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Powerful Storm Could Unleash Deluge on Santa Barbara County

Moisture from 'atmospheric river' could lead to high rainfall intensities, flooding and debris flows in and around burn areas

Doppler radar shows rain from a major storm moving into Santa Barbara County Tuesday afternoon. Click to view larger
Doppler radar shows rain from a major storm moving into Santa Barbara County Tuesday afternoon. (National Weather Service)

This story was last updated at 8:00 a.m. Wednesday.

A powerful March storm, fed by an “atmospheric river” of sub-tropical moisture off the coast, continued its march toward Santa Barbara County Tuesday afternoon as mandatory evacuations were underway in communities below recent wildfire burn areas.

The latest forecast from the National Weather Service expects rainfall — moderate to heavy at times — to be heaviest in Santa Barbara County between 5 p.m. Wednesday and 5 a.m. Thursday.

There is a slight chance of thunderstorms is possible in San Luis Obispo and Santa Barbara counties Wednesday, according to the forecast.

It looks like there will be three waves to the storm, Kathy Hoxsie, a meteorologist with the National Weather Service in Oxnard, told Noozhawk Tuesday.

The first and likely lightest will hit Tuesday night into early Wednesday; the second during the day Wednesday; and the last and strongest Wednesday night into Thursday, she said.

Rainfall intensities are expected between 1/2-inch and 3/4-inch per hour, above the threshold set by the U.S. Geological Survey for possible debris flows.

Across the three days, the Santa Barbara area is expected to received up to 6 inches of rain, with up to 9 inches falling in the foothills and mountains above the city, Hoxsie said.

As of 7 a.m. Wednesday, three-hour rainfall totals in Santa Barbara County were recorded: 0.30 inches in Santa Maria; 0.31 inches at Twitchell Reservoir near the Alamo Fire burn area; 0.27 inches in Lompoc; 0.54 inches in Tecolote Canyon in western Goleta Valley, in the Whittier Fire burn area; 0.67 inches on the Gaviota Coast; 0.48 inches in Santa Barbara; 0.54 inches in Upper Romero, in the Thomas Fire burn area above Montecito, and 0.33 inches in Carpinteria. 

The National Weather Service's precipitation totals for this storm in southwest California are online here.

A Flash Flood Watch will be in effect from 5 p.m. Tuesday until 5 p.m. Thursday.

There is a chance of isolated thunderstorms Wednesday night into Thursday, Hoxsie said, which could lead to locally heavier precipitation.

Santa Barbara County sheriff’s deputies notify residents of the mandatory evacuation areas Tuesday. “Based on contacts made so far, the vast majority of residents are taking this evacuation order seriously and have left the area,” the county said on Twitter Tuesday afternoon. Click to view larger
Santa Barbara County sheriff’s deputies notify residents of the mandatory evacuation areas Tuesday. “Based on contacts made so far, the vast majority of residents are taking this evacuation order seriously and have left the area,” the county said on Twitter Tuesday afternoon.  (Santa Barbara County photo)

She added, however, that there is “not a lot of instability” in the weather system.

There is not a lot of cold air associated with the storm, Hoxsie said, so snow levels are expected to remain above 9,000 feet.

Mandatory evacuations have been ordered for communities below the Thomas, Whittier and Sherpa fires, with a recommended evacuation alert issue for the Alamo Fire burn area.

Deputies were going door to door in those areas alerting residents, who also were being notified through phone calls and text messages.

Residents were directed to be out of their homes by 5 p.m. Tuesday.

Click here for a map of the evacuation zones and here for a map of debris flow risk areas in Santa Barbara County. 

California Highway Patrol Capt. Cindy Pontes said the agency will be monitoring the storm and close Highway 101 if necessary — between Milpas Street in Santa Barbara and Highway 150 near Carpinteria — for public safety.

The CHP did not close Highway 101 during either of the previous storms with mandatory evacuation orders since the Jan. 9 debris flows, but may do so during this week's storm, Pontes said.

​It’s also possible the storm will affect travel on Highway 154 and other area roadways.

Public Works officials said Tuesday that all debris basins above Montecito were cleared, and the huge Santa Monica basin above Carpinteria was almost emptied. Click to view larger
Public Works officials said Tuesday that all debris basins above Montecito were cleared, and the huge Santa Monica basin above Carpinteria was almost emptied.  (Santa Barbara County photo)

The storm is expected to move out of the region late Thursday, with dry weather in the forecast for several days beginning Friday.

The Public Works Department said Tuesday that all debris basins above Montecito have been cleared of debris from the Jan. 9 debris flows, and the Santa Monica basin above Carpinteria “is almost clear and ready to go.”

Roadways, creek channels, debris basins and bridges have been cleared, the county added.

“More than 50,000 truckloads of mud, sediment, boulders, rocks, trees and trash have been removed from Montecito and Carpinteria.”

Many schools impacted by the mandatory evacuation orders decided to relocate or cancel classes, including ones in Santa Barbara and western Ventura counties.

Montecito Union School and Cold Spring School District are holding classes at Hope Elementary and Goleta Union school district sites, respectively, and Carpinteria Unified School District closed all of its campuses Tuesday and Wednesday. 

Westmont College in Montecito suspended classes through noon Thursday, and said that it would reopen two hours after the evacuation order is lifted.

“Westmont will activate its Shelter Activated for Flood Emergencies (SAFE) plan beginning Tuesday evening, March 20,” according to its website. “We have designated responders and trained emergency response members of our community available and scheduled to be on site through Thursday and as needed, as well as medical personnel and their support staff.”

The Casa Dorinda retirement community, which did not evacuate all of its residents and staff ahead of the Jan. 9 storm, told all residents to evacuate the campus by Tuesday afternoon. 

In Ventura County, which also issued mandatory evacuation orders, multiple schools will be closed Wednesday including Ojai Unified, Santa Paula Unified, Ventura High School, DATA Middle School and Loma Vista Elementary School. 

The Montecito Post Office at 1470 East Valley Road will be closed while mandatory evacuations are in effect, according to the U.S. Postal Service, and Montecito postal customers can retrieve their mail at the Milpas/East Beach Post Office at 107 Nopalitos Way. 

The Montecito Library at 1469 East Valley Road closed at noon Tuesday and will continue to be closed through the end of Wednesday, at least, according to the Santa Barbara Public Library System. 

The Red Cross opened evacuation centers at Earl Warren Showgrounds, 3400 Calle Real, in Santa Barbara, and at Ventura College, 4667 Telegraph Road, in Ventura at noon Tuesday. 

The Santa Barbara Humane Society at 5399 Overpass Road will be open for additional hours Monday and Tuesday, starting at 8 a.m., so evacuees can board their dogs and cats. Owners are asked to bring vaccination records or be ready to call their pets' veterinarian for verbal confirmation. The Humane Society can be reached at 805.964.4777.

Other small animals can be taken to the Santa Barbara County Animal Services shelter at 5473 Overpass Road, and large animals can be taken to the Earl Warren Showgrounds at 3400 Calle Real in Santa Barbara.

The Animal Services hotline for assistance evacuating large and small animals is 805.681.4332.

Visit Santa Barbara released a list of hotels offering special rates for evacuees here.

» Click here for the latest National Weather Service forecast.

» Click here to sign up for Noozhawk’s free breaking news text alerts to your cell phone.

» Click here for the Ready Santa Barbara County website.

» Click here to sign up for emergency notifications from the Santa Barbara County Aware & Prepare program.

» Click here for Ventura County evacuation orders and emergency information.

Noozhawk Managing Editor Giana Magnoli contributed to this report.

Noozhawk executive editor Tom Bolton can be reached at .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address). Follow Noozhawk on Twitter: @noozhawk, @NoozhawkNews and @NoozhawkBiz. Connect with Noozhawk on Facebook.

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