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Climate and Environment

Flash Flood Warning, High Winds, Heavy Snow — Even A Brief Tornado. Treacherous Conditions Are Here Southern California

A person wearing a maroon snow jacket holds a leash with a black dog wearing a vest. They're standing on a snow-filled area and snow is falling from the sky. In the background there's a snow tractor clearing the road.
An exceptionally strong winter storm slamming into California, bringing heavy rain and snow on Friday, Feb. 24, 2023.
(Brian Feinzimer
for LAist)
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It's time to avoid making unnecessary journeys or taking risks on treacherous roads. The worst of the storm is here and the extreme conditions we're seeing across Southern California are going to stick around deep into the weekend.

“It’s not moving very fast. This is going to take a while for this precipitation to move through the region,” Eric Boldt, a meteorologist with the National Weather Service in Oxnard, said.

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Flash flood alert

With rain falling steadily the National Weather Service in Oxnard issued a flash flood warning at 2:16 p.m. Friday for large swaths of Santa Barbara, Ventura and Los Angeles counties through 10 p.m.

What to know in a flood watch/warning

A flash flood watch is now in effect from Santa Barbara to Los Angeles through Saturday afternoon.

Here's an excerpt from our guide to understanding flood warnings:

  • Flood advisories are how the NWS begins to raise the alarm. The goal is to give people enough time to take action.
  • Flood watches are your indicators to get prepared to move.
  • A flood warning is issued when a hazardous weather event is imminent or already happening. When one is issued for your area, you need to get to higher ground immediately.
  • A flash flood warning is issued when a flash flood is coming or in progress. Flash floods are sudden and violent floods that can start within minutes.

Read more: Flash Flood Warnings? Watches? Here’s What You Need To Know

Caltrans and the California Highway Patrol have shut down the I-5 at the Tejon Pass north of Gorman, citing "significant snow fall and poor visibility." That makes the 101 Freeway the only way through the area. The closure happened just before 4 a.m.

As of Friday at noon, the Grapevine had been hit by an estimated 10 inches of snow, according to the NWS.

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They're also warning about poor driving conditions in the Antelope Valley where snow has already fallen below 2,000 feet.

Activities and events postponed

Conditions are concerning enough that Saturday's season opener between the LA Galaxy and the LA Football Club has been postponed due to the weather. It’s unclear when the game will be played.

For those looking to go outside, you may have to wait until Sunday. L.A. County has closed parks and trails across the region.

Stay away from the beaches, too. The LA County Department of Public Health has issued an advisory through Sunday at 10:30 a.m. to stay out of the ocean, creeks and rivers.

A statement from Dr. Muntu Davis, the LA County Health Officer, says "bacteria, chemicals, debris, trash, and other public health hazards from city streets and mountain areas are likely to contaminate ocean waters at and around discharging storm drains, creeks, and rivers after a rainfall. Individuals who enter the water in these areas could become ill."

In the mountains, Mt. Baldy Resort expects to be open for skiing, but only for season pass and reserved ticket holders.

Think twice before you hit the road, though — conditions in the mountains will be treacherous.

Read more: Why Skiiers And Snowboarders Itching To Get A Taste Of All That Fresh Powder May Want To Stay Home

More on mountain snow conditions

As of Friday morning, snow levels were hovering around 4,500 feet, but will continue to climb to about 6,000 feet throughout the day before dropping back down.

Mt. Wilson has seen a reported 19.6 inches of snow in the past 24 hours.

The heaviest 12-hour rainfall totals had been recorded in the hills above Santa Barbara and Ojai, with some gauges reading three inches. Most of the metro areas have received about a half inch of rain.

Some roads have flooded, stranding cars.

The flood risk is increasing through 6 pm Friday across both Los Angeles and Santa Barbara Counties.

All of these numbers will continue to grow as the storm trundles south and parks itself over the area.

At least one tornado has touched down and we could see more

Around 11:30 a.m. on Thursday, the historic storm spun up a small, short-lived tornado in La Mirada, according to the NWS. There, it took down a handful of trees. No injuries were reported.

During strong winter storms it's not uncommon for waterspouts to form off the coast. It's hard to catch a gander of the strong funnels of gusty air that stretch from the cloud base to the water because they don't usually last very long. But when they do they can make their way inland, where they're immediately classified as landspouts or tornadoes.

The ones we get here usually produce gusts of 50 to 60 mph and are concentrated to areas of 50 feet or less, according to the NWS. They can cause localized damage.

What the L.A. River looks and sounds like

L.A. River in storm
Brian Feinzimer for LAist)

The weekend ahead

By the end of the weekend somewhere between 2 and 5 inches of rain is expected to fall in the region — more in the foothills and mountains. The rain is expected to let up slightly on Saturday, but brief heavy downpours, small tornadoes and hail stones are a possibility in low lying areas.

And then there's the snow. By Saturday, forecasters say accumulations of 6 to 12 inches are possible for 2,500 to 4,000 feet, and 3 to 5 feet above 4,500 feet. Some areas could see as much as 8 feet of snow. And then there's the extraordinarily rare blizzard warning which comes with road closures, whiteout conditions and even an increased threat of avalanches.

Conditions offshore are treacherous, with a special marine warning in place from the coast of San Luis Obispo down to L.A. County where meteorologists say water spots, winds as high as 50 knots (about 57 mph) and hail are all possible.

Evacuation warnings have been issued

With risks of mudslides as the rain intensifies, evacuation warnings have been issued in part of Los Angeles and Ventura counties.

In L.A. County, evacuation warnings have been issued for unincorporated areas near the Lake Fire and north end of the Bobcat Fire burn scars due to the potential for mud or debris flows. Those warnings are effective from Thursday at 6 p.m. through Sunday, Feb. 26 at 6 a.m.

Ventura County has put evacuation warnings in place from 3 p.m. Thursday through 10 a.m. Saturday, as they're expecting four to six inches of rain in the foothills and as much as five feet of snow in their mountains above 4,500 feet. Debris flows are often of concern in the area during heavy rain events, especially in recently burned areas.

Where mudslides are a concern

The Los Angeles County Department of Public Works is anticipating debris flows in some recently burned areas through Sunday, including near the:

  • Land fire burn scar in La Tuna Canyon
  • Fish fire burn scar in Duarte
  • Grandview fire burn scar in Glendale
  • Ranch2 fire burn scar  in Mountain Cove
  • Bobcat fire burn scar in Monrovia, Juniper Hills, Devil’s Punchbowl, and Valyermo
  • Lake fire burn scar in Lake Hughes
  • Tujunga fire burn scar in Sunland-Tujunga
  • Soledad fire burn scar in Agua Dulce
  • Equestrian fire burn scar in Castaic

The warnings are serious

Among the cautions from meteorologists:

  • The strongest winds — 55 mph to 75 mph in the mountains and foothills and 35 mph to 55 mph on the coast and valleys — took over the area starting Tuesday night, lasting until Friday night.
  • Whiteout and blizzard conditions are possible in the mountains, potentially limiting visibility. There's also an increased risk of avalanche.
  • Beachgoers should beware of oversized waves and strong rip tides.
  • In addition, sailors have been told to stay in port or risk capsizing.
  • An Ocean Water Quality Rain Advisory has been issued for all L.A. County beaches until Sunday at 10:30 am. County public health officials warn of bacteria, debris, chemicals, trash and other public health hazards from the streets running off into the oceans. Stay away from beaches for now.

About that blizzard warning

The weather concerns go far beyond the Santa Barbara, Ventura, and Los Angeles County mountains.

The National Weather Service in San Diego — which covers San Diego, Orange, Riverside and San Bernardino counties — also issued its first blizzard warning on record and said that travel on mountain roads will be impossible.

"This is going to be due to whiteout conditions," said Elizabeth Schenk, a National Weather Service meteorologist. "It's going to be extremely treacherous."

Watch the snow accumulate on a live stream of train tracks on Cajon Pass.

Anticipate dangerous driving conditions across the Inland Empire, as heavy rain and temperatures 25 degrees below normal are going to impact those living in the shadow of the San Bernardino mountains in the coming days.

As of Thursday at 5 p.m., Bear Mountain Snow Summit had received 27 inches of snow. Several other communities nearby were hit with more than a foot of snow,

Crews are on alert for power outages

According to both SoCal Edison and the L.A. Department of Water and Power, repair crews are standing by, ready to respond to damage done to power lines.

As of Friday afternoon about 1140 SoCal Edison customers were without power.

Much like an outlet, the system can trip when the sensing equipment detects a disturbance on lines or transformers, according to SoCal Edison spokesperson David Song. While outages can be widespread initially, operators can quickly reduce the outage duration.

"Once that happens, our system can test, and it's safe to do so, restore power back to areas that aren't affected by any kind of fault," he said

Never touch a downed power line. Call 911 if you see one.

You can track both LADWP and SoCal Edison outages online.

How to prepare for the storm

The L.A. Fire Department shared tips with us on everything from good weather alert apps to download to what you can do to get your house ready — and where you can pick up sandbags.

Read more: A Storm Is Coming. LA Fire Officials Have These Tips On Getting Ready Now

What's next

The storm should peak between Friday and Saturday, before wrapping up by Sunday. But Mother Nature isn't done yet — there’s another storm anticipated mid-next week.

Road closures and poor driving conditions

Caltrans has been salting the roads in preparation for the storm and has mobilized snow clearing equipment. They said that keeping the Grapevine open is a priority, however, icy conditions may keep the roads closed for a while.

Keep in mind:

  • Chains are now required for travel along State Routes 2, 18, 38 and 138.
  • There are road closures all over the region, including several in San Bernardino County.
  • State Route 33 remains closed up from Matilija Hot Springs Rd to Ozena Fire Station in Ojai. (Note: This area has been closed since January because of the storms. It's a popular route for people heading to see snow in the mountains, but don't try to use it right now.)

Both Caltrans and the L.A. County Department of Public Works have road closures and conditions listed on their sites.

A note to drivers on our roads

  • Check your tire treads and pressure before hitting rain-slicked roads.
  • Know that middays can be the most dangerous.
  • Plan ahead, check road conditions, and give yourself plenty of time.
  • Turn on your headlights.
  • Slow down!
  • If you do end up skidding, don't panic.
  • Don't drive through standing water.
  • Pay attention, duh.

We have more detailed guidance: Your Guide To Driving Safely In The Rain In LA (And Really Anywhere).

Where to find winter shelters in L.A. and Orange counties

The Los Angeles Homeless Services Authority is offering over 500 motel vouchers for the unhoused population due to the severe weather. For a referral to the site closest to you, call 211.

"Not only will 211 tell you where to go, but they can arrange transportation either through a LAHSA outreach team or other means to ensure that that person gets to a safe bed tonight," said Ahmad Chapman, LAHSA's communications director.

Outreach workers have been visiting encampments near rivers and creeks, offering sleeping bags and tents, and showing people where to seek higher ground if they don't want access to the winter shelter programs, as well.

Here are the other shelter sites throughout Los Angeles County:

[View the document here if it doesn't load above for you: L.A. County winter shelters]

Shelters have been in demand.

On Wednesday night in Orange County, the Cold Weather Emergency Shelter reached full occupancy for the first time, with 90 individuals experiencing homelessness staying the night. The shelter provides meals and showers, and transportation to the shelter is available.

It's a fairly recent addition to the area. OC officials didn't open the shelter until Feb. 1, even though storms have been battering California residents for months.

The California Office of Emergency Services has posted a list of warming centers throughout the state.

Tips on staying warm

  • State law requires residential units to have heating systems that can keep indoor temperatures at a minimum of 70 degrees. That means every dwelling unit and guest room offered for rent or lease should offer heating equipment, usually central air conditioning (A/C) or a wall heater. — Caitlin Hernández

  • Use heat smartly to save money: Cranking things like the A/C and wall heaters can be expensive. If money is tight, be judicious about how and when you use your utilities. For example, only use heaters at night or only set the thermostat to around 70 degrees.

  • Open and close those vents: If you have central A/C, look at where the vents are around your home. Are any open in places where you don’t stay long? Practice opening and closing those so warm air only goes where you need it (most vents should have a small toggle lever). Humidifiers can also help you warm things up — and it’s useful to add moisture into our dry air.

  • Adjust your wall heaters: If you have a wall heater, you can change the output by adjusting the knob (usually at the bottom). Since wall heaters can only warm the areas where they’re placed, it’s essential to close doors to rooms you won’t be in so hot air doesn’t get wasted.

  • Turn on your ceiling fan (really): If you have a ceiling fan, try turning it on. This sounds counterintuitive, but there’s science behind it. The direction a fan turns can push air in different directions, and since hot air floats up, you’ll want to move that around. Your fan should spin clockwise to create an updraft to circulate. Not all fans will have this option, though.

Staying safe when winds are high

Safety tips from Southern California Edison
    • Watch for traffic signals that may be out. Approach those intersections as four-way stops.
    • Make sure you have a battery-operated radio and flashlights. Check the batteries to make sure they are fresh. Use flashlights for lighting during a power outage; do not use candles because they may pose a significant fire hazard.
    • If you’re in a vehicle with a fallen power line on it, stay in the vehicle and remain calm until help arrives. It is OK to use your cellphone to call 911. If you must leave the vehicle, remember to exit away from downed power lines and exit by jumping from the vehicle and landing with both feet together. You must not touch the vehicle and the ground at the same time. Then proceed away from the vehicle by shuffling and not picking up your feet until you are several yards away. 
    • Water and electricity don’t mix. Water is an excellent conductor of electricity. Do not step in or enter any water that a downed power line may be touching.
    • Do not use any equipment inside that is designed for outdoor heating or cooking. Such equipment can emit carbon monoxide and other toxic gases.
    • If you use a generator, place it outdoors and plug individual appliances directly into it, using a heavy-duty extension cord. Connecting generators directly to household circuits creates “backfeed,” which is dangerous to repair crews.
    • Leave the doors of your refrigerator and freezer closed to keep food as fresh as possible. Place blocks of ice inside to help keep food cold. Check food carefully for signs of spoilage. 
    • Check on your neighbors to make sure everyone is safe.

Staying safe in the rain

It's not all bad — we had rainbows and there's positive news for the drought

About 30% of California's water comes from the snow up in the Sierra, and as of Thursday, the snow levels are at 142% of our April 1 average. With more snow in the forecast, it’s time to take a breath and feel good for a moment, because at least drought conditions aren’t getting worse.

“Moving forward, between our reservoirs, the snowpack we have on the hill, as well as the snowpack throughout the entire southwestern U.S., we’re looking pretty favorable for an upcoming year that’ll help bring us out of drought instead of sending us further into it,” Andrew Schwartz, lead scientist and manager at the UC Berkeley Central Sierra Snow Lab, told LAist 89.3's AirTalk. “It’s just really helping us start to resolve our drought issues in the long term.”

Groundwater stores are still in a deficit and will take quite more than just one good year of precipitation to replenish. As for the current load of snow, ideally it will melt slowly over the coming months (usually starting in May), so that the water has an opportunity to percolate deep into the ground, and feed plants, trees, rivers, and reservoirs long into our dry season.

Whether that happens depends on the type of weather we see. Higher temperatures could hit us at any time, get to work melting the snow and increasing evaporative demand. In that case, things will start to dry faster than is ideal and greater stress will be put on our landscapes. Rising temperatures as a result of climate change are taking a toll, and it’s important to remember that the next big drought year could be right around the corner.

How we're covering this

Jacob Margolis, who covers science, is reporting on weather conditions, including wind chill. Jackie Orchard is reporting on the response from emergency services and government agencies. Jill Replogle is reporting on conditions in Orange County. Gillian Morán Pérez has been talking to the NWS. Additional LAist staff are contributing photos and more information.

What questions do you have about the weather we're experiencing?
A massive winter storm is hitting Southern California. We're here to answer your questions.

Updated February 21, 2023 at 5:44 PM PST
New information about a blizzard warning, tornado and ocean water advisories have been added to this report.
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