SAN FRANCISCO - At a hardware store in the Santa Cruz mountains, manager Greg Kirksey listened to weather forecasters and prepared for the storm days ahead of schedule.
``With the heads up we had, we had a big run on tarps and poly sheeting,'' he said. ``We knew it was coming,'' said Kirksey, who manages Scarborough Lumber in Boulder Creek.
And Monday night, the rain came.
An unusually cold spring storm brought heavy rain and hail to parts of Northern California on Tuesday and coated the mountains in snow -- a welcome respite that will do little to ease the historic drought, forecasters say.
Rain, hail and wind swept through the San Francisco Bay Area Tuesday morning, dropping more than an inch of water on many counties. Rain and thunderstorms could return Tuesday night.
"Some good cells went through, it rained hard,'' Kirksey said.
But the narrow, redwood tree lined roads in the Santa Cruz mountains were open and clear by Tuesday morning.
``My commute was a piece of cake,'' he said.
The storm brought enough snow to the Sierra near Lake Tahoe to produce near white-out conditions on roadways and a string of traffic accidents that caused the California Highway Patrol to order motorists off a 15 mile-stretch of a major highway on Tuesday afternoon.
In the Sierra, up to 6 inches of snow is expected above 7,000 feet, with 2 to 4 inches expected to accumulate as low as 3,000 feet before the system clears out Wednesday
``It's a pretty minimal snowstorm for a normal winter, but for the winter we have had it's been a good one,'' Officer Pete Mann said. ``Whenever we go a long time without snow it always seems like there is a learning curve and as the storm progresses and people learn how to drive in the snow again it kind of tapers off.''
In the San Francisco Bay Area, however, rainy weather slowed the Tuesday morning commute, caused some wrecks and led to wind advisories for four bridges, officials said.
In Daly City, south of San Francisco, at least one car was submerged in rainwater that was flooding Interstate 280 on-ramps. In Fremont, a tractor-trailer jack-knifed before sunrise, blocking northbound Interstate 680 for several hours.
But residents were glad to see the drops falling.
``We need it,'' said Becky Hlebasko of Marin County.
Fresno County Farmer Keith Nilmeier needs the rain for sure. Nilmeier grows 320 acres of citrus, peaches and wine grapes. The rain will force him to spray his trees with fungicide to keep fruit from rotting. But Nilmeier said it is worth the extra expense, because California needs the water.
he expects the storm to drop up to half an inch, and with a little more he may have to irrigate one less time this summer.
``That's farming,'' he said. ``You deal with Mother Nature on her own terms.''
Cynthia Sandberg had a visit from Mother Nature Tuesday morning when she awoke to the sound of rain pounding on her roof.
``I thought it was some overhead jets -- that's how unusual it is for me to be awakened by that kind of rainfall,'' said Sandberg, a farmer in the Santa Cruz mountains.
The storm is expected to spread moderate rain down the Central Coast to the Los Angeles basin by Tuesday afternoon before dwindling early Wednesday.
``It's a start, but it's just not enough,'' National Weather Service forecaster Diana Henderson said days after the governor declared the drought conditions at its worst point in decades.
The rain and snowfall is a big change from last week, when Gov. Jerry Brown, attending the last snowpack survey of the season, stood in dry, brown grass at a site normally covered in snow this time of year and announced he had ordered cities and towns to cut the state's overall water usage by 25 percent compared with 2013 levels. The snowpack makes its way into rivers and streams and provides 30 percent of the state's water.