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Northern California suffers through flooding and mud flows after historic storm

NOEL KING, HOST:

The Bay Area is experiencing record rainfall and high winds that are causing flooding, power outages and evacuations. With me now is Annelise Finney. She's in Oakland. She's a reporter with member station KQED. Good morning, Annelise.

ANNELISE FINNEY, BYLINE: Good morning.

KING: What is going on out there?

FINNEY: So we've been in a drought for about two years. So any amount of rain feels like a big deal. But what we're seeing now is a lot of rain. It's what some meteorologists are calling an atmospheric river of water, and it's breaking records. According to the National Weather Service, yesterday it was the fourth-wettest day on record in downtown San Francisco. And they have records going back to the Gold Rush, so it's been a long time. This record rain and wind is causing all sorts of problems. We're seeing downed trees, flooding on major roadways and in residential neighborhoods. According to the last numbers I saw, around 380,000 people had lost power. Utilities officials say about two-thirds of those people have their power back on now.

KING: Can this type of water put a dent in the drought that that area, as you point out, has been experiencing for a couple of years now? Or could it put a dent in any of the wildfires that are ongoing?

FINNEY: Yeah, that's a good question. Meteorologists are saying that it does effectively put an end to fire season in Northern California. But the past fires are actually making this rainfall more dangerous than it might otherwise be because of debris flows in recently burned areas. Now, debris flows are sort of a new idea to me, but here's how Bay Area meteorologist John Knoll (ph) described it to one of my co-workers.

JOHN KNOLL: The ground becomes somewhat repellent to rain as vegetation burns. It almost puts, like, a top layer on, and so the rain runs off much faster than it normally would, doesn't soak in as well. And so you get this big flush of water coming down these hillsides, picking up the debris, and it snowballs, and it could be something disastrous on down at the bottom of the hill if there are people in those areas.

FINNEY: So as for the drought, the rainfall doesn't end the drought, but it does put a pretty big dent in it. As the rain moves to the east, it's replenishing a lot of rivers and reservoirs and adding to the snowpack in the Sierra Nevada mountain range, which is where we in the Bay Area get a lot of our drinking water.

KING: OK, so some good news there. How are cities and towns in the area, in the Bay Area, responding to this? Are they ready?

FINNEY: Well, I think people were a little bit surprised. I mean, we knew this storm was coming for a while, but cities in the Bay Area have been literally rationing water over the last few months, so we're making a pretty big pivot here from no water to suddenly way too much water. And cities have been trying to grapple with that by giving people sandbags. And yesterday, during kind of the most of this rainstorm, public works crews were out in the streets clearing trash from storm drains that have accumulated over the many months that we've really had very little rain. Another big problem is for people who have been living on the streets. It's been really wet, and there aren't a ton of places to go. I know a lot of cities have been opening warming shelters and other evacuation centers at high schools and other community centers. Last night I took the train home from work, and I saw a lot of people sheltering on the train.

KING: Wow.

FINNEY: So it's been hard.

KING: When is the storm supposed to end?

FINNEY: Well, the rain is expected to taper off throughout today. The storm right now is shifting to the South Bay Area. So where I am in Oakland, there actually isn't that much rain right now, but it doesn't mean that it's quite done for the day. It might come back a little bit later on.

KING: Annelise Finney, a reporter from member station KQED. Thank you for joining us, Annelise, and stay safe.

FINNEY: Thank you.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.