Thousands of Americans have barricaded their homes against a powerful storm which has led to flights being grounded, road closures and power cuts.
Howling winds, pelting rain and heavy snow is pummelling California, threatening mudslides in fire-scarred areas.
Flights were grounded and highways closed in the northern part of the state yesterday as gusts reached 130 kph during the second wave of an arctic storm that sent trees crashing on to houses, cars and roads.
Forecasters expected the storm to dump as much as three metres of snow in the Sierra Nevada by tomorrow.
Highways from Sacramento to San Francisco were closed because of debris blocking lanes, and local roads were flooded. Interstate 80 was closed in the Sierra, the main link between Northern California and Nevada.
“A huge tree, over 100 years old, just fell across the house. It just wrecked the whole thing,” said Faye Reed, whose daughter Teenia owns the damaged home north of Sacramento. “They won’t be able to live in it. The whole ceiling fell in, and now it’s raining inside.”
More than a million people in northern and central California were in the dark. Crews worked to restore power, but it could be days before all the lights are on, said Pacific Gas & Electric spokeswoman Darlene Chiu.
In Southern California, authorities in Orange County ordered an estimated 3,000 residents to evacuate homes in four canyons scarred by wildfires and therefore prone to mudslides.
“It’s too late once the rain starts. These areas are extremely vulnerable. You’re risking your life and your family’s life fundamentally” by ignoring orders, said Steve Sellers of the governor’s Office of Emergency Services.
Flash flood warnings were issued in canyon burn areas in Malibu and in Santa Barbara and Ventura counties. Riverside and San Bernardino counties, east of Los Angeles, deployed swift-water rescue teams as a precaution.
The state opened its emergency operations centre yesterday morning to coordinate storm response, and Gov Arnold Schwarzenegger said he had spoken with Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff by phone.
“Preparation is really the heart of this whole thing,” Mr Schwarzenegger said after touring the state emergency operation centre at the Los Alamitos Joint Training Base.
Homeowners in Southern California stacked sandbags and hay bales around their homes while residents in the low-lying areas of the Central Valley piled sandbags to barricade their homes from streams that forecasters warned might swell.
Travellers’ flight plans were put on hold when airlines delayed or cancelled flights in Sacramento and the San Francisco Bay Area.
A wind gust of 200 kph was recorded in the Sierra yesterday afternoon, the National Weather Service said.
The huge storm also toppled trees and cut power to thousands of residents in Washington and Oregon.