SAN FRANCISCO (AP) — Steady rain fell in Northern California and fresh snow blanketed the Sierra Nevada as the first of several powerful storms expected to slam Western states this weekend made its way inland Saturday, ending a dry spell and raising hopes the drought-stricken state can get much needed precipitation.
Droves of snowboarders, skiers and sledders packed Sierra slopes while tourists braved wet weather and visited San Francisco landmarks before an even more blustery storm arrived later in the day.
"It doesn't matter if it rains, we want to see as much as possible because we only have four days," said Olle Klefbom, a tourist from Sweden wearing rain jackets and holding umbrellas with his family, who waited for a cable car on Saturday afternoon. "We want to go to Alcatraz this afternoon. But if it rains too hard, we'll go shopping instead."
Dozens of arriving flights into San Francisco International Airport were delayed by more than two hours, and dozens more short flights were cancelled, officials said.
California is not the only place expecting severe weather. Conditions are especially ripe for tornadoes in the Southeast and Great Plains. Specifically, Louisiana, Texas, Oklahoma, Arkansas, Missouri, Kentucky, southern Illinois, Alabama, Mississippi, Georgia, Florida, North and South Carolina and parts of Virginia.
Back in the Sierras, the Sugar Bowl ski resort near Donner Summit reported 7 inches of new snow at the summit overnight and slopes full of people Saturday.
"When it snows people are anxious to get up here and get to those fresh tracks," said Lloyd Garden, Sugar Bowl's marketing coordinator. "Die-hards love to ski when it's snowing. It's very peaceful, it's quiet and the turns are fresh and great."
Along the coast at the Monterey Bay Aquarium, a wild sea otter sought shelter from stormy seas in the aquarium's Great Tide Pool so she could give birth, and she had her pup in full view of a crowd of visitors and staffers.
"There it is!" someone shouted and a round of applause followed as the single pup came into the world on a large outcropping of rock amid a smattering of rain.
Forecasters warn the rain and snow will be accompanied by blustery winds, possibly up to 60 mph. The strong winds could bring down trees and power lines leading to scattered power outages, the National Weather Service said.
A seven-day total could approach 20 inches of rain in Northern California and up to three inches in the southern end of the state, where rain is expected to arrive Sunday.
Bob Benjamin, a forecaster with the National Weather Service, said the agency has issued a wind advisory beginning at noon on Saturday with winds expected to be around 15 to 20 mph and gusts up to 50 mph.
Farther north, a 48-hour winter storm warning went into effect in the state's far northwestern and central areas as well as the Sierra Nevada, where snow totals could range from 2 feet to 4 feet at elevations above 8,000 feet. Sierra snow levels will lower to near 4,000 feet by Sunday, forecasters said.
The Sierra snowpack, which normally stores about 30 percent of California's water supply, was only 83 percent of the March 1 average when it was measured earlier this week. That's much better than a year earlier, but after years of drought nearly all the state's major reservoirs hold far less water than average by this time of year, the Department of Water Resources said.
Starting on Monday and continuing into the rest of next week, ample moisture will be pulled in from the Gulf of Mexico ahead of a slow moving cold front, leading to days of rain for a large swath of the central and southern U.S., stretching from the central Gulf Coast up through to the Ohio Valley.
Heavy rainfall and flooding are possible throughout Oklahoma as a storm system makes its way through the state, with the strongest storms capable of producing large hail and damaging wind gusts, forecasters said.
The greatest threat for heaviest accumulations of rain are northeast Texas into Arkansas and Louisiana and other parts of the lower or middle Mississippi River Valley, where five-day rain rainfall totals could exceed or 7 or 8 inches.
Associated Press Writer Andrew Dalton contributed to this report from Los Angeles.