How to prepare for incoming Sacramento-area winter storms

The winter storm pummeling the Sacramento and San Joaquin regions over the weekend meant many entered the new year without power. 

Heavy rain also flooded highways and damaged critical infrastructure, housing and businesses. One person was found dead in a submerged vehicle in south Sacramento Sunday morning after two levees were breached along the Cosumnes River. 

Sacramento County declared a local state of emergency on Saturday, and San Joaquin County followed suit on Sunday. Both proclamations will be active for seven days, unless extended by their respective Boards of Supervisors.

But the inclement weather isn’t finished. More stormy weather, accompanied by high winds and rain, is expected to kick up Wednesday, bringing with it the possibility of more outages, flooding and closed roads. A High Wind Warning has been issued for much of Northern and Central California from 4 a.m. Wednesday to 10 a.m. Thursday.

The winds in particular distinguish forthcoming weather systems from the New Year’s weekend storm, climate scientist Daniel Swain said on Tuesday morning.

“It definitely will be a strong wind storm, and in most places, a significantly stronger windstorm than the New Year’s Eve event, which was a significant wind event in the Sacramento Valley, but less so elsewhere,” he said. “This event will have probably stronger winds over a much broader region, including the San Francisco Bay Area, really all of northern California, all the way down to sea level.”

Here’s what to know about preparing for the storm, including how to prepare for power outages and potential flooding, along with where to stay updated on weather and road conditions.

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What should I do to prepare for a power outage?

Before an outage: Take inventory of the items you have that rely on electricity and keep all electronic devices fully charged while you still have power. It’s a good idea to get the following when anticipating an outage:

  • Extra batteries
  • Alternative power sources (like portable chargers and power banks — don’t forget to charge them now!)
  • Flashlights for each member of the household 
  • Non-perishable food 
  • Bottled water

While candles can be helpful, they can also cause house fires, so be mindful if planning to use them. 

Create a power outage plan with your medical provider, if possible, for any assistive devices powered by electricity and refrigerated medicines.

During an outage: If you’re planning to use a generator, make sure to use one outdoors and at least 20 feet away from windows, and don’t use a gas stove to heat your home. 

Unplug devices from outlets or make sure they’re turned off, to prevent any damage from sudden electronic surges if power comes back on unexpectedly.

Keep your fridge closed — an unopened refrigerator will keep food cold for 4 hours if power is lost, and an unopened, full freezer will keep its temperature for 48 hours in case of a power outage. 

After an outage: If refrigerated and frozen food has been exposed to 40 degree temperatures for more than 2 hours, or smells or looks unusual, toss it. Discard any medication that should be refrigerated if power is out for more than a day, unless someone’s life depends on it — in that case, use medicine only until a new supply is available and consult a health professional.

For more information about preparing for a power outage, visit ready.gov/power-outages. 

How can I prepare for a flood?

Before a flood: Assess flood risk to your home. 

While the Federal Emergency Management Agency has an interactive flood map that shows the risk of flooding in your area, some maps are not recent, so your local government may have more up-to-date information.

The city of Sacramento has a flood information hotline, 916-808-5061, and an email address, [email protected], where residents can ask for more information about the possibility of a flood.

San Joaquin County has an interactive map showing zones that are at higher risk of flooding.

If your home has elevated flood risk, look for evacuation maps that detail potential routes and plan ahead to relocate to higher ground.

“Generally, you will not need to drive for hours to be safe if a levee falls,” the city of Sacramento’s evacuation information page reads. “You only need to get to high ground.”

In case you’re ordered to evacuate, make an emergency kit for your home and car; store items in airtight plastic bags and put them in one or two easy-to-carry containers. Otherwise, gather important documents in a waterproof container and move them to higher ground.

Here are some key items ready.gov suggests to include in said kit:

  • Water (one gallon per person, for drinking and sanitation)
  • Food (a several day supply of non-perishable food)
  • Battery-powered radio 
  • Flashlight
  • First aid kit
  • Extra batteries
  • A whistle
  • Masks (for dust and COVID-19 protection)
  • Local maps
  • Personal hygiene items
  • Portable charger and cables
  • Any necessary medication (prescriptions, over-the-counter drugs, vitamins)
  • Warm blankets
  • Copies of any important documents in a waterproof container
    • Birth certificate
    • Insurance policies
    • IDs
    • Bank account records
    • Pet vaccination and veterinary records
  • Pet food and water
  • A leash and collar for each dog evacuating with you
  • A carrier for each other animal evacuating
  • Formula
  • Diapers

Make sure any debris is cleared from gutters and downspouts to prevent water from accumulating. You can also surround your property with sandbags, which can act as a barrier to divert water around a building. This video has instructions on how to fill a sandbag at a self-serve location.

Sacramento County currently has six sandbag locations, all of which are self-serve and require residents to bring their own shovel:

  • Sacramento: County Branch Center, 3847 Branch Center Rd.
  • Orangevale: Orangevale Community Center, 6826 Hazel Ave.
  • Elk Grove: Point Pleasant United Methodist Church, 3329 Point Pleasant Rd.
  • Rio Linda: Westside Park, 6555 West 2nd St.
  • Wilton: 
  • Dillard Ranch (temporary site), 9857 Dillard Rd.
  • Wilton Fire Station, 10661 Alta Mesa Rd.

San Joaquin County’s sandbag locations:

  • Tracy: Boyd Service Center, 520 Tracy Blvd., Gate #1 (Self-serve area, limit of 10 bags) 
  • Manteca: 210 E. Wetmore St., Southeast parking lot
  • Lathrop: 15685 7th St., adjacent to skate park
  • Thorton: 12449 W. Walnut Grove Rd.
  • Stockton (both locations are currently out of sand and require residents to bring their own shovels):
    • Oak Park Little League parking lot, 3545 Alvarado Ave.
    • (Former) Van Buskirk Golf Course, 1740 Houston Ave.

During a flood: Stay updated with emergency broadcasts via radio or alerts via official social media accounts; depending on the type of flooding, you will have to evacuate, stay where you are or move to higher ground. 

If evacuating, do not walk, swim or drive through standing water — turn around and take an alternate route. 

After a flood: Avoid driving except in emergencies and if evacuated, only return to your home when safe to do so. Steer clear of standing water, which may be contaminated, contain debris and/or carry electrical charge. During clean-up, wear heavy work gloves, protective clothing and boots, along with masks, if cleaning mold or heavy debris.

What should I do if I need to travel for work in this weather?

With heavy winds accompanying the incoming storm, there’s an increased possibility of downed trees and downed power lines, noted Matt Robinson, a spokesperson for Sacramento County. 

“We can’t predict where the water is going to go,” he said. “The public needs to be aware that this storm isn’t going to be like the last one. It’s going to be a little more tricky.”

The National Weather Service urges travelers to turn around if they encounter standing water to avoid drowning, to plan alternate travel routes if some cross bodies of water and to be especially cautious when driving at night.

Six inches of moving water can knock you down, and 1 foot of moving water can sweep a vehicle away; stay in your vehicle if water is rising, and if water begins to fill the vehicle, get onto the vehicle’s roof.

“We want to make sure that the public takes the precautions necessary because we’ve had a lot of water rescues in the area from the previous storms,” Robinson said. “Unfortunately, we also had a fatality along Highway 99 and Dillard Road on Saturday. So we really would hope that the public will work with us and make sure that they take the precautions necessary to protect themselves.” 

What is the government doing to prepare?

State and local governments are bracing for more powerful storms and are working to keep communities safe. 

In Sacramento County, officials are assessing damage, evaluating flood levels and monitoring people who are still flooded and facing a shelter-in-place order.

“What’s coming next is going to cause the waters to increase in the areas again. Fortunately, we’ve been told by the National Weather Service that the upcoming storm will not be similar,” said county spokesperson Robinson.

He says the next storm will be “colder compared to the previous storms” and that there will be snowpack at lower elevations, along with less water runoff. 

“That’s one of the biggest problems that we face in our area, where we had a warm storm coming through, melting the snowpack in the east and having it come down to the Cosumnes River,” which saw two levee breaches over New Year’s weekend, Robinson said. “Hopefully, this next storm will be able to build up that snowpack again and reduce the runoff.”

At the state level, Brian Ferguson, who is deputy director of crisis communications for the California Governor’s Office of Emergency Services, says teams have been working to rescue, prepare and support.

“We have a plan not just for what’s happening this week, but what may come,” he said. 

The state is “making sure we’re talking closely with our colleagues at the Bureau of Reclamation, Department of Water Resources, in terms of what our reservoirs look like, so that there’s ample room, and if we need to make releases, we’re able to do that in a way that doesn’t cause downstream impacts or exacerbate the existing flood conditions.”

Ferguson compared these storms to the 2017 crisis at the Oroville Dam, where damage prompted nearly 200,000 residents to evacuate.

While its teams “don’t have control of Mother Nature,” he said the state aims to have “every asset” at its disposal to respond to any crisis scenario.

“This sort of cycle’s not unique in California, but it doesn’t make it any less challenging,” he said. “And so, trying to learn from those past experiences and be a little bit better and hopefully keep people safe when the weather changes.”

What about debris, leaves, fallen trees?

It’s also that time of the year when residents clear yard waste, get rid of those last fallen leaves — and recycle Christmas trees.

In the city of Sacramento, a front-loaded tractor that residents affectionately refer to as “The Claw” is helping with the work, rain or shine. It picks up leaves and yard waste this time of year at many, but not all, residences. 

The Claw currently is running a bit behind, though, which a city spokesperson says is normal this time of year, due to the winter storms and the wet weather making leaf piles heavier. (You can find the latest estimates when The Claw will serve your neighborhood here.)

The Claw does at least seven leaf pickups each fall and winter season, but can extend that number up to nine, as needed. It is now going about its sixth round of collections. Crews work on a rotating basis, visiting more than 90 city “zones,” and only beginning a new round or rotation after The Claw has gone to every neighborhood. 

Leaf pickup season starts in November and extends into the fourth week of January. During this period, if residents have too much yard waste for their weekly bin, then can pile leaves and branches on the street in front of their homes. You can input your home address in the city’s collection calendar to determine if The Claw will pick up leaves and yard waste at your home.

The piles should be no larger than 4-by-4-by-9 feet, and need to be 6 feet from vehicles. It’s important to not put your leaves in the gutter or near the curb; this can block water flow to storm drains and, during heavy rain, could cause flooding. 

The leaf pile is for leaves, branches and yard waste. It is not for food or food waste, or your dog’s poop bags.

Residents who are eligible for leaf pickup (again, you can find out here) also can add their Christmas tree to their next leaf pile. The trees must be in their natural state — no ornaments, tinsel or flocking — and should be cut into 3-foot-long segments. That said, it may be wise to not put Christmas trees out during this week’s major storms, due to extreme winds. If you miss your home’s pickup, you can still recycle your tree by either cutting it into pieces and putting it in your yard waste bin, or by dropping it at one of several locations.

Resources for emergency alerts, area weather updates

While Sacramento and San Joaquin counties have declared states of emergency in response to the storm, there have also been power outages in Yolo County, from Woodland to Davis and Knights Landing. You can sign up for alerts in each county here:

For updates on highway conditions:

For updates on weather conditions:

Power outage maps:



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