Trees fall on cars, houses, streets as storm rips through Modesto

(Update, 8:45 a.m.) Torrential Tuesday gave way to a relatively calm Wednesday morning for Modesto residents.

"This morning is nice and quiet so far," said Modesto Fire Department Battalion Hugo Patino, whose department answered 209 calls on Tuesday, about double of a typical day. "The wind stopped blowing so bad and curtailed our problem. With the amount of moisture in the ground, we'll see some stuff down today."

There has been no recorded amount of rain in downtown Modesto today, according to the Modesto Irrigation District. That comes after a Tuesday that saw 1.82 inches fall on the city, a record for any single October day.

However, Felix Garcia, meteorologist for the National Weather Service, said this morning that there will be a few more showers this afternoon, but that "the worst is over."

He said to expect moderate to strong showers later this morning and into the afternoon, with winds about 15 to 25 mph and gusts up to 35 mph. He said the storm that battered Northern California won't clear out until later tonight.

Gary Hayward, Stanislaus County Roads Superintendent, said his crew worked until 1 a.m. this morning, and are back at it right now clearing debris and tending to a few flooded roads.

"We're getting some flooding calls, but it's a lot calmer today," he said. "I didn't know what today would be like. I watched three different newscasts and they were all different.

"But we survived pretty good."

Hayward, who has been with the department 30 years, said it was a "typical storm for us ... nothing outstanding or overwhelming."

He said he had wished it had happened closer to the end of the fiscal year in July for budgeting purposes.

He said he felt the constraints of the tight county budget to an extent.

"We haven't filled four positions and usually this time of year we have 10 to 12 part-timers," he said.

But overall, he said, he felt his department handled things well under the circumstances.

"We survived pretty good," he said.

No one could blame Modesto residents Lucy and Jesus Ornelas if they believed Tuesday's storm, which toppled more than 140 trees in the city, singled them out.

Jesus Ornelas was pulling away from the curb when a neighbor's tree fell and hit his truck. It dented the roof and shattered the windshield.

He was shook up but OK.

Just 15 minutes later, a tree in the Ornelas front yard fell onto the home's roof.

"I was in shock," said Jesus Ornelas, who lives with his wife on Weldon Avenue. "I cannot believe it. This thing happened to my truck and my house. It's incredible."

While Modesto reached a record for rain on an October day, it was wind gusts of as much as 40 mph that wreaked havoc, sending trees and debris into houses, cars and streets.

Modesto Police Department spokesman Brian Findlen said the storm was the most significant wind event in 10 years based on the damage it caused.

"We have trees down on virtually every street in the city," he said. City crews were working to make roads passable, "but we are at the whim of Mother Nature."

About 1.79 inches of rain fell on Modesto by 10 p.m., according to the Modesto Irrigation District. That tops the record of 1.75 inches, set Oct. 7, 1973, according to the MID, which keeps records dating to 1888.

The wet weather is expected to linger through this afternoon, and the wind should decrease tonight, said National Weather Service meteorologist Felix Garcia.

That's not soon enough for Lucy Ornelas, who plans to file a claim against the city because of the tree that struck her home.

"What's up with trees and us?" she asked.

Many residents may have asked themselves that question Tuesday, with hundreds of fallen trees triggering power disruptions and property damage throughout the Northern San Joaquin Valley.

Parts of nearly every city from the valley to the foothills lost power at times during the day.

At one point, about 4,200 Pacific Gas & Electric customers were without electricity in Oakdale. About 83 percent of the Oakdale customers had their power restored by 6 p.m., spokeswoman Nicole Liebelt said. Other PG&E blackouts were reported from Escalon to Mi-Wuk Village.

The MID put about 150 employees on duty to handle the storm and a series of relatively minor power failures in the city, MID spokeswoman Melissa Williams said.

California Highway Patrol officers responded to about 20 traffic accidents in Stanislaus County throughout the day, said officer John Martinez, a CHP spokesman. There were 18 accidents reported on Modesto streets, Findlen said.

Most of the accidents were caused by vehicles following each other too closely and driving at unsafe speeds, Martinez said. There were no serious injuries reported.

More than a few people were trapped in their cars after trees fell on top of them, including one woman who escaped injury while waiting for her child to get out of school.

Modesto's tree maintenance crews received 250 to 300 calls by 11 a.m., said Kenny Thornsberry, the city's forestry operations supervisor. He said 75 to 100 calls were about fallen trees or tree limbs striking houses, cars, buildings and fences.

In Turlock, crews responded to more than 70 calls about wind damage, Municipal Services Director Dan Madden said.

Three seasonal Sierra Nevada passes — Sonora Pass on Highway 108, Tioga Pass on Highway 120 through Yosemite and Ebbetts Pass on Highway 4 east of Arnold — closed because of rain and snow.

Almond growers got almost all of the 2009 harvest done before the storm hit, said Dave Baker, director of member relations for Blue Diamond Growers, the state's largest processor.

Baker said it could take a few days to determine whether the wind damaged many trees. They still have their leaves, so they act "like a big sail" in a strong breeze and can break or fall.

Still, all that was on most people's mind were the falling trees.

"It was like a cyclone had hit," said Modesto resident Jane Chynoweth, whose beloved Rayburn ash tree that cools her back yard on hot summer days toppled from the wind, falling into her neighbor's yard.

One mom, waiting for her child to get out of school at Modesto High, avoided injury after she was trapped when a tree fell on her car.

Hours earlier, a small tree fell over near a classroom at Modesto's Chrysler School. There were no injuries reported at that school because the children were in class. The tree, which was described as on the small side, fell near the front corridor and damaged a rain gutter.

A Downey High School groundskeeper was injured after a falling tree limb struck him while he worked on the campus.

Larry Hernandez was trimming a tree branch when he heard a crack, said Aaron Castro, president of the Modesto City Schools classified employees union. Hernandez tried to run away from tree, but the branch hit him.

Castro said Hernandez was taken by ambulance to a hospital for treatment. Information on his condition was not available Tuesday evening.

Authorities said a woman apparently walked away unharmed after the wind uprooted a large tree that fell on three vehicles, trapping her in her silver compact car on Rosedale Avenue in west Modesto.

Firefighters cut through tree limbs to pull the woman out of the car. The fallen tree blocked the small residential street just east of Modesto High School for hours.

Chris Hodgson, 28, lives nearby on Rosedale, and he said he didn't hear the tree coming down.

"All I heard was the police and the firetrucks coming down here," Hodgson said as he stood next to the tree's root. "Then I walked outside and saw all this."

Jane Chynoweth, the woman whose ash was blown over by the wind, said things seemed quiet around her north Modesto home at 8 a.m.

"I kept thinking, 'What is all this talk about a big storm?'" she said.

About an hour later, her patio furniture was upside down.

Bee staff writers Patty Guerra, Jeff Jardine and John Holland contributed to this report.

Bee online editor Brian Clark can be reached at or 578-2362.

Bee staff writer Rosalio Ahumada can be reached at or 578-2394.

Bee staff writer Kevin Valine can be reached at or 578-2316.

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