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California storms: Runoff continues deadly flood threat; Monterey Peninsula could become island

Storm runoff, flooding threatens to make Monterey Peninsula an island
Storm runoff, flooding threatens to make Monterey Peninsula an island 03:22

SAN FRANCISCO -- While the skies were clear Thursday morning, the runoff from 18 days of rain continued to flow into local creeks and rivers, triggering flood warnings for Sonoma County and the Salinas River.

At the same time, crews were working feverishly to repair damage left behind by the historic deluge as two more potent weather fronts bore down on the Bay Area for Friday and the weekend.

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The National Weather Service predicted a surge in runoff for the Salinas River near Spreckels Blvd. for Thursday afternoon. At 4 a.m. the river was at 20.8 feet and expected to rise above flood stage at 24.4 feet by Thursday evening.

Broken levee on Salinas River
Broken levee on Salinas River. CBS

The river crest will compare to a previous historic crest of 24.5 feet in Feb. 1998.

The weather service issued a Flood Warning for the Salinas River, saying minor flooding is forecast in the Spreckels area just south of Salinas and urging motorists not to drive around barricades or drive through flooded areas. The warning was in effect until further notice.

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"At 24 feet, the lowest areas of agricultural land along the lower portions of the Salinas River will have significant flooding," the weather service warned. "River Road will have moderate flooding. Spreckels Boulevard will begin to flood."

Monterey County Sheriff Tina Nieto warned there was a possibility that the peninsula — which includes the towns of Monterey, Pacific Grove, Pebble Beach and Carmel — could become an island due to flooding.

"Unfortunately the ground is really saturated and everybody knows that and there's nowhere for the water to go except for the rivers and our waterways," Nieto told reporters at a news conference.

The anticipated flooding will submerge several communities as well as cut off critical roads around Salinas and out towards the coast.  

"Well, as the levees break water is going to come in from that side," said Al, a resident who will be staying in the community of Spreckels. "It's going to come in, depending on what location it breaks, it's gonna come down this street."

Like many others in the small community of Spreckels, Al doesn't think his home will flood, but he's getting ready to help those who aren't as lucky.

"Chainsaws, plastic to put down, floor fans," he said as he pointed out some of the collected supplies.

He thinks about 60% of the population has already cleared out, unwilling to risk getting stuck, possibly for days.

"Water, like I said, it literally just goes all the way around town," he explained. "Then it heads over towards Salinas."

"This takes an immense amount of water to cover," said Thomas, a cyclist who encountered a flooded road. "I've only seen that happen once before, which was maybe 20 years ago or so."

Up and down the river, crossing points are already disappearing under the rising water, as the Salinas River slowly creeps towards flood stage.

"John Steinbeck actually spoke about, in 'East of Eden.' It's not a pretty river," said Monterey County Sheriff Tina Nieto. "But it's our only river here in the Salinas Valley. And during wet weather, the river can become very dangerous."

One concern is that a very high river could affect roadways all the way down to the coast, and possibly Highway 1, cutting off the Monterey area until the waters recede. But there is uncertainty, including the timing of the crest and how the river interacts with the tides.

"We are also committed to get a new time to prepare for what may occur with the closure of roads," said County Commissioner Wendy Root Askew.

"All night we have several people that zigzag around town," Al said. "Just making sure there's nobody here that's not supposed to be here."

Communities like Spreckels have been through this before -- notably in 1995. And Thursday night, it appears the water will come in again.

"Pretty intense," Al said. " When you see it coming through here."

In Sonoma County, the rains have left vineyards flooded and creeks and rivers rising.

"At 4:47 a.m. flooding is already occurring," the weather service warned. "Some locations that will experience flooding include Santa Rosa, Forestville and Graton."

Just how dangerous and deadly even minor flooding can be tragically played out in a flooded vineyard in Forestville. A Ukiah woman was found dead inside a submerged vehicle.

The Sonoma County Sheriff's Office said a person called 9-1-1 at around 10 a.m. Tuesday about a car stuck in flood waters on the 6000 block of Trenton-Healdsburg Road near River Road. 

The caller reported there was water in the car, then the line disconnected. Dispatchers tried to call back several times but received no response.

Water rescue crews returned to the location at about 6 a.m. Wednesday and located a car submerged in about 8-10 feet of floodwaters, approximately 100 yards off the road.

In San Luis Obispo County, the search continued for Kyle Doan, a 5-year-old boy swept away by floodwaters in the San Marcos Creek. He was in the family SUV when it was swept up by floodwaters. 

Lindsy Doan didn't think the water flowing over the creek crossing on San Marcos Road was deeper than normal when she tried navigating it in her SUV, but the creek was much higher and flowing stronger than she anticipated.

Doan cursed as she lost control of the steering and the 4,300-pound Chevy Traverse was carried off the road and pinned against a large sycamore tree.

"Mom, it's OK," her son, Kyle, reassured her from the back seat. "Just be calm."

They were the last words the little boy said to his mother before his fingers slipped away from hers and he was swept away.

Elsewhere on Thursday, repair crews were busy cleaning up damage and debris from the storms. 

On the San Francisco Peninsula, a large sinkhole formed early Thursday morning on state Highway 92 in San Mateo County just west of the intersection of upper state Highway 35.

Highway 92 was closed in both directions from upper Highway 35 to Pilarcitos Creek Road. 

Storm damage has also cut off a neighborhood in Castro Valley for days after part of a roadway collapsed into a swollen creek and repairs won't be happening anytime soon.

Record amounts of rain have caused serious road damage across some 20 sites in Alameda County. One of the most significant areas is on A Street in Castro Valley, where a portion of the road collapsed into San Lorenzo Creek when a retaining wall failed during the heavy rain over New Year's weekend. 

It effectively closed a major thoroughfare from Hayward to Castro Valley.

"You can see the whole street kind of has fallen apart," said resident Saurabh Kumar. 

Kumar and his family live on the opposite side of the creek from A Street in Castro Valley. They saw San Lorenzo Creek start to flood on New Year's Eve as mud flowed through the backyard, then they heard a terrifying sound.

"We could hear the actual bridge falling down one by one, and when we came out we saw that hole," said Kumar.

Wilson Walker contributed to this story.

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