SAN FRANCISCO – The wave of storms battering California are far from over, and it’s too early to calculate the cost of damage to homes and businesses overwhelmed by floodwaters.
But the final tally will be in the billions of dollars, says Trevor Burgess, CEO of Neptune Flood, among the nation’s largest private flood insurance companies. Only 2% of homeowners in California have flood insurance, he said, adding that standard homeowners insurance does not cover flood damage.
A recent climate assessment by the U.S. Global Change Research Program found that “atmospheric rivers” such as those sweeping across California will become more common and more severe as global temperatures increase.
“Unfortunately, these sorts of flooding events are the new normal and can no longer be considered a one-in-100-year sort of event,” Burgess said.
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Other developments:
►Dozens of major roads around the state remain closed because of flooding and slide concerns, the state Department of Transportation says. Caltrans districts across the state are “strongly advising the public to avoid traveling if you can.”
►The Palisades Tahoe ski resort, formerly known as Squaw Valley, reported it had received 300 inches of snowfall so far this season. The Mammoth Mountain resort in the Eastern Sierra said it has gotten 444 inches of snow at the summit.
►At least 18 people have died in the unrelenting wave of storms that have rolled across the state since late December, state officials say. Most of the deaths have been caused by falling trees and cars swept away on flooded roads.
►The 12.37 inches of rain San Francisco received from Dec. 26 through Monday represent more than half its typical yearly total and the city’s third-highest amount ever over 15 days, meteorologist Jan Null said.
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With another atmospheric river expected to hit Northern California this weekend, the National Weather Service has issued a flood watch for the San Francisco Bay Area that extends from early Saturday morning until 4 p.m. Monday.
The weather service’s Bay Area office is also strongly discouraging motorists from driving into flooded waters, finding new and creative ways to get that message out after tragic events during the latest round of storms underscored the dangers.
The 18th known fatality blamed on the storms was a 43-year-old woman found in her submerged vehicle Wednesday near the Bay Area town of Forestville. Farther south in San Luis Obispo County, a 5-year-old boy riding with his mother in an SUV was swept away by floodwaters and is feared dead.
Officials have been promoting the slogan “Turn around, don’t drown,” posting videos in English and Spanish with images of a pickup floating away in floodwaters while a singer urges motorists to make a U-turn upon encountering inundated roads.
Even after evacuation orders were lifted Wednesday in Santa Barbara County, some residents of Montecito were still reeling as they relived the horrors of the 2018 mudslides that killed 23 people and destroyed 100-plus homes in the wealthy community that’s home to celebrities such as Prince Harry, Ellen DeGeneres and Rob Lowe.
Susanne Tobey, who was rescued during that tragedy, found the only road out during Monday’s evacuation was closed.
“It was terrifying,” Tobey said. “I don’t think I slept the whole night, and the rain was … you just can’t imagine. It’s like just living in a waterfall.”
She said the community has made improvements that may help prevent a repeat of the incident five years ago this week, including adding steel nets to catch falling boulders and debris basins to catch the deluge before it overtakes the hillsides that plunge into the Pacific Ocean.
“You have to be brave to live in California,” she said, adding: “I can’t imagine living anywhere else.”
Hopes were fading Thursday for rescuing Kyle Doan – a 5-year-old boy who slipped from his mother’s grasp Monday amid floodwaters that have ravaged parts of California – as more storms were on the way.
More than 100 volunteers, first responders and National Guard members searched San Marcos Creek near the central coast town of Paso Robles, where his mother Lindsy’s SUV drifted off the road and into the surging waters.
Lindsy Doan abandoned the car, hugging a tree and taking hold of her son’s hand. She said Kyle’s last words were reassuring: “Mom, it’s OK. Just be calm.”
Her grip on him was tenuous, and the current swept him away, she said.
“Yesterday, I got to the point where I think I ran out of tears,” Doan told The Associated Press. “I mean, I’ve tried to do a Google search: How long can a child not eat? How long can they be in wet clothes? We’re worried because I don’t know if they’re going to be able to find him.”
The seven atmospheric rivers that have soaked California in recent weeks, along with the three or so more to come, will ease concerns about a drought that has entered a fourth year. But the parade of storms won’t by itself end the state’s extended stretch of below-average rainfall. 
Numbers released Thursday show the entire state remained in abnormally dry conditions and 95% was in some type of drought, although hardly any part is still in extreme drought or worse.
California’s water reservoirs reached extremely low levels during the drought and are only now starting to recover, rising to 84% of average by the end of Monday, compared to 68% a month before.
But an impressive first part of the rainy season hardly guarantees continued precipitation. State residents got such a reminder last year when major October and December storms appeared to signal the drought was over, only for California to experience the driest January-to-March stretch in recorded history.
When the Sierra snowpack – which serves as natural water storage until the spring melt-off – was measured at its traditional peak in early April, it registered only 38% of the historic average.  
“Just because we’ve had this rain doesn’t mean we’ve eliminated the drought,” said Cindy Palmer with the National Weather Service’s San Francisco Bay Area office.
– Elizabeth Weise and Dinah Voyles Pulver
A large cyclone well out in the Pacific Ocean will direct the latest in a series of atmospheric rivers up the West Coast during the next couple of days, forecasters say. The heaviest precipitation will stretch from northern California along the coastal Pacific Northwest through early Saturday. Northwestern California is most likely to receive “excessive” rainfall, the National Weather Service says.
That weather system should begin breaking down Friday night – allowing the next Pacific cyclone to direct another surge of the atmospheric river toward California by Saturday morning.
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A line of severe thunderstorms that rolled through the Sacramento area early Tuesday triggered a tornado near the town of Milton, the National Weather Service confirmed. The twister, with winds of 90 mph, tore a path of mangled and uprooted trees almost a half-mile long and 50 yards wide about 30 miles east of Stockton, the weather service said in a statement.
A few miles from Milton, near the town of Oakdale, the storm drove winds strong enough to lift a barn and toss it over a five-foot fence, the weather service said. Rather than a tornado, the culprit was straight-line winds of about 75 mph, the statement said.
Contributing: The Associated Press