15 million Californians are under flood watches as another atmospheric river takes aim at a storm-battered state

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By Nouran Salahieh and Holly Yan, CNN

(CNN) -- Another round of storms is heading to flood-ravaged California, where residents are still grappling with impassable roads, overflowing rivers, inundated neighborhoods and a levee breach that forced hundreds to evacuate.

A new atmospheric river is expected to slam the state Monday, threatening heavy rain and even more flooding in central and Northern California just as another atmospheric river winds down, the National Weather Service said. Atmospheric rivers are long, narrow bands of moisture that can carry saturated air thousands of miles like a fire hose.

About 15 million people remain under flood watches in California and Nevada as the storm approaches.

"Rainfall totals exceeding 6 inches are possible across portions of central and Northern California through this event," CNN Meteorologist Haley Brink said Sunday.

Starting Monday night, "the rain will impact increasingly sensitive portions of central California that were hit hard by the rainfall on Friday and early Saturday," the Weather Prediction Center said. As a result, it "won't take long once the steady heavy rain gets started for flooding impacts to resume."

More flooding could make for a dire situation in some neighborhoods, where torrential walls of rain in recent days turned streets into rivers and damaged roads, stranding people and prompting rescues. At least two people have died as a result of the storms, officials said.

Among the hardest-hit areas is Monterey County, where the swollen Pajaro River breached a levee at around midnight Friday. Water gushed uncontrollably into nearby Pajaro, forcing residents to flee -- the "worst case scenario" for the community, said Luis Alejo, chair of the Monterey County board of supervisors.

Some people weren't able to evacuate before the floodwater arrived, and crews were still out performing high-water rescues Saturday, Cal Fire Capt. Curtis Rhodes told CNN.

'Folks who can least afford this type of hardship'

Many Pajaro residents are farm workers who may not only lose property, but also not be able to make a living for some time if the continued flooding impacts agriculture, Alejo said.

"These are the folks who can least afford this type of hardship," he said.

As residents crowd emergency shelters, efforts to stop the flooding from the breach are complicated by the approaching second atmospheric river.

"This weekend is a very brief respite," said David King with the National Weather Service. "The weather will turn, expected Monday night."

'We are now an island'

While eyes were on the Pajaro River, the Salinas River to the south was also overflowing -- prompting more evacuation orders in Monterey County. The rising river water had already flooded homes and businesses around the San Ardo community.

Emergency crews have rescued more than 90 people in Monterey County, Sheriff Tina Nieto said. "We even rescued a man floating down one of the areas in a tube with his pet on top of him," she said.

To the north, as Friday's heavy rains pummeled Santa Cruz County, about 700 residents in Soquel got trapped after a pipe failure led to severe flooding and the collapse of the one road linking the community to the rest of the region, said Steve Wiesner, the county's assistant public works director.

Residents will remain isolated until a new crossing can be created -- which could take days, Wiesner said.

"We are now an island," resident Molly Watson told CNN.

Another hard hit area was Tulare County, where evacuation orders were expanded to include the Teviston community as well as parts of Cutler and Exeter when river flow increased, the county sheriff's office announced Friday night. Officials urged residents to stay clear of waterways and avoid all unnecessary travel.

In Tulare County, video from Springville showed devastating damage after Friday's severe flooding.

"It's quite heartbreaking," Hatti Shepard told CNN. "Many hard-working people displaced with losses of home and possessions."

The recent atmospheric rivers are the latest to bedevil the state after an onslaught of similar storms in December and January also resulted in deadly flooding.

But this new wave of storms is pummeling areas already buried by heavy snowfall from the past two weeks. Melting snowpack will play a role in prolonging flooding over the upcoming days, forecasters said.

President Joe Biden has approved a state of emergency declaration requested by Gov. Gavin Newsom. The move frees funds for the millions of residents who have been hit with severe weather since the beginning of the year.

Meanwhile, Nevada Gov. Joe Lombardo expanded a state of emergency to include more counties due to flooding associated with the same storm.

"As this severe weather continues to impact more residents across northern Nevada I again urge all Nevadans to stay safe, travel cautiously, and to follow all local guidance," Lombardo said in a statement. "State and federal partners will continue to monitor local damage and will work quickly to assess needed repairs across northern Nevada."

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