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Flooding fears heighten as another powerful storm takes aim at Northern California

As Southern California dug out of damaging winter storms, there was growing anxiety in Northern California that another round of punishing rain and snow forecast for this week would further tax the region’s already strained flood control systems.

Parts of Northern California are already on track to have the wettest winter ever recorded, and that has placed strain on river, dam, levees and other water works in places including the Central Valley that are prone to flooding.

“(For) almost all of Northern California we are going to be telling people to get ready for area flooding,” said National Weather Service meteorologist Bill Rasch. “It just doesn’t take much rain to cause many problems ... which is only going to exacerbate all the current situations going on.” 

Many Northern and Central California dams are close to capacity thanks to all the rain. And some communities experienced flooding.

Water was still a foot high in Maxwell, a small rural town in Northern California’s Colusa County, on Saturday morning. Crews had to evacuate 100 people in the town about 2 a.m. because of flooding, some by boat. 

“At least 50 older wood-framed and stucco homes took in water,” said Jim Saso, assistant sheriff of Colusa County. No reported injuries were reported.

As debris-laden water the color of chocolate milk rushed past Bill Barrett’s driveway, he nodded toward a row of hills in the distance and said, “The runoff of heavy rains slid down those hills last night and turned this place into a bathtub.”

The trouble started at about 4 a.m. Saturday when Barrett, a retired firefighter, was awakened by a report issued from the emergency radio scanner by his bedside, about law enforcement assisting a neighbor out of his home.

“I jumped out of bed to help,” said Barrett, 80, a 47-year resident of this small agricultural community.

Shaking his head, he added, “There have been floods in this town before. But nothing like this one.”

Blanca Velasquez, 31, was sloshing ankle-deep up and down Maxwell’s flooded San Francisco Street on Saturday afternoon with an iPhone pressed to her ear, trying to find a clear signal to reach worried friends and relatives.

Like many neighbors, she was awakened early morning by sheriff’s deputies banging on the front door and yelling, “It’s flooding! Get out! Get out!”

“We all threw on some clothes and galoshes and headed to the door,” Velasquez said. “When I stepped outside and took a look around, the streets were rivers.”

She and her three siblings jumped in their pickups and “drove off in the dark searching for dry ground.”

A block away, she said, “one lady was floating down Orange Street in a boat.”

Maxwell is about 50 miles from Oroville, which for the last week has been the scene of a national drama as both spillways at the Oroville Dam were damaged, sparking fears of a catastrophic flood and forcing the evacuation of more than 100,000 people.

Officials were able to reduce the water levels at the dam this week and say they are prepared for the new storms.

As the sun rose over the beleaguered Oroville Dam on Saturday, an aerial lineman performed the high-risk task of cutting power lines over the facility’s damaged main spillway while attached to the end of a cable dangling from a helicopter.

Hundreds of feet below, construction workers manning trucks, cranes, skip loaders and dredging equipment gathered near a pool of turbulent murky water churning at the bottom of that spillway, preparing to remove a mountain of debris piled up beneath the surface.

At the same time, state Department of Water Resources engineers began incrementally decreasing the flow of water in the spillway from 70,000 cubic feet per second to 55,000 cfs to give crews room to remove the estimated 150,000 square yards of debris.

It was all part of the effort to pump enough water out of the lake to absorb runoff from incoming storms and to keep the lake from overflowing as it did last weekend. That overflow badly eroded an emergency spillway and sent debris flowing into a pool at the bottom, forcing the closure of an underground hydroelectric plant.

As of Saturday, the estimated costs of shoring up the dam’s main spillway and adjacent emergency spillway had climbed to roughly $10 million, according to a report reviewed by The Times.

The area will still be under a flood watch Monday, said Rasch, the meteorologist. 

What’s next for Los Angeles

Though Southern California might see scattered showers Sunday and Monday and possibly another storm next weekend, rains as heavy as this weekend’s are unlikely, said National Weather Service meteorologist Carol Smith. 

“A storm of this magnitude would be something that we see every five to 10 years” in Southern California, Smith said. 

More than 100,000 people across Southern California lost power, and 50,000 Los Angeles County residents remained without power Saturday afternoon.

In San Bernardino County, two lanes of the southbound Interstate 15 near Highway 138 in the Cajon Pass remained closed Saturday after a section of the road, weakened by rushing water, collapsed Friday night, toppling a fire engine into the creek below. Caltrans estimates emergency repairs on the 15 will cost $3 million. 

The crew of three firefighters managed to escape when the engine’s back tires began sinking into the road before the road gave way, San Bernardino County Fire Capt. Mike McClintock said.

Amtrak suspended service Saturday morning between Los Angeles and San Luis Obispo because of mudslides in the Santa Barbara area, officials said. They hoped to resume service Saturday night once crews finish removing debris from the tracks, Union Pacific Railroad spokesman Justin Jacobs said in an email.

In the San Fernando Valley, two cars fell into a giant sinkhole Friday night. One occupant was briefly trapped but was rescued unharmed by Los Angeles firefighters.

Maggie Prvinic, who lives near the sinkhole, said she was looking out the window of her family’s second-floor apartment when she saw the second car fall into the sinkhole.  

Prvinic, who is expecting another child in two weeks, said she was concerned that the sinkhole might threaten her apartment building. “Do I need to evacuate? I'm scared the ground is fragile and the sinkhole will expand,” she said.

City officials said the sinkhole, at Woodbridge Street and Laurel Canyon Boulevard in Studio City, was probably caused by a combination of excessive rain and a possible sewer failure.

City crews and emergency contractors were working Saturday to shore up the sinkhole, which could take several days to repair.

At least five fatalities have been attributed to the storm.

On Friday, a 55-year-old man was electrocuted by a downed power line Friday in Sherman Oaks, and rescuers found a dead person inside a submerged vehicle in Victorville.

Two passengers died in separate crashes on rain-slick Interstate 15 in Mira Mesa and City Heights on Friday, the California Highway Patrol said.

The drivers involved in the collisions were suspected of driving too fast, CHP Officer Jake Sanchez said. “In these types of conditions, speed plays a huge factor because if you drive fast it’s very easy to lose control,” he said.

Swift-water rescues also continued Friday and Saturday.

Santa Ana police rescued a mother and her 8-year-old child after they fell into the Santa Ana River on Saturday afternoon, as well as a man who had jumped in to try and save them.

At Arroyo Conejo in Thousand Oaks, law enforcement rescued three men on Friday afternoon and found the body of a drowning victim in the creek Saturday morning, said Ventura County Sheriff’s Det. Tim Lohman.

The area is a common hiking spot, but it’s closed during extreme weather.

“When we have two days of rain like we did … these rivers or washes or arroyos are unpredictable," Lohman said. “This swift water can carry somebody away or sweep them off their feet if they get close enough.”

Evacuation orders were lifted early Saturday in Duarte, where mudflows threatened dozens of homes Friday night. The city had erected concrete and wood barriers to protect neighborhoods after wildfires last summer made the area vulnerable to mudslides.

But some residents decided to remain.

“There’s no need to go,” said Mike Shane as he stood in front of his house Saturday morning and watched as crews scooped up the thin layer of mud that covered his sidewalk. “I want to be here with my house and dog.”

To read the article in Spanish, click here

louis.sahagun@latimes.com

sonali.kohli@latimes.com

melissa.etehad@latimes.com

Sahagun reported from Maxwell, and Kohli and Etehad from Los Angeles.

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