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Rain, Snow and High Winds in What Could Be Worst California Storm in Five Years

Storm Knocks Out Power and Grounds Flights in California 2:43

A storm described as perhaps the strongest to hit California in five years barreled in from the Pacific Ocean on Thursday and hammered the state with all manner of weather misery — hurricane-force winds, sheets of rain and heavy snow in the mountains.

Trees were toppled, cars crashed and scattered flooding was reported. About 14,000 customers — down from a peak of more than 200,000 — remained without power Thursday night, Pacific Gas & Electric told NBC News.

In Santa Cruz, an 80-foot tree fell and pinned an elementary school student for 15 minutes until rescuers freed him with chain saws, NBC station KSBW of Salinas reported. He was reported in good condition with a broken arm, while a girl whom the tree also hit suffered minor scratches.

As about 2.5 inches of rain fell over just a few hours, the roof of a Safeway grocery store collapsed late Thursday afternoon in East San Jose, NBC Bay Area reported. One person suffered minor injuries.

Dozens of roads were closed in the northern half of the state, including parts of Interstate 5 near the Oregon line. Authorities warned drivers on the Bay Bridge to keep both hands on the wheel. Ferries to Alcatraz were canceled. Some Bay Area schools closed for the day, and people stocked up on supplies.

It was expected to be a major rain event for drought-parched California — 3 to 5 inches of rain through Friday for San Francisco, Sacramento and other northern cities. By Thursday night, the unincorporated Sonoma County community of Venado had recorded more than 9.3 inches of rain.

Along the Sierra Nevada range, blizzard warnings were posted. Peak gusts hit 147 mph on Mount Lincoln and 139 mph on White Mountain, and 7-foot waves were reported on Lake Tahoe. Forecasters for The Weather Channel said isolated areas could get as much as 3 feet of snow.

Read more from NBC Bay Area and NBC Los Angeles

Blame a weather phenomenon known as the Pineapple Express — an atmospheric river of sorts that streams moisture from the Pacific tropics toward the West Coast.

"It's like a fully loaded Super Soaker that just unloads onto parts of California for a couple days straight," said Ari Sarsalari, a meteorologist for The Weather Channel.

The Express came ashore earlier in the week in Washington, causing widespread flooding and beach erosion that collapsed two houses on Washaway Beach and was threatening a third on Thursday, NBC station KING of Seattle reported. More than 124,000 customers remained without power Thursday night in western Washington, electric utilities said.

It then moved south through Oregon, where a 40-year-old man was killed Thursday morning when high winds blew a tree onto the tent he was sharing with his son in Jackson County, NBC station KOBI of Medford reported. Late in the afternoon, a large tree was blown over onto a car in southwest Portland, causing the driver to swerve into another tree, police said. A boy in the car was killed, and the driver was seriously injured.

In downtown Portland, winds blew metal pieces off a building Thursday afternoon, hurling them through the windows of a nearby office tower, NBC station KGW reported. No one was injured.

The storm was disrupting lives and operations up and down the length of California:

  • Almost 240 flights were canceled into and out of San Francisco International Airport, and 320 others were delayed.
  • Police in Glendora, near Los Angeles, ordered mandatory evacuations beginning Thursday night for residents in the area ravaged by the Colby Fire in January. Overnight rain was expected to cause mud slides in areas where the fire burned off vegetation that would have held the earth in place. More than 120 homes were under voluntary evacuation advisories in Camarillo Springs in Ventura County because of similar conditions.
  • At Vandenberg Air Force Base, Thursday night's scheduled launch of an Atlas V rocket carrying classified cargo for the National Reconnaissance Office was scrubbed because of "predicted violations of multiple weather criteria," the Air Force said.
  • The National Weather Service warned that major flooding was possible in Humboldt County, California, where the Eel River could reach 26.1 feet by Friday at Fernbridge — more than 12 feet above flood stage.
  • "It's been a few years since we have really had a big gully washer like this," Harbor Director Eric Endersby told NBC station KSBY of San Luis Obispo. "We are being extra careful this time."

  • In Atascadero, on the central coast, organizers canceled Friday's scheduled Winter Wonderland holiday festival because of expected heavy rain, KSBY reported.
  • In Glenn County, officials prepared to hand out thousands of sandbags, plus chainsaws for downed trees, City Manager Pete Carr told NBC station KNVN of Chico.

But some people managed to turn the soaking into fun. In the town of Healdsburg, residents hauled out motorized ski craft and jetted through the flooded parking lot of a grocery store — a pastime called "wakeskating" — NBC Bay Area reported.