Strong winds swept into California in the western United States on Wednesday, toppling trees as crews scrambled to clear storm drains and residents fortified their homes in preparation for flood and power failure.

California Governor Gavin Newsom declared a state of emergency to respond quickly and help clean up after another powerful storm hit the state a few days earlier.

Dozens of flights were canceled at San Francisco International Airport, and schools in South San Francisco preemptively canceled Thursday classes for its 8,000 students “out of an abundance of caution.”

As the storm intensified, state officials asked drivers to stay off the road unless absolutely necessary — and to stay informed by signing up for updates on fallen trees and power lines, as well as flooding. In Northern California, a 25-mile stretch of Highway 101 between the towns of Trinidad and Orick was closed due to several downed trees.

“We expect this could be one of the most challenging and impactful storms to hit California in the past five years,” said Nancy Ward, the new director of the California Governor’s Office of Emergency Services.

The storm, which will be in full force in Northern California Wednesday night, is one of three so-called atmospheric river storms over the past week to reach the drought-stricken state.

Atmospheric rivers are in the form of a concentrated strip of moisture, capable of dumping heavy rainfall along a long, narrow area. But because California’s major reservoirs are at a record low after a three-year dry spell, they have plenty of room to fill with more water from the oncoming storm, officials said.

Yet trees are already stressed from years of limited rainfall. Now that the terrain is suddenly saturated and the wind is fierce, trees are falling more quickly. That could cause widespread power outages or create flooding threats, said Karla Nemeth, director of the state’s department of water resources.

“We are in the middle of a flood emergency and also in the middle of a drought emergency,” Nemeth said at an emergency briefing.

The drought of the state is now entering its fourth year, with the US Drought Monitor showing that most of the state is in severe to extreme drought.

A man fills sandbags
A man fills sandbags in Pacifica, California, as authorities urge residents to avoid unnecessary travel [Haven Daley/AP Photo]

The storm comes days after a New Year’s Eve downpour led to the evacuation of people in rural Northern California communities and the rescue of several motorists from flooded roads.

A few levees south of Sacramento were damaged. And in the San Francisco Bay Area, the 8,500 sandbags handed out by officials on Wednesday were not enough to meet demand as forecasters warned of imminent flooding.

Heavy downpours accompanied by gusts of up to 60 mph (96 km/h) were expected later Wednesday and through Thursday, making driving conditions difficult, the U.S. National Weather Service said. In Southern California, the storm was expected to peak overnight, with Santa Barbara and Ventura counties likely to see the most rainfall, forecasters said.

Aaron Johnson, Pacific Gas & Electric’s regional vice president for the Bay Area, said the company is employing more than 3,000 workers in teams of three to five to assess the damage and restore power as quickly as possible.

Elsewhere in the Midwest, ice and heavy snow have taken their toll this week, closing schools in Minnesota and western Wisconsin and sending a plane off an icy taxiway after landing in a Minneapolis blizzard. No passengers were injured, Delta Airlines reports.

To the south, a possible tornado damaged homes, downed trees and flipped a vehicle on its side in Montgomery, Alabama, early Wednesday. Christina Thornton, director of the Montgomery Emergency Management Agency, said radar indicated a possible, but unconfirmed, tornado. The storm had extremely strong winds and moved through the area before dawn, she said.

Employees at the National Weather Service’s Chicago office planned to survey storm damage Wednesday after at least six tornadoes, the largest number of rare January tornadoes on record in the state since 1989.

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