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San Francisco Storms
January 2, 2008 8:39 PM   Subscribe

Should I be scared of these 3 big storms about to slam into San Francisco?

The news has been going on and on about these storms. The city is giving away sandbags. They're mentioning hurricane force winds. It's freaking me out. How scared should I be? You can see about where I live in my user profile.

I bought a bunch of food I can make w/ my camping stove and some extra water. Should I be doing anything more to prepare? Is my neighborhood likely to flood? (Bernal Heights)?

Also, and most importantly, how likely are these storms to produce a tornado? I hate tornados, I left the midwest thinking I'd never have to worry about another tornado again.
posted by mto to Science & Nature (42 answers total) 2 users marked this as a favorite
 
I wouldn't worry too much. The bay area gets rain, it's nothing out of the ordinary. If you're worried stock some candles, flashlights with batteries/etc.

Bernal heights is not likely to flood, don't worry unless you're under street level.


It's damn near impossible for a tornado to strike San Francisco due to the geography.
posted by iamabot at 8:44 PM on January 2, 2008


I bought a bunch of food I can make w/ my camping stove and some extra water. Should I be doing anything more to prepare?

Don't use your camping stove indoors. Last year when we had an ice storm in Seattle, most of the people who died inhaled too much carbon monoxide from their cooking or heating fires.
posted by b1tr0t at 8:49 PM on January 2, 2008 [2 favorites]


mto, I wish I could find you an old sfgate link that had me rolling on the floor and gasping with delight the first spring I lived out here. It was a news article about the first rainfall of the season. Whoa dude, the North Bay caught half an inch!
posted by tangerine at 8:50 PM on January 2, 2008


Heh. I wouldnt worry about it too much.

Based on where you live, the entire Mission district would be flooded first. I live in Bernal heights too.

I have actually used sandbags because during these types of storms sometimes mud comes down the hill and starts filling up my driveway. So I use them to divert the river into the street.

Thats about it. I've lived in SF since 1992. There will be no tornados, trust me.
posted by vacapinta at 8:52 PM on January 2, 2008


The first rain of the year is (regrettably) a big deal around the bay area since the dry portions of the year lead to oil buildup on the roads. Plus, the drivers are already idiots, and inexperienced in the rain (and snow on the way to Tahoe, which means I have to use chains even though I grew up in Michigan with 2WD cars and feet of snow in the mornings).
posted by kcm at 8:58 PM on January 2, 2008


If it floods, then maybe, just maybe, we'll be successful in having an East Bay meetup!

(but really, you having nothing to worry about, meetup or otherwise)
posted by iamkimiam at 9:00 PM on January 2, 2008


Yeah, just real heavy rain. The word "storm" is a bit misleading. It's a rainstorm, not an "event'. The silver lining is that it's usually much warmer than normal during rain here.
posted by anadem at 9:03 PM on January 2, 2008


If you're really worried about flooding, go check the storm drains near you, and clear them out if they need it. Most of the storm-related flooding around here is backed-up drains in low-lying intersections. El Nino years when the underground streams erupt through basements excepted. Don't try to walk around with an umbrella in the wind. Bring inside anything that might fly off (pets, birdfeeders, patio furniture, etc.) Even during El Nino, I don't think my electricity ever went off, and I live fairly close to you.

Think of your candles and water and camp stove as your earthquake kit, and welcome to San Francisco!

And no, no tornadoes in these parts. We prefer our natural disasters with even less warning out here on the San Andreas.
posted by gingerbeer at 9:19 PM on January 2, 2008 [2 favorites]


It's going to be wet and unpleasant, and somewhere around the Bay area, land will slide. Maybe. We haven't had a long series of soaking storms yet this winter, and that's usually what saturates the ground enough to cause unstable ground to shift. Make sure you've got fresh batteries for flashlights, since it's possible that strong winds could bring down powerlines, but that's really about it. I lived in the DC area for years and suffered approximately weekly (during the summer) thunderstorms that caused blackouts and some flooding.

To me, having lived on the East Coast for most of my life prior to moving here, the climate here is so mild and unexciting that the poor weatherpeople have to have something to get worked up about. It makes me giggle when they get shown all bundled up on top of Mt Tam or Hamilton, reporting on the four snowflakes falling out of the sky.

Weirdly, the only time I've very seen a tornado-type thing (I used to spend summers with my grandma in Illinois, but never saw one - green/black sky yes, tornado no) was here in CA. But it was out near Tracy, during a big thunderstorm (it was May), and the funnel cloud never actually touched the ground, I don't think.

p.s. - come to the next meet-up!
posted by rtha at 9:21 PM on January 2, 2008


Actually, if you find any clogged storms drains, call 311 and have THEM clean them out - even better!
posted by gingerbeer at 9:23 PM on January 2, 2008


no, you should not be scared. i live in southern oregon, where we had epic storms early december 2007. i was without phone and power for three days and sustained 113 mph gusts over my weather-besieged house. you should be a little prepared but not ever scared when the sf chron, that fountain of alarmist bs, proclaims three storms striking your privileged area in a week. i lived in sf for five years 1977-1982 and the most powerful rain i ever sustained was when the tap blew off a keg of beer at the abbey tavern on geary.
posted by bruce at 9:55 PM on January 2, 2008 [1 favorite]


I'm from Sydney and it's always cracked me up that they call these things "storms". In Sydney I saw hailstones the size of cricket balls. Here it sometimes rains for as much as twenty minutes.

It's true that you want to avoid driving because the roads get slippery and everyone forgets how to drive.
posted by rdc at 10:14 PM on January 2, 2008


I'm in Berkeley and I think it's going be a sucky time, but I generally dislike rain. I bet most of the danger is going to be on the roads, wear bright colors when you're a pedestrian. People sometimes get crushed by trees, look out for tigers, too.
posted by gavtaylor at 10:23 PM on January 2, 2008


accuweather.com is predicting 45mph winds in San Jose on Friday. That often means tree limbs down, sometimes on power lines. Now is a good time to make sure your rechargeable batteries are charged, and your flashlights are in working order.
posted by dws at 10:29 PM on January 2, 2008


It doesn't sound like most of the posters here have lived through serious storms in California. They do happen, but they're different than elsewhere.

Generally speaking, big storms in California don't impress outsiders in terms of intensity. The problem is that they last freaking forever. It can rain for a solid week or more. In the Valentine's Day floods of, um, I think it was 1989, but I don't remember for sure anymore, it had been raining steadily, more days than not, for several weeks before The Big One finally came in.

By East Coast standards, no individual half-hour period in the storm was very interesting or impressive, but it just kept coming and coming and coming. After four or five solid days of a steady, fairly intense rain, on top of weeks before that, everything flooded. In Sonoma County, even downtown Sebastopol was underwater, which as far as I know hasn't happened before or since... and the little towns along the Russian River, well, they had gone underwater days before. Almost all traffic ceased, and large areas were hard to reach for several days. Power was flaky after the first day or two. Basically, because it happened slowly, it wasn't so much actively dangerous to humans, but it was massively inconvenient and caused a great deal of property damage.

Being in the highly urbanized San Francisco, which is built to withstand major earthquakes, and living in a high area, you should be at no personal risk. However, you should make sure to have a couple of buckets or a big trashcan available, in case your roof starts leaking. If you own the property, you may want to lay in a big roll of Visqueen or a tarp you can use on the roof if you have a problem.

Most roofing in California isn't made to withstand really high winds, so if you're going to have a problem, it'll almost certainly be there.

Other than that, as long as you have a couple days of supplies, sit back and enjoy the ride. It'll be fun. :) You won't be cut off; I don't think the area south of San Francisco floods at all. The highway is too elevated.
posted by Malor at 10:31 PM on January 2, 2008


You might get some candles or lanterns in case the lights go out. Also, maybe some novels. No electricity gets really boring. That's all I can think of.

If the lights do go out, they'll be back on in a few hours, or maybe a day at the most. The only time I can remember when that wasn't true was after the '89 quake, when it took them a few days for some neighborhoods.
posted by small_ruminant at 10:31 PM on January 2, 2008


I agree with Malor that *outside* of SF (or directly under unstable hills) there will probably be flooding, mud slides, and so on. Every winter there's at least one hillside in SF that falls down on the houses below. Don't try to swim the Russian River for the next few weeks. Prospect Ave should be ok, though.
posted by gingerbeer at 11:01 PM on January 2, 2008


I was hoping to get to Modesto this weekend, so I hope it's not too crazy...

Reminds me of a story: Not long after I moved to San Francisco in the 90s, late Saturday night/Sunday morning, one of those weather emergency things came on TV with some kind of tsunami alert (one of those with the beep and scary voice) for San Francisco (there had been some earthquake in Chile or such). I know nothing about weather, so first I'm calling people at like 1 or 2 in the morning asking what the hell a tsunami is (and panicking a few others in the process), and then freaking out wondering why evacuation instructions weren't forthcoming on the news and such. Spooky.
posted by troybob at 11:24 PM on January 2, 2008


I don't think the Chron is being too alarmist. When was the last time the NWS used the phrase "WREAK HAVOC"?
...A STRONGER STORM IS FORECAST TO AFFECT THE AREA ON FRIDAY.
 THIS ONE IS FORECAST TO SLAM INTO THE NORTH COAST FRIDAY MORNING
 AND SPREAD HEAVY RAIN FROM NORTH TO SOUTH DURING THE DAY. SOUTH OR
 SOUTHWEST WINDS WILL CONTINUE TO BLOW STRONG WITH SUSTAINED WINDS 30
 TO 45 MPH AND GUSTS TO 60 MPH ACROSS THE DISTRICT. EVEN STRONGER
 WINDS ARE POSSIBLE IN THE HILLS AS A POWERFUL LOW LEVEL JET AIMS AT
 THE COAST. 24 HOUR RAINFALL TOTALS (ENDING SATURDAY AT 4 AM) FROM THE
 CNRFC GIVE 1 TO 2 INCHES TO THE VALLEYS AND LOW LANDS OF THE CWA
 AND 3 TO 5 INCHES IN THE HIGHER TERRAIN...AND EVEN A BULLSEYE OF
 OVER 6 INCHES TO THE HIGHEST PEAKS OF THE SANTA LUCIAS!  ADD THESE
 NUMBERS TO THE PREVIOUS 24-HOUR TOTALS AND YOU GET CLOSE TO 10 INCHES
 IN THE HIGHEST PEAKS AND A SOPPING MESS DISTRICT WIDE. ADD IN THE
 STRONG WINDS AND YOU HAVE THE LIKELIHOOD OF NUMEROUS TREES BEING
 BLOWN DOWN. MAKE PREPARATIONS NOW...THESE STORMS WILL WREAK HAVOC
 ACROSS THE STATE. HIGH SURF AND POSSIBLE COASTAL FLOODING WILL ALSO
 BE AN ISSUE...SEE THE MARINE SECTION BELOW.

posted by brain at 11:27 PM on January 2, 2008


I don't think the Chron is being too alarmist.

Oh, there will be flooding in several low-lying and rural areas around the Bay Area, true. But the question specifically asks whether a resident of Bernal Heights, San Francisco should be alarmed (e.g. house getting flooded or winds or trees tearing down their roof)

And the answer to that is: Not particularly.
posted by vacapinta at 11:35 PM on January 2, 2008


Here's the NWS 7-day forecast for San Francisco.
posted by Steven C. Den Beste at 11:42 PM on January 2, 2008


This is not like the 8 months of daily rain in 97 when significant parts of sonoma/napa were under water. It's a big storm, expect power outages, and make sure you have something to snack on between power wobbles and you'll be fine. Do not use camping gear in doors.
posted by iamabot at 11:43 PM on January 2, 2008


Another thought: In the San Francisco Bay Area, it is never a bad idea to have a good emergency kit. You probably won't need it now, but buying the stuff is an excellent idea.
posted by Malor at 11:47 PM on January 2, 2008


There actually was a tornado that touched down in Sunnyvale in 1998 during El Niño*. I can't find any decent pics, but I also remember Highway 87 being under something like 12 feet of water when the Guadalupe River overflowed here in San Jose. Honestly though, the weather here is far from terrifying. A little minor flooding and some road closures around Highways 17 and 1 are about as inconvenient as it gets. Maybe some power outages.

*spanish for the niño.
posted by sambosambo at 1:36 AM on January 3, 2008 [1 favorite]


iamabot writes "It's damn near impossible for a tornado to strike San Francisco due to the geography."

Contrary to popular belief tornadoes can and do strike mountainous areas. The Bay Area sees on average a weak tornado or two every year. Occasionally everything lines up right and you get some significant damage. Sure a F2 isn't as mind numbingly destructive a F5 but if it rips the roof off your house it'll be plenty terrifying.
posted by Mitheral at 2:08 AM on January 3, 2008


My fiancee and I commute 50 miles within two states in the northeast US, together thankfully. We literally live off of NOAA's National Weather Service because the media weather people just always seem wrong about damage estimates and such. Here's the link for your specific area. Other's can use www.weather.gov. You'll see the warnings, advisories, and watches in red. Warnings mean they are 50% confident the thing they are warning about will happen in the next 1 to 2 days. When that percentage increases they issue advisories, and if a significant threat to life and property exists, they'll instead issue a warning.

At the moment you have four items in red:

Coastal Flood Watch
Hazardous Weather Outlook
High Surf Advisory
High Wind Warning

So, 50% chance you'll get some flooding but they aren't too sure or worried about it since it isn't an advisory or warning, an outlook which is just a FYI basically, a solid chance you'll get high surf but again they aren't too worried about it (I assume that's quite normal by the sea), and then there is that High Wind Warning which they're saying is the big threat. These folks are insanely good about giving ORDERS, when needed, and I don't see those in the warning you have.

For comparison, on 12/13 we had a "heavy snow warning" which specifically said "All travel should be completed by noon. Significant threats to life and property ..." etc. That isn't a suggestion. They're flat out saying - be home by noon OR ELSE. So right now they just want you to be on your toes and mindful of what's happening. Don't setup a tent outside or go for a picnic sort of things. If they need to say more, they will. Keep your eye on that page and read the warnings throughout the day. They do change them. Generally they'll make forecasts at 4am and 4pm but stuff like this they'll have someone on 24x7.

As for preparedness, remember there are millions of people around you a lot of which are dedicated full time to keeping services like power and water up and running. Maine had an icestorm a decade ago that knocked some places out for 6 days but that's worst case scenario and definitely isn't happening to you. You might loose a few telephone poles and power will be out in a city block for a day or two... that sort of thing.

* Consider getting a battery powered weather radio for those times. If you have a scanner use these frequencies.
* Older phones (like the $7 dollar ones that don't need a power brick) work off of power in the phone lines, which seem to stay up better than the power lines for whatever reason. So having one of those might be good, along with numbers for the utilities so you can report a problem. Target had the phones a year ago and probably still do, though you need to hunt for them. They weren't with the regular phones.
* Food you can make without heating or cracking the fridge open, and water, but don't go crazy.
* Enough of your medications to get you through a few days without going to CVS or wherever.
* Morale boosters - games, books, candles, etc. I'll admit it - I love it when the power goes out. Things get quite and I can read by candle light with no distractions.
* Without power the toilets tend to stop working because the electric pumps can't pump water into them, but you can if you've got the water sitting around. Keep a couple gallons nearby to dump into the back. Try not to use them though.

You'll be fine. Ride it out, try to enjoy yourself, and pay attention to what is happening.
posted by jwells at 6:48 AM on January 3, 2008 [1 favorite]


Oh, that forecast discussion isn't a polished product like the warnings and such. It'll give us a good idea of what's in store 2 days out and beyond, but for the earlier stuff pay attention to the warnings/advisories/watches. You'll see the one from this morning (4am, but they start with saying they'll late since it was posted at 4:45am) doesn't have that havoc text. The worst of it is:

"IF YOU HAVEN`T TAKEN ACTION NOW SUCH AS TYING DOWN LOOSE ITEMS...
CLEARING GUTTERS...ETC NOW IS YOUR LAST CHANCE."

"POWER OUTAGES SHOULD BE EXPECTED."

and "FINALLY...FOLKS PLANNING TRAVEL TO THE SIERRA SHOULD PLAN
ACCORDINGLY. TRAVEL TO AND FROM THERE WILL BE NEAR IMPOSSIBLE BY
THIS EVENING. IT WOULD SEEM LIKELY THAT ALL THE TRANS-SIERRA PASSES
WILL BE CLOSED FOR LONG PERIODS OF TIME FOR THE NEXT SEVERAL DAYS.
EVEN FOLKS PLANNING ACTIVITIES IN THE BAY AREA HILLS SHOULD PLAN
FOR SEVERE WINTER WEATHER CONDITIONS."

By 'activities' I assume they mean full on events in particular but also trips to the store, etc.
posted by jwells at 7:03 AM on January 3, 2008


As Malor points out, this is a good reminder that you should have an emergency kit. A few bottles of water, soda, etc, couple of cans of soup, candles and a safe candleholder, flashlight & batteries, 1st aid kit, battery operated radio. Lots of it can come from camping supplies; do be cautious about the carbon monoxide. The Red Cross has very good, common sense planning advice.
posted by theora55 at 8:08 AM on January 3, 2008


I wouldn't worry too much. Up in Vancouver we had a whole bunch of similar storms last year, and although there were power outages and tons of trees down, and people still talk about it a year later, it wasn't that big a deal. I don't know if you can get tornados in SF, but I know you sure as hell can't in Vancouver (at least I've never heard if it, in my almost 30 years.) 5 inches of rain is a lot (~125 mm for us metric folks), that's more than enough to flood the rivers, as well as low-lying land that typically floods in such weather, hence the sandbags. You'd know if you were in any danger - check your neighbours. If they're piling up sandbags, you probably should too. Otherwise, I wouldn't worry. Your power might be out for a couple days, so prepare for that. Have 4 L (i guess that's a gallon?) of water per person per day. Get your candles and matches out now so you're not hunting for them in the dark. Have some food that doesn't require any prep work or a lot of refrigeration - granola bars, crackers, bread, chips, candy, etc (storms are meant to be enjoyed, not for eating healthy!) Do not, under any circumstances, try to BBQ or do any sort of propane or otherwise outdoor cooking indoors (people were killed in Seattle trying that last year.) Get a battery powered radio, and extra batteries. Fill up your gas tank now, and maybe your jerry can as well. Pull out those extra blankets. Finally, find a deck of cards or a board game or two, put the beer in the fridge (it'll say coolish for a while even w/o electricity, otherwise, keep it outside), and enjoy the storm with friends and family.
posted by cgg at 8:15 AM on January 3, 2008


Dude, Bernal Heights... You're like 500ft above sea level. Your garden may wash away but you won't flood.
posted by muscat at 9:44 AM on January 3, 2008


cgg writes "I know you sure as hell can't in Vancouver (at least I've never heard if it, in my almost 30 years.)"

A small tornado just missed downtown Vancouver in 1988.
posted by Mitheral at 10:35 AM on January 3, 2008


posted by Malor Most roofing in California isn't made to withstand really high winds

This is incorrect.
posted by fandango_matt at 10:39 AM on January 3, 2008


For you all people saying "Lolz, Californians complaining about a half inch of rain!", SoCal is expected to get up to 10 inches of rain between now and Sunday. From Latimes.com
The first of three major rainstorms made its way into Northern California this morning and was expected to hit the Southland later today, with the storms possibly unleashing as much as 5 inches of rain in Los Angeles and 10 inches in the mountains through Sunday.
Just for some perspective, that's more then we get some years. Our season rainfall is supposed to be like 14in.
posted by sideshow at 12:05 PM on January 3, 2008


Seriously, be careful on the streets and freeways. A lot of San Franciscans are very nervous about driving in the rain, and it makes them do some dangerous things.
posted by wryly at 1:03 PM on January 3, 2008


Having moved here from central Texas almost 2 years ago, the storms here in SF are a welcome change. While they last longer, they're definitely more gentle. It's a bit more intense than the winter storms that come through Portland, Oregon but it's still enjoyable. What got to me, though, was the summer heat ('06 heat wave!) and no freakin' A/C. I'm over it now, but I was expecting a cooler climate here than Texas.

But I totally agree with wryly - it makes people crazy and no one seems to know how to drive in the rain safely. I'm heading home early today because I don't want to get caught in some accident traffic on 101-N.
posted by tracyshaun at 1:58 PM on January 3, 2008


Actually, if you find any clogged storms drains, call 311 and have THEM clean them out - even better!

No, don't call a possibly overloaded city agency to do something you can do yourself in less time than it takes to make the phone call.

OP, I've lived here all my life, and I can tell you if you plan for electricity to go out for up to three days and avoid being on the streets, you should be fine. Any neighborhood that has Hill, Heights, or Peak in it's name is unlikely to flood. If you have a car, make sure it's not parked near any large trees.
posted by oneirodynia at 2:36 PM on January 3, 2008


Not SF-ist. Just sayin' - I live on the north coast about 60 miles N of SF. Right now the wind is blowing in about 35 MPH gusts and it's not raining too hard. I usually make one trip to town for supplies every Friday but decided to go today instead. :-) I bought batteries and Sterno for our little camp stove and thank goodness, canned soup was on sale. So we're as ready as anyone with electric heat and stove and no generator can be for this storm, I guess. Lots of kitties to keep us warm, a good stock of books to read, new decks of cards, etc. If you don't see me here for a few days, that will be because the power went out, which it normally does at least once every winter. Thank goodness we don't have an electric well pump, like some of our neighbors.
posted by Lynsey at 2:46 PM on January 3, 2008


posted by gingerbeer Actually, if you find any clogged storms drains, call 311 and have THEM clean them out - even better!

posted by oneirodynia No, don't call a possibly overloaded city agency to do something you can do yourself in less time than it takes to make the phone call.


YES, call the City if a storm drain is clogged--they're the ones with the experience and equipment to do the job properly. The City is prepared for and is ready to handle these emergencies. Moreover, the City wants to know which storm drains are clogging, and why. People trying to unclog storm drains have been sucked into them, hit by passing cars, or are injured by submerged wood, rusty nails, used syringes, or what-have-you. Unclogging a storm drain is dangerous, dirty work, especially during a rainstorm. Don't add to the City's problems by trying to do it yourself.
posted by fandango_matt at 5:17 PM on January 3, 2008


If is was really as treacherous to clean a storm drain as you make out, I very much doubt that the City of Berkeley would have an Adopt A Storm Drain program.
posted by oneirodynia at 5:29 PM on January 3, 2008


From SFGate:

"The city Public Utilities Commission also said crews have been working to clean catch basins and sewers. The agency is asking residents in flood-prone areas to report any clogged drains or catch basins by calling 311."
posted by gingerbeer at 8:49 PM on January 3, 2008


From today's SFGate: "... Gloria Chan, a spokeswoman for the city's Department of Public Works.
"People can help us by sweeping away any leaves or debris clogging to top of their storm drains so the water can run free," she said."
posted by oneirodynia at 3:25 PM on January 5, 2008


In the interests of posterity, I should note that we did have a power outage here in Bernal Heights and it sucked. Also, falling trees and power lines closed some streets and hit a few homes, but mostly cars.

I'd be curious, now that the worst part is over, to hear from the OP about how this compared to what they were worried about.
posted by vacapinta at 4:13 PM on January 5, 2008


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