Central California is at risk of “catastrophic flooding” this weekend, meteorologists warned on Friday, as an eighth consecutive storm batters over waterlogged soils unable to absorb further rain.
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The most populous state in the United States has been hit for three weeks by precipitation bordering on historic records. Between floods, landslides, widespread power outages and falling trees, this series of storms has claimed at least 19 lives, according to authorities.
A new low pressure system hit California on Friday and authorities in the center of the state are particularly worried. According to forecasts, the Monterey Peninsula could be cut off from the world by the rising waves, and the entire town of Salinas, which has 160,000 inhabitants, could be flooded.
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“The entire Lower Salinas Valley will experience catastrophic flooding,” the US Weather Service (NWS) warned.
“The whole town of Salinas is at risk of flooding. Most of Castroville will be flooded. All roads near the Salinas River will be flooded and impassable,” and more than 36,000 hectares of farmland is expected to fall under water, he added.
Infrastructure, roads and homes are at risk of major damage.
The Salinas River, already swollen from weeks of torrential rain, was expected to peak on Friday, bursting its banks and causing flooding that could last through Sunday.
Several areas of the region are under evacuation orders, and the Monterey Peninsula risks being cut off from the world if the roads are cut off by the waves.
“Peninsula and Salinas-area residents should expect to be isolated for two or three days,” Monterey County officials warned earlier this week.
“The Monterey Peninsula could become an island” because of the floods, local sheriff Tina Nieto warned the press, asking residents to prepare to avoid being trapped by the floods.
“This is a slow onset event” and not all places will be affected at the same time, she explained, urging everyone to be vigilant.
A series of storms have battered California in recent weeks. The lulls are short-lived and barely give authorities time to clean up the mess before the next deluge.
Hundreds of thousands of homes and businesses lost power at different times.
And it’s not over, according to meteorologists.
“The unstable weather currently prevailing in the west of the country (…) unfortunately continues this weekend, with two more rounds of heavy rainfall forecast,” warned the NWS.
In the mountains, this precipitation translates into heavy snowfall, with more than a meter expected over the weekend in the Sierra Nevada. Enough to make travel dangerous or impossible.
At least 19 people have died since the start of this dark series. In particular, drivers were found in their cars trapped by the waves, people hit by falling trees, a couple was killed by a landslide and corpses were washed away by the floods.
California is used to extreme weather conditions, and winter storms are common. Such a sequence of deluge is however out of the ordinary.
While it is difficult to establish a direct link between these series of storms and climate change, scientists regularly explain that warming increases the frequency and intensity of extreme weather events.
However, the torrential rains of the past few weeks will not be enough to end the drought that has hit this western American state hard for two decades.
“A few weeks of storms aren’t enough given California’s drought, but it’s certainly welcome,” Jay Lund, principal of the University of California at Davis, told the San Francisco Chronicle.
According to experts, several winters of above-normal precipitation would be needed to compensate for the drought of recent years.