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Downpours, gales, 20-foot waves — and blizzards — to blast California

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(CNN) — “It never rains in California,” a 70’s rock ballad goes. That’s basically true, and it makes the state a notorious drought zone — currently the country’s worst.

But when it does rain, the song warns: “It pours. Man, it pours!”

And pour it did late Wednesday to the tune of half an inch an hour in parts of the state’s north, the National Weather Service said. More to come on Thursday; the Bay Area will brace for two to three inches.

Higher elevations north of San Francisco might get 10 inches of rain, forecasters said. A gushing fit for a tropical island.

That’s the zone where a lot of the moisture in the current storms has come from. The California coast has been hosed by an “atmospheric river,” a band of heavily moist air that split off from a larger such band at the tropics.

It’s as if a river in the sky broke its banks, sending a new tributary 250 to 400 miles wide northeastward to California. It will soak the state Thursday, and when it hits the mountains in its east, it will fall as snow — lots of it.

Water supply

Such atmospheric river drenchings in California are rare but also normal and necessary, the National Weather Service said. They’re how the parched state gets up to 50% of its annual rainfall.

The current river has been around since late November and already soaked the state last week.

Shop owners in San Anselmo remember it and have sandbags ready for Thursday’s storm. Barber Dan Bridges is considering closing for the day, he told CNN affiliate KNTV.

In last Wednesday’s storm, it took him and his father hours on inundated roads to get to their barber shop. “If it takes us three hours to get here and three hours to get home, we might as well stay home,” Bridges said.

Sand bags, flood gates

A city council member canvassed San Anselmo streets to make sure people had sandbags and flood gates, in case the town’s creek, which was at a trickle on Wednesday, breaks its banks.

Steve Scaggs installed a flood gate in front of his thrift store. In a storm in 1982, the water was up to his chest. He gestured to the street. “Cars were flooding on this road right here.”

Bay Area districts are closing schools on Thursday, some even on Friday.

Many people in Northern California were bringing lawn items inside. But not everything.

“I’m just trying to bring some stuff down that might blow away. We are not taking down the Christmas decorations though, leaving those up unless it gets real bad,” Ryan Higgins of Sunnyvale said.

Battering fronts

A series of fronts and the jet stream will batter the moisture from the atmospheric river onto shore Thursday, throwing out sustained winds around 40 mph — gusts up to 80 mph — in San Francisco.

But that also applies further down the California coast in Big Sur and all the way up the West coast in northern Washington State.

Folks in Oregon were expecting high winds on Thursday, but in Seaside, 80 miles northwest of Portland, it was already blustery on Wednesday.

“I was waiting for trees just to go blowing right by the beach,” Denise Abramson told CNN affiliate KATU. “It was really, really windy. Really bad. And the waves were probably …15 feet high coming in. The swells are coming in really, really fast.”

Look out for falling limbs and widespread power outages on Thursday, the weather service warned in an alert. The gales are also pushing waves up, many over 20 feet high, into the nation’s Western coastline.

Fort Bragg in California will get hit from two sides, with up to 5 inches of rainfall by late Thursday and breakers up to 24 feet pounding the shores, the weather service said.

Mountain blizzard

Far away from the shore, in Sacramento, there is no respite from the storms and the wind, with many inches of rain and 80 mph gusts in the forecast.

And just a few miles farther inland, at frosty high elevations, the downpours will transform into a blizzard, decking the peaks of the Sierra Nevada mountains in snow six inches to two feet deep.

The same whipping winds will blow snow into a blinding white-out blur. Stay home, the national weather service warned residents.

“If you must travel, have a winter survival kit with you,” it urged. “If you get stranded, stay with your vehicle.”

The weather service warned that snow may trigger the closing of mountain passes for hours.

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