By GUY McCARTHY, GIUSEPPE RICAPITO and ALEX MacLEAN
The Union Democrat
A powerful thunderstorm cell packing hail and rain stalled over western Tuolumne County on Wednesday afternoon and slammed Sonora and surrounding communities, unleashing layers of freezing white ice and runoff that turned creeks into rivers, overwhelmed stream banks, flooded streets and buildings and businesses including the Save Mart grocery store.
“It’s insane,” Joey Fernandez, 26, a Save Mart employee, said out back of the flooded store. “It’s apocalyptic. It seemed like someone was dumping a bucket out of the sky.”
The heaviest hail and rain came between 1 and 2 p.m. at rates of 0.75 inch to 1 inch per hour, with some locations getting 2 inches an hour, said Emily Heller, a National Weather Service meteorologist in Sacramento.
David Boatright at Tuolumne Utilities District’s sewage treatment plant in Sonora said 2.25 inches of rain fell between 7 a.m. and 4 p.m. Wednesday.
Rushing runoff got so deep in places earlier Wednesday that a man paddled a kayak in the current flowing down a sidewalk along South Washington Street near Winters Tavern Motherlode Grill.
A woman pedestrian was struck and badly injured by a vehicle at The Junction shopping center during a lull in the storm. Sonora Police and Sonora Fire personnel were spread out across the city responding to multiple flooding incidents, said Deborah Dills, a Sonora Police dispatcher. Sheriff’s personnel were also investigating multiple flooding incidents and motor vehicle accidents.
At 1:49 p.m., a woman posted photos on Facebook overlooking Morning Star Drive that showed a car about half submerged in water and said people were climbing out of their windows and told people to stay away.
A backhoe was used by city’s Public Works employees to remove sleet and ice that coalesced on Morning Star Drive and Morning Star Court.
Public Works assistants Kole Elkins, 20, and Quinn Vanderwerff, 28, wore reflective yellow jackets on Morning Star Drive as they removed ice from the road. They said a car was stuck there for at least 30 minutes before it was towed away by a towing company.
“It’s crazy how it just happened all at once,” Elkins said. “In just a half hour, the whole town was flooded.”
No storm-related fatalities were reported before 5 p.m. District 2 Supervisor Ryan Campbell, who was driving east on South Green Street, turned around at Sonora Police headquarters because Sonora Creek was flooding over the South Green Street bridge.
Just downstream from the South Green Street bridge, Sonora Creek was a raging river, and it was rising up against a back door at Save Mart on Stockton Road. Employees outside the store said the store was closed due to flooding, and water was coming in the back of the store.
Rising, rushing waters in Sonora Creek also swamped the deck at El Arroyo Restaurant and hurled outdoor furniture toward the downstream end of the deck. Items carried away by the creek, such as a bright red empty cooler, hurtled along in muddy whitewater moving at the pace of speeding automobiles.
Other businesses that were flooding included an exercise studio and an auto shop with storefronts on South Washington Street near Gold Street, Campbell said.
There was flooding on Bradford Street, at Stockton and South Green, and at the Sonora Subaru Service Center on Southgate Drive. Cars got stuck in rushing runoff 2 to 3 feet deep on multiple streets, including an incident at Morning Star Drive and Morning Star Court.
Pinocchio’s in the Sonora Plaza shopping center on Mono Way closed for the day due to flooding.
The flooding occurred while the restaurant was about half full at the tail end of its rush hour, said owner Ricky Pinocchio.
“We had an inch or two of standing water on the inside,” Pinocchio said.
Employees had to wrap up food orders for customers, and others who had yet to order were invited to come back another time.
Pinocchio said a cleaning company was able to respond quickly and got most of the water out. He will evaluate the damage on Thursday morning, but expects to be able to open as normal that day.
That area of the plaza had not experienced that level of flooding in more than 15 years, he said.
Pinocchio believes a clogged storm drain was the likely cause of the flooding that got into his restaurant.
“There was a drain in the back that got overworked and stuffed up with all kinds of leaves and stuff,” he said. “I don’t know if it was lack of maintenance or what. It was just a lot of water at one time, plus a lot of leaves.”
Save Mart was closed during the storm, but the lights were on with employees inside. Employees said through the electric sliding doors that there was flooding coming in from the back of the store and posted a sign on doors that read: “Store closed due to flooding.”
Requests for comment from employees were directed to the company’s corporate headquarters.
A Sonora community service officer was conducting traffic control on Stockton Road due to a grocery cart and other debris that flowed into the road by a flood of water.
Russell Sherrets, 18, a resident of the homeless camp on the north side of Stockton Road, moved rocks and trash — including shoes, cans, bottles, and clothing — away from what he said was an abandoned campsite.
At the height of the flooding and hail, Sherrets said a torrent of trash culminated around the abandoned camp. He added that water came in a deluge down the hill, along with live rats and frogs.
“It’s kind of gross,” he said. “That’s why I want to clean it up.”
“We’re working all over the city right now with flooding. Right now we don’t have any information except if you don’t have to be on the roads, please stay off of them,” said Deborah Dills, Sonora PD dispatcher.
The storm packed a punch so hard it knocked out Sonora Police and Tuolumne County Sheriff’s Office 911 phone lines Wednesday afternoon. At 4:01 p.m. Sonora PD communications staff posted to Facebook, “Our 911 phone lines are down at the moment, we are working on resolving the issue ASAP! Please be patient, and stay alert for updates!”
An update to the same post stated Sonora Police Department 911 lines were still down, and 911 calls were being rerouted to the Calaveras County Sheriff’s Department. “Calaveras will obtain your emergency information and advise Sonora PD. For all other calls please use 209-532-8143.”
Sheriff’s communications staff posted at 5:30 p.m. the phone lines to their dispatch center and those to the Sonora Police Department were still down. They asked people to use the following numbers: (209) 768-0934 or (209) 768-3666 or (209) 768-6043.
Temporary road closures in Tuolumne County due to flooding and runoff included Lyons-Bald Mountain Road, Campbells Flat Road, Belle Mooney Road, Sims Road and Red Hills Road. By 3:30 p.m., one lane of Lyons Bald Mountain Road was open with flaggers, and Rawhide Road at the Woods Creek Bridge was open.
Creek levels that pumped up during and immediately after the storm’s passing receded as 5 p.m. approached, leaving layers of soft, wet mud up to several inches deep at multiple locations, including Coffill Park and parts of South Green Street where Sonora Creek overwhelmed its banks and passed over the South Green Street bridge.
Earlier in the day, the National Weather Service issued a flood advisory during the storm, for southwest Tuolumne County, south central Calaveras County and east central Stanislaus County, through 6 p.m. Wednesday. NWS staff in Sacramento said that at 1:27 p.m., radar indicated heavy rain due to thunderstorms. Locations expected to experience flooding included Sonora, Mono Vista, the town of Tuolumne, Phoenix Lake-Cedar Ridge, Mi-Wuk Village, Twain Harte, Long Barn, Pinecrest, Jupiter, Carson Hill, Vallecito, Angels Camp, Copperopolis, Tuttletown, Chinese Camp, and La Grange.
As of 5:45 p.m. Wednesday, scattered outages left Pacific Gas and Electric customers without power in places near East Sonora, Mono Vista, the town of Tuolumne, Twain Harte, Groveland, and Tuttletown.
A flood watch remains in effect for the Mother Lode foothills through 7 p.m. Thursday. Chances of more rain and snow are possible up and down the Mother Lode through Friday, according to forecasters. There will be chances of rain and snow showers again Saturday and Sunday.