contingency plan in place. They have said numerous times that they will be able to provide emergency services to all remote areas.

san jose flood

Areas of San Jose Flood After Nearby Dam Overflows

Low-lying areas of San Jose have flooded due to increased runoff from Anderson Lake after a weekend of multiple rain storms.  The lake, which is 15 miles southeast of San Jose, had been slowly filling to capacity.  Water levels eventually spilled over Anderson Dam into Coyote Creek which flows northwest, directly into the heart of San Jose.  The influx of extra runoff caused the creek to crest at a height of over 13 feet, causing widespread flooding to many areas between Gilroy and San Jose.

The worst of the Flooding appears to be centered on the Nordale neighborhood of San Jose. Many homes and streets in that area are under water. As of Tuesday afternoon (2/21), 186 residents had been evacuated via boat and helicopter. San Jose mayor Sam Liccardo announced that up to 500 more residents were under voluntary evacuation as the creek continues to receive the dam’s excess water. The city itself saw over two more inches of rain on top of a very wet winter. The area has had measurable precipitation on all but five of the days so far this month.

San Jose Flood at a Glance

• Recent storms have caused Coyote Creek to become a spillway for Anderson Reservoir, which is overflowing beyond its capacity.
• Rescue efforts have been focused on the Nordale Neighborhood in the heart of San Jose where dozens of people were aided to safety by boat and helicopter.
• Officials are concerned with potential contamination of the water due to potentially overflowing sewage lines, oil and gas from vehicles trapped in the water, or household chemicals that may have leaked into the flood waters.
• San Jose’s mayor announced a voluntary evacuation for low-lying areas along Coyote Creek between the I-880 and the Capitol Expressway due to the risk of continued flooding.
• So far, 16 of February’s 21 days have involved measurable precipitation in San Jose.
• Multiple zoo animals had to be relocated in the nearby Happy Hollow Park.

San Jose Flood Outlook

The persistent rains are forecasted to cease overnight, and dryer weather is expected at least through Saturday evening.  Despite the release of countless gallons of water, Anderson Dam will still sit well above its recommended level of 68% for the foreseeable future.  Evacuated residents will have to wait until the floodwaters subside to return to their homes, and may be delayed by the potential of polluted water.

In the past few weeks, most of the rainfall worries have been centered on Butte County and the Oroville Dam Spillway situation.  If the relentless rain trend continues, reservoirs across the state of California could see further rising levels, which in turn could increase the risk of more flooding events.

Sources: Weather Channel, ABC7 News: Bay Area, Wunderground

Heavy Rain Event Underway for Southern California

The West Coast is bracing for yet another heavy rain event. Luckily, each storm this winter has slowly helped the previously dire drought situation, which covered most of the State of California. This storm, however, will bring sustained rain from Southern Oregon all the way south through San Diego. The worst of it, though, has its sights set on Southern California, arriving late Thursday. Meteorologists are predicting the region may see the heaviest precipitation in six years, including up to 8 inches in some areas. The National Weather Service in Los Angeles is saying that daily rain records are likely to be set on Friday. Strong winds, up to 50 or 60 mph, are also expected. As the heavy rain nears, local authorities are preparing for widespread road closures, power outages, tree damage, flash flooding, and coastal flooding.

Storm Total Rain through Saturday for the Los Angeles Area

Projected Rainfall for the next 36 hours from the National Weather Service out of Los Angeles

Mudslide Potential

There will also be a real potential for mudslides in some areas, especially within the several recent burn scars in the region that align with the heavy expected rain (seen in the map below). Approximately 180 homes in Duarte have already been evacuated ahead of the storm due to their close proximity to an expected debris flow from the Fish Fire burn scar. Similarly, residents in Glendora, near the Colby Fire burn area, were told to remain “on alert”. Local officials are likely being cautious as annually the CDC reports 25-50 deaths a year from mudslides on average in the US.

Recent Burn Scars all to receive 3+ inches of heavy rain

Map showing where 2016’s recent burn scars shown against the forecasted rain totals for Southern CA

Northern California to See Heavy Rain Too

While Northern California will not see as widespread a downpour, that region will also see significant rainfall totals. Due to the incoming storm, the Lake Oroville situation remains troubling, despite the fact that Butte County Officials have technically lifted the evacuation orders for residents. The lake has lowered 30 feet since its peak during the last storm.  Officials hope they can relieve the reservoir of another 30 before the rains arrive again (the current rate is reportedly one foot every three hours). Unfortunately, the Oroville watershed is forecast to receive another 5-8 inches of rain itself by the end of the weekend, which could swell the lake to complicated levels again. Fortunately, the rain has continued to help swell California’s reservoirs statewide to near or, in most cases, over their historical average level.

Additionally, heavy snow is also projected for the high elevations and Sierra Nevada Range. An additional two feet of snow is forecast to add to the already above-average snowpack throughout the region. As an example, Eastern Sierra’s Mammoth Mountain, which has already received a whopping 432 inches of snow this winter, is expecting another 24-32” by Wednesday night.

Sources

National Weather Service, The Weather Channel, AccuWeather, LA Times, NOAA

southern plains fire potential

Fire Weather Concern Hits Southern Plains

Early this week the National Weather Service (NWS) indicated that conditions in the Southern Plains may evolve into a significant fire weather event.  Specifically, The National Weather Service issued a Red Flag Warning on Monday (2/6) for an area encompassing the Southeastern Colorado Plains through Oklahoma, New Mexico, and Texas. A fire weather watch is also in effect for South Central Texas through Tuesday (2/7).

A Pacific Jet Stream moving through the area resulted in critical to near-critical fire weather conditions for the Region. According to forecasters, particularly strong winds coupled with low relative humidity and the current dry fuel situation amplified the potential for extreme fire behavior. Tuesday (2/7) should bring more of the same as the Pacific Jet Stream moves east through the area. It’s likely that the current warning, set to expire this evening (2/6) at 1700 hours, could be reinstated for at least some of the region tomorrow should conditions persist.

southern plains fire potential

Monday’s Fire Watches and Warnings stretch from the Southeastern Colorado to South Central Texas

 

Southern Plains Fire Activity

Dry and windy fire conditions were evident this past weekend as active fires burned across Texas, Oklahoma, and even Colorado. In Elbert County, CO, a rare winter fire scorched nearly five hundred-acres. Residents were given notice to evacuate as the fire approached the aptly-named Chaparral Subdivision. Six or seven homes were briefly threatened as seven fire crews scrambled to get a handle on it. The fire was called contained at 1900 hours Saturday. In order to ensure control, crews stayed behind to patrol the blackened perimeter overnight.

Concern in Southern Plains  Predicted

Above normal significant wildfire potential is expected for the Southern Plains for not just early this week, but for at least the next two months. This month’s recently published wildfire outlook, a report from Predictive Services (NIFC), suggested that any prolonged periods of dry and windy conditions in the Southern Plains could “provide opportunities for any ignitions to become significant fires.” The report further stated that last year’s precipitation totals in the region have brought about a somewhat robust fine fuel crop. The excess fine fuel could increase fire activity and likely warrant extra attention for the area when dry and windy conditions are forecasted, as were seeing this week.

Sources

NIFC Predictive Services, ABC 7 Denver, National Weather Service

Series of Tornadoes Ravage Gulf States

Outbreak of Tornadoes

In the early morning hours of January 21st, a band of severe weather moved into the Gulf of Mexico region, producing a number of deadly tornadoes.  More than 20 funnel touchdowns were reported in total. The worst tornado of the day hit near Purvis, Mississippi, and was rated EF3 on the Enhanced Fujita Scale which rates tornado intensity.  The funnel itself was nearly 900 yards wide, and the storm cut a path length of over 30 miles.  Sadly, four people died in this storm, and the number of homes and businesses that were damaged is still being assessed.

The following day (Jan 22), the Storm Prediction Center issued a High-Risk Severe Weather Event for the entire Gulf Coast region, the first such warning since 2014. In the subsequent 24-hour period, eight more tornadoes touched down.  The worst of the storm system decimated twenty homes with a tornado (estimated > EF2) impacting a trailer park near Adel, Georgia. Survivors described the early morning chaos as “horrific”, with trailers apparently being tossed like rag dolls by the twister.  To date, 15 people are confirmed to have died within Southern Georgia over the weekend.

By January 23rd, the storms weakened, though two more tornadoes were reported in Florida. Fortunately, there were no injuries reported and only minor damage to a pier and a mobile home park was confirmed.

Government Assistance to Affected Areas

A state of emergency was declared in Mississippi and Georgia in the aftermath of the weekend’s severe weather. FEMA has deployed to Alabama, Florida, Georgia, and Mississippi.  The Red Cross also deployed to Georgia on January 22nd to assist in relief efforts. Freshly sworn-in President Trump has promised relief assistance to the affected areas and also offered “our sincere condolences for the lives taken”.

Weekend Severe Weather Facts

  • Timeline: January 21-23
  • Locations: Texas, Alabama, Mississippi, Louisiana, Georgia, South Carolina, and Florida
  • Number of Tornadoes: 34+
  • Highest Reported Winds: 145 mph
  • Casualties: 20+
  • Damages: Estimated $200 Million
  • News Article: WunderBlog

Sources:

NOAA, Wunderground, Storm Prediction Center

Nation Braces for More Severe Storms

Another Severe Storm on Deck

As much of the United States is still feeling the effects of the severe storms that distressed the country last week, the nation braces for another round of severe weather.  Quick on Winter Storm Jupiter’s coattails is another severe storm, which already has a name.  Winter Storm “Kori” is forecast to hit the west coast by mid-week, establishing yet another atmospheric river over the region. Multiple weather warnings have been issued well ahead of this storm as most of the Pacific Northwest prepares for flooding, ice, freezing rain, and high winds. Parts of the Portland metro area along with the Washington Cascades and the Columbia River Gorge will have the greatest chance for damaging ice accumulations as cold air and precipitation will linger in those areas the longest.

severe storms

Precipitation Forecast for the Next 7 Days.

The storm is expected to persist through the weekend as the front plows eastward. Meanwhile, a concurrent storm will have the Southeast experiencing waves of heavy rain.  Two converging fronts will cause warm, tropical air to be pulled up from the south bringing unseasonably warm temperatures and heavy rainfall over the majority of Appalachia. Severe thunderstorms and tornadoes are possible. It appears 2017 will start off the year with the vengeance that was expected–but didn’t materialize–from last year’s El Nino weather pattern.

Earlier Severe Storms

In previous weeks, western states received much needed rain, helping to alleviate concerns due to record warmth and prolonged drought. Parts of the Sierra Mountain range, under drought since December of 2011, are now buried under as much as 10 feet and have already doubled the average snow-pack for this time of year.  Similarly, the State of Colorado has already received 75% of its annual snow-pack and a staggering 400 avalanches have been recorded to date. Down in Texas, heavy rains drenched the state and at least four tornadoes were spotted late Sunday.

The Midwest, however, seems to have taken the brunt of the recent bad weather.  The ice storm pushed eastward leaving a swath of downed trees, power outages and traffic accidents in its wake. Freezing rain and ice accumulated on trees and powerlines across the heartland, causing them to collapse under the added weight. Multiple Midwest states reported power outages leaving thousands of customers without electricity.  According to the Associated Press, Oklahoma was especially hard hit with “tens of thousands of Oklahoma homes and businesses (reporting a loss of) power during Jupiter.”

severe storms

Over an Inch of Ice Accumulation Causes Widespread Power Outages.

The swift and frigid storm also made for extremely hazardous driving conditions which resulted in several road closures and numerous auto accidents.  Hundreds of injuries and sadly 7 fatalities were caused by the slippery surfaces.

 

Sources:

https://weather.com/forecast/regional/news/winter-storm-kori-snow-ice-atmospheric-river-west-northwest-california-oregon

http://www.wfaa.com/weather/storms-combine-to-create-tornadoes-home-damage-in-dfw-and-beyond/386368403

http://www.aol.com/article/weather/2017/01/16/deadly-ice-storm-spreads-into-midwest-targets-new-england/21655905/

https://weather.com/news/weather/news/winter-storm-jupiter-ice-storm-plains-midwest-latest-news

Winter Storms Continue to Improve Drought Conditions

Drought conditions across California were steadily improving as we closed out 2016. This past week has further weakened the drought’s stranglehold on the state. A series of severe winter storms continue to saturate the state and, as of this week, more than 40% of the state is now considered by officials to be drought free. The severely drought-stricken areas of Southern California have diminished by 41% and the Sierra snowpack is now at 160% of normal levels.

California Drought

Drought Snapshot – Source: Los Angeles Times

Storms Fueling Drought Recovery

Since December 1, the storms have brought snow and heavy rainfall to much of the state. Northern California, especially, has seen precipitation levels that rival some of the wettest years on record.

City Rainfall (in) Since Dec 1 Average Annual Rainfall (in) % of Annual
Fresno 5.14 11.5 44.70%
Monterey 6.84 19.5 35.08%
Redding 10.56 34.61 30.51%
Sacramento 10.82 18.51 58.45%
San Francisco 7.81 23.64 33.04%
Santa Rosa 18.29 36.28 50.41%
South Lake Tahoe 14.88 52.45 28.37%

 

According to UC Davis water expert Jay Lund, “In terms of surface water, most of California is no longer in drought”.  Many of the state’s reservoirs are nearing capacity and now at or above historic averages.  Lake Shasta, the state’s largest reservoir, has swelled to over 80% capacity and the Bureau of Reclamation opened Shasta Dam for the first time in over 6 years. Managers at many of the state’s other reservoirs are following suit, releasing water in order to make room for future storm and mountain run-off.

Aquifers Have Not Recovered

While the state’s many reservoirs are recovering well, the groundwater aquifers could take decades to recover. Central California’s many farms have relied on groundwater to continue irrigating their farms for much of the five year drought. The result has been a depleting water table, up to fifty feet below historic levels in some areas.  For many farmers, this caused a financial burden of digging a deeper well, or many risked the well drying up entirely.

Groundwater depletion has been an ongoing problem in California’s Central Valley, even in years of normal rainfall. The extended drought has exacerbated the problem, and while these recent winter storms will help to replenish some of the groundwater resources, the water table will likely never return to historic levels.

Sources

http://www.latimes.com/local/lanow/la-me-drought-monitor-20170112-story.html

http://www.krcrtv.com/news/local/shasta/water-released-from-shasta-spillway-for-first-time-in-6-yrs/265266996

https://weather.com/news/weather/news/atmospheric-river-california-impacts

http://www.latimes.com/local/california/la-me-storms-drought-20170111-story.html