The danger lurking along a country road in central California’s wine country was not clear to Lindsy Doan as she drove her five-year-old son to school on Monday morning.
The region, like much of the state, had been hit by a deadly series of storms but the family had traveled through the area the previous day, her husband told the Guardian, and countless times before on their commutes. Nothing initially appeared wrong and unlike past occasions, there were no signs indicating the road was closed.
It only became clear the road was not safe as floodwaters began to carry the vehicle into a creek near the village of San Miguel. Kindergartner Kyle Doan was calm, telling his mother, “Don’t worry Mommy. It’s OK – everything will be all right,” according to his father, Brian Doan. As they exited the vehicle together, water rushing in, the fast-moving currents and debris pulled him from his mother’s arms and forced Lindsy underwater. Nearby residents were able to rescue her with a rope, but the water carried Kyle away too quickly.
With assistance from the national guard, law enforcement search and rescue teams have spent days searching for the five-year-old, who his father described as an affectionate and bright boy who loved dancing, playing with Pokémon cards and watching Paw Patrol. The search is one of several that has taken place in recent weeks as a devastating series of storms battered the state. The rains and wind have toppled trees and power lines and flooded rivers and creeks, killing at least 18 people, including three in Sacramento county who were found dead in or near their cars.
California is more recently accustomed to disasters due to drought and wildfire, but the latest turn of extreme weather has highlighted the challenges that come with such a rapid deluge. It has also raised questions about how the state will manage the risks of catastrophic megafloods expected to become more common due to the climate crisis.
In San Luis Obispo county, where Kyle disappeared, and the Sacramento region, the rapid onset of flooding caught people off guard.
Locals who more easily navigate the backroads in rural parts of Sacramento county said the drivers there never stood a chance. Fueled by downpour, the Cosumnes River escaped its banks and waters rose quickly and furiously, submerging large stretches of road under a vast brown-tinged sea.
There were no visible signals in the darkness on the night of New Year’s Eve and into the following day, vehicles followed one-by-one into the flood. Dozens had to be rescued. Some from the tops of their floating cars. Others weren’t able to escape. Three people died after they were swept off the roads or into the rushing water.
“Those poor people had no clue where to go – and there were no signs,” said Liz Ehlers whose property borders the area where levees were breached near Highway 99. She and her husband Tim rushed to evacuate during the height of the storm, stacking furniture and other belongings on tables as the water seeped into their home.
Even in their ranch truck, with a strong familiarity of the streets and roads that weave through the pastures and farmland in the area, the escape was a harrowing one. “The water at the railroad tracks was 4ft deep – and that was before the levees broke,” she said. When the main route flooded and the highway was closed, people relied on navigation apps to get through “and that tells you to go right into it”, she said.
In the dimly lit area, the rushing waters blended into the darkness. “It came up over 99 so fast those people didn’t have a chance – there was no warning,” her husband, Tim Ehlers, added.
Lindsy and her son were taken by surprise on a road they had traveled frequently – the family had driven down it the previous day. It was meant to be the pair’s first day back in class since winter break – Lindsy is a special education teacher at her son’s school – and Kyle was excited to return, having only recently fully recovered from a fracture in his leg that had required multiple surgeries.
“My wife was driving a 4,000lb SUV. It wasn’t until she was in the water she realized how different it was in 18 hours and there was no signage to tell her not to take this road,” Brian said.
The water quickly pushed their vehicle off the road and into trees and began filling with water. Lindsy instructed her son to take off his seatbelt and come through her door. He was calm just as he had been when he broke his leg, his father said. But the waters and debris immediately overwhelmed Lindsy and her son, separating them.
“People don’t understand when there’s fast-moving water with debris it’s impossible to swim. You can’t maintain control. My wife was getting knocked down under the water,” he said. “[Kyle] was further down, he was on his back, and they could not reach him. The footing is just enormously difficult. The soil is very much chocolate pudding in a lot of spots. There’s so much water saturation.”
The vehicle was later found overturned, Brian said: “It was the right thing to do to get out of that car.” Officials told him they recovered debris from the vehicle as far as two miles away, he said.
The search has continued daily since Monday, although authorities suspended the search several times earlier in the week due to severe weather. His family hopes he will return home, but is prepared for the fact that may not happen.
“I’m optimistic today maybe we’ll find him,” Brian said. “We’re not gonna be able to get to that next phase until we find him. I’d love great news but I’ve been readying myself. I have to be strong for my family.”
The family has been overwhelmed by the support they have received from the community, he added, and the efforts to find his son. “He’s a really good five-and-a-half-year-old,” he said, his voice breaking.