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Record storm leaves 100,000 San Francisco Bay Area residents without power (+video)

The worst rainstorm to hit northern California in five years felled trees, knocked down power lines, and flooded out roads Thursday. Next stop, southern California.

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Mark Kunze of San Bruno stalls his car in the flooded intersection of Airport Blvd. and Grand Ave. in South San Francisco, on Thursday. Several vehicles stalled in and around the intersection after driving through the deep water. A powerful storm churned through the San Francisco Bay Area on Thursday, knocking out power to tens of thousands and delaying commuters while bringing a soaking of much needed rain.

Alex Washburn/AP

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Berkeley businessman Trygve Mikkelsen canceled his meetings in Napa, turned his Volvo station wagon around, and returned to his house, just off the 580 freeway, because “there was more water on the freeway than in the creeks,” he says.

The Mikkelsens got two automated phone calls at home to say that school would be cancelled today due to the impending storm. “We've never experienced that before – that they cancel school in advance,” says wife, Joan. She sent an e-mail message to their entire neighborhood watch group to remind them to get cell phones and laptops fully charged in case the power went out.

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By early Thursday afternoon, more than 100,000 San Francisco Bay Area residents had in fact lost power as the giant storm that is being called the worst to hit the area in five years felling trees, knocking down power lines, and flooding out roads.

The weather service has also issued a blizzard warning for parts of Northern California. The last time the National Weather Service in Sacramento issued a blizzard warning was Jan. 4, 2008. The record storm is fueled by an atmospheric river known as the Pineapple Express, which carries moisture from the tropics up the West Coast. 

“We did a lot to get ready for this storm: Crews have been working for days to make sure catch basins are clear, Public Works has provided sand bags to the public, and we’ve done a lot of public education about good storm preparedness practices,” said Anne Kronenberg, executive director of San Francisco's Department of Emergency Management. “As for where we stand right now, I’m pleased with the city’s collective response. Yes, the storm has proven to be disruptive with downed trees and power lines, power outages, and some urban flooding, but we are working together in a coordinated and effective way to make sure we are able address these disruptions and prevent them into to becoming larger-scale problems.”

The storm is now headed for Southern California, weather analysts say. While residents are coping the best they can, a power outage in downtown San Francisco left 50,000 customers, residences, and businesses there without power Thursday morning. Bay Area Rapid Transit (BART) has seen widespread delays and has intermittently reported some stations closed.

The National Weather Service has announced reports of flash flooding across the area, including in south San Francisco and on Interstate 280. Teenagers in Healdsburg, a small enclave of 11,000 people in Sonoma County, attempted to kayak in a Safeway parking lot buried under two to three feet of water.

The San Francisco Bay Ferry reported that all morning ferry trips had been canceled.

Winds hitting 68 m.p.h. at Mt. Diablo – and averaging more than 30 m.p.h. – have uprooted trees across the northern half of the state with rains depositing 4 inches of water. A wind gust at Mount Lincoln, northwest of Lake Tahoe, was clocked at 107 m.p.h. In Contra Costa County, a big rig truck hit a tree that had been blown down onto Interstate 80, temporarily blocking three lanes.

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The Navarro River in Mendocino County is expected to swell from 10 feet to 30 feet by Friday, officials said. Flash flood advisories were issued for Marin, Napa, and Sonoma counties early Thursday. Forecasters estimated up to 8 inches of rain could drop in some areas.

All of this foreshadows what’s coming to Southern California, forecasters say, predicting that Los Angeles could see 2 inches of rain early Friday and winds up to 45 mph.

Joan Mikkelsen’s assessment is that people are “ecstatic that it’s snowing in Tahoe” and that this will be good towards alleviating the drought, “but we need a lot more of these downpours throughout the winter.”

Material from the Associated Press was used in this report.