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Storm brings rude awakening
413,081 jolted out of bed with tornado warning
Lightning show Stanislaus
If the lightning and thunder didn’t wake Ceres area residents at 3:43 a.m. Tuesday, the loud alarm coming across cell phones warning of a tornado watch did. This photo was among the hundreds of bolts of lighning that flashed in Stanislaus County. - photo by Jeff Benziger

An estimated 413,081 people were jolted out of their sleep early Tuesday when the National Weather Service sent an alarm to Central California cell phones earning of possible tornado activity during a deluge of rain, wind, lightning and thunder.

A heavy storm cell hit Stanislaus County at around 3:43 a.m., bringing with it sheets of rain and rattling homes with lightning and thunder but quickly slipped into a the foothills to the northeast. Some residents reported losing some trees, fences and carports as casualties of the high winds.

The last tornado warning issued in the National Weather Service (NWS) in the Valley area was on April 21, 2022.

Stanislaus County issued a State of Emergency on Monday due to the localized flooding in many areas. Motorists had to dodge flooded country roads which ponded due to rain grounds too saturated for quick percolation.

In anticipation of the Tuesday morning storm, the Stanislaus County Sheriff’s helicopter flew over areas along the Tuolumne River in west Modesto to warn homeless and other residents in low lying areas about the potential for evacuation from floodwaters. Evacuation warnings were in place along Dry Creek north of the river, specifically along Edgebrook and Scenic drives, the area around Brookway Park and South Seventh and South Ninth Streets.

Floodwaters closed sections of Highway 33 from Newman to Vernalis while Del Puerto Canyon Road was also closed due to several small rockslides.

The storms that have pummeled Ceres and much of the state in recent days are expected to continue, according to the National Weather Service.

The storms have brought much needed water to replenish local reservoirs that had dropped in recent successive dry years. As of yesterday, the elevation of Don Pedro Reservoir on the Tuolumne River was at 767.76 feet. On Oct. 25 the lake was at 729.39 feet.

As of Tuesday, the New Melones Reservoir on the Stanislaus River had increased to 910.15 feet from 878 feet on Dec. 11, good news since it was 70 percent empty as of late July. The lake’s maximum elevation is 1,088 feet.

Modesto Fire Department’s Kevin Wise, who is the acting fire chief for Ceres, told the council on Monday evening that Turlock and Modesto irrigation districts, operators of Don Pedro Reservoir, must balance releases so that flooding doesn’t occur while trying to make room for the melting snowpack this spring and restoring lake levels. He said that Don Pedro is expected to reach 800 feet by Jan. 20. Its maximum level is 830 feet.

“The good news is the Tuolumne River remains below flood stage, which is 55 feet,” Chief Wise told the council on Monday. “It’s currently at 44 feet.”

As historical reference, the Tuolumne River reached 71.2 feet at Modesto on Jan. 4, 1997 and 66.43 feet on Christmas Day 1955.

The rainfall total for Ceres from July 1 to Jan. 9 is now at 10.3 inches compared to an average of 5.04 inches for the period. So far the rainfall is 86 percent of a normal season with months of possible rain to come.

Flood watch warnings are expected through today with a chance of showers – as well as high winds – with a respite from the rain on a mostly cloudy Thursday. Showers are expected on and off Friday through the weekend.

Residents are urged to visit and sign up for notifications of emergencies through phone, text or email from the Stanislaus County Office of Emergency Services.

At least 15 Californians have died from storm-related impacts such as flooding since late December. The death toll from the latest storm rose to at least three on Tuesday after a tree reportedly fell onto a motorcycle and a car traveling on Highway 99 at Goshen. A woman was killed when her vehicle was overtaken by water in Avila Beach, about 180 miles north of Los Angeles.

This week also marks California’s fifth atmospheric river since Christmas. The phenomenon, which meteorologists call “atmospheric rivers,” can cause intense rainfall and flooding.

A sixth one is expected to reach California later in the week, between Thursday and Saturday, according to Karla Nemeth, director of the California Department of Water Resources.

The storm last week brought anywhere from a one-third of an inch to 1.5 inches closer to the Sierra foothills. Since the start of the NWS water year on Oct. 1, the Modesto region has received 9.42 inches of rain. That’s more than double what’s normal for this time of year (4.96 inches). In December alone, the Modesto region received 6.94 inches of rain, more than three times what’s normal for the month (2.21 inches).

Ceres city crews could be seen working around the clock last week, dealing with toppled trees, fallen branches and moderate flooding of some streets, though the extent of the damage is unknown.

TID reported on Friday that the Tuolumne River Watershed has received 25.56 inches of precipitation since the start of the precipitation year on Sept. 1. That’s 185.2 percent of average-to-date. Of that total, 14.05 inches fell in the watershed during December, more than double the historic average for the month. The watershed has also received 5.86 inches so far this month.

TID experienced a handful of weather-related power outages last week throughout its service area.

“TID line crews responded quickly to the outages and the majority of impacted customers had their power restored within an hour,” said McMillan. “TID line crews, troubleshooters and other personnel are ready to respond to any outages that occur, but we urge customers to be prepared, stay clear of any fallen lines and report if they experience an outage by calling our 24-hour service line at 209-883-8301.”

Fence over Ceres
High winds from storms pushed over this fence in the residential area of Tuolumne Bend Lane in north Ceres. - photo by Jeff Benziger