Storm socks SLO County with most rain in 5 years

Rescue workers extricate an occupant that was trapped in a vehicle that ran of the roadway and overturned on Northbound Hwy. 101 just South of the Cuesta Grade. 
Photo by Joe Johnston 10-13-09
Rescue workers extricate an occupant that was trapped in a vehicle that ran of the roadway and overturned on Northbound Hwy. 101 just South of the Cuesta Grade. Photo by Joe Johnston 10-13-09 Tribune

CORRECTION: An earlier version of this story incorrectly said that Santa Margarita Elementary School lost power for two hours Tuesday as a result of the storm. The school was without power for most of the day.

The Central Coast’s first seasonal storm Tuesday ripped power from thousands of residents, threw trees and snarled branches into roadways and dumped more rain than the area has had in five years.

“I think it’s definitely one of the more severe storms we’ve seen,” said John Lindsey, a Pacific Gas and Electric Co. spokesman in San Luis Obispo and a weather forecaster.

The CHP remained busy — responding to at least two dozen accidents as vehicles hydroplaned, skidded into guardrails and ran down embankments throughout San Luis Obispo County’s slick roads and highways. No serious injuries were reported.

“We see this every time it rains,” CHP Officer Joe Vega said. “It’s just people driving too fast … drivers need to slow down.”

By mid-afternoon, weather conditions became “extreme” on the Cuesta Grade with “50 mph wind gusts with near zero visibility at times,” according to the CHP.

Punches of wind

A southerly wind, with gusts that reached strengths of 48.5 mph by Tuesday afternoon, gave the storm its biggest punch, Lindsey said.

The wind was forecast to blow between 26 and 33 mph, according to the National Weather Service.

The blustery day created dangerous conditions. Fallen power lines, trees and branches closed roadways for chunks of time — backing up traffic and causing delays. At least one fallen tree — which landed in power lines south of Atascadero — resulted in a nearly daylong power outage for about 280 students at Santa Margarita Elementary School.

“We didn’t want to wait for our generator to repower the kitchen ovens because then lunch would be late,” said Stu Stoddard, the school district’s director of support services. So the youngsters were given peanut butter and jelly sandwiches and yogurt around 11 a.m.

The gusts also closed Hearst Castle to visitors early Tuesday, something not done since January 2008.

Much-needed rain

The last time an early-season storm hit the area this hard, Lindsey said, was in October 2004, when the rain gauge at Diablo Canyon recorded 1.5 inches in six hours.

Several rainfall gauges as of 4:15 p.m. Tuesday had already topped that, including the San Luis Obispo weather station near Sunny Acres, at 2.93 inches, and the Cambria Fire Department at 2.1 inches, he said.

“We see (less than an) inch normally in October,” Lindsey said, “So with current counts, we’re already twice as much. And, my gosh, is it needed.”

The county has been in a three-year drought, and Paso Robles and Atascadero had mandatory conservation measures this past summer. The last measurable rain in San Luis Obispo came from an unseasonal shower on June 5, when 0.44 inches fell. Before that, the last rain came in April.

Estimated rainfall totals for the storm ranged between 1.5 and 2.5 inches along the coast and in the coastal valleys, Lindsey said, while the coastal mountains varied from 2.5 inches to 4.5 inches. What actually fell, he added, will be better determined today.

Today’s forecast from the National Weather Service is partly cloudy with a 40 percent chance of rain, clearing by evening.

Power outages

About 25,000 households and businesses were without power at times Tuesday evening during 171 outages as wind whipped trees into power lines, according to PG&E spokesman Kory Raftery.

The largest outages hit the following communities:

The Atascadero City Council meeting scheduled for Tuesday night was canceled because of the outage.

Crews at PG&E remained “all hands on deck” to restore power throughout the day and were expected to continue into Tuesday night, Raftery said.

Teams first assess the safety of each situation and then work toward restoration, he added, often going into rough terrain to fix it.

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