California reels from 'endless' storm onslaught, 16 dead

Relentless storms ravaged California again Tuesday, the latest destructive episode in weeks of extreme weather that have left at least 16 people dead and sparked havoc over a wide area.

Torrential downpours caused flash flooding, closed key highways, toppled trees and swept away drivers and passengers -- including a five-year-old-boy who remains missing in central California -- with even more rain and snow set to batter America's most populous state.

Around 160,000 California homes and businesses were without power Tuesday, according to tracking site Poweroutage.us.

A fresh storm is set to pound the state with as much as seven inches (18 centimeters) of new rain in northern California by Wednesday and several more feet of snow in the Sierra Nevada mountains, the National Weather Service said.

The NWS described an "endless onslaught of atmospheric river events" that is the most powerful storm system since 2005.

The town of Montecito, home to Britain's Prince Harry and his wife Meghan Markle, was pounded by rain -- threatening dangerous mudslides on hills already sodden by weeks of downpours -- and sparking an evacuation order.

"Because the mountains are right there, when it really rains, it comes down at a really high rate... it's pretty dangerous pretty quickly," resident Daniel DeMuyer told AFP.

"That's the price of living in such a beautiful place, when it rains like this, it causes a lot of destruction."

Montecito, whose multi-million dollar properties are surrounded by breathtaking California countryside, is particularly vulnerable to mudslides because it sits at the foot of a mountain range that was ravaged by fire five years ago.

Hundreds of square miles (kilometers) were scorched, stripping the hillsides of the vegetation that normally keeps soil in place.

Heavy rains in January 2018 sent torrents of mud and rock crashing into the town in a tragedy that left 23 people dead.

The fear is that it could happen again.

"Over the last 30 days, Montecito has received 12-20+ inches of rain across the community, exceeding our yearly average of 17 inches," Montecito Fire said on Twitter.

It was not clear how many of the well-heeled town's residents, who also include Ellen DeGeneres, Gwyneth Paltrow, Katy Perry, and Rob Lowe, had heeded the call to flee.

- Boy swept away -

The rain and wind was the latest in a parade of storms that have already killed 16 people -- a toll Governor Gavin Newsom's office said is already "more lives than wildfires in the past two years combined."

In San Luis Obispo County authorities called off a search for a five-year-old boy as rushing waters were too dangerous for divers, Fox News reported, quoting a county official.

The child, who fled with his mother from their car as it was inundated by flood waters, has not been declared dead. The mother was rescued.

Two motorists died in a crash north of Bakersfield after a tree crashed onto a road, the Los Angeles Times reported.

In Ventura County northwest of Los Angeles, the fire department said it rescued 18 people Monday from an island in the flooded Ventura River.

Swathes of the Golden State were under flood warnings as it struggled to cope with yet more rain on top of near-record downpours in recent weeks -- with even more forecast over the coming days.

"There will be a brief break in the rainfall in the West late tonight before the next atmospheric river arrives Wednesday. Moisture will stream ahead of a large cyclone in the eastern Pacific Ocean, which will produce heavy precipitation in northern California," the NWS said.

- Downpours in drought -

While heavy rain is not unusual for California during winter, these downpours are testing the state.

They come as much of the western United States is more than two decades into a punishing drought that has seen major increases in the frequency and intensity of wildfires.

Scientists say human-caused climate change, brought about by the unchecked burning of fossil fuels, has supercharged these wild swings in weather.

But even the recent heavy rains are not enough to comprehensively reverse the drought.

Scientists say several years of above-average rainfall are needed to get reservoirs back to healthy levels.

hg/st