‘Inside we are all struggling’: storm-bruised California begins recovery

The long road to rebuilding is just beginning in the rain-pummeled state as assessments reveal damage worth millions

Mud oozed and swirled under the wheels of Darren Sauter’s tractor. The slick remnants of the state’s epic, weeks-long rainstorms left neighborhoods like this one in Felton, California, inundated even after the waters receded. Days after the downpours, Sauter and others were working to rid homes and streets of the dirty muck, piled 3ft high in places.

“People have had to just live with this,” said Sauter, speaking over the hum of his equipment as he worked on Wednesday afternoon. Sauter came down from Ben Lomond, a town just north of this quiet neighborhood in the Santa Cruz mountains, to help volunteer with the daunting cleanup. Riding a bright orange front loader, he shoveled mud to the side to create a pathway through the wet earth, still laden with chemical contaminants from the roadway and the smell of sewage, as solemn-faced residents looked on. “You can’t even walk through it.”

Spanning redwood covered mountains to the beaches of the Pacific coast, Santa Cruz county is a region of vast geographical and socioeconomic diversity. It has also borne the brunt of the brutal California rainstorms, which dropped an estimated 32.6tn gallons of water in just three weeks, causing an estimated $1bn in damage statewide and claiming at least 21 lives.

Darren Sauter volunteers to help clear mud and debris from neighborhoods hit hard by California’s storms.
Darren Sauter volunteers to help clear mud and debris from neighborhoods hit hard by California’s storms. Photograph: Gabrielle Canon/The Guardian

From hillside towns like Felton to the picturesque coastal enclave of Capitola, the long road to recovery from disaster is only beginning. The county was declared a major disaster zone by Joe Biden, who visited Capitola on Thursday to survey the damage and said it would “take years to rebuild”.

At least a thousand homes in Santa Cruz county were damaged during the deluge, according to officials, but assessments are still ongoing. Estimates of the destruction on private land are expected to be in the tens of millions with public infrastructure damage believed to be in excess of $55m. The financial toll is only expected to grow.

“We are definitely transitioning from the response phase of this disaster to the recovery phase,” said Dave Reid, director of the Santa Cruz county office of response, recovery and resilience. “For some people that might look like reestablishing access to their homes and for others it might mean having to completely rebuild.”

Even as the sun pierced through gray haze this week, offering a hopeful reprieve from the relentless rain, risks remain. New dangers lurk in soggy buildings as threats from mold and other environmental health hazards can quickly take hold. Saturated hillsides could still crumble without warning. Though the downpours have ended – at least for now – there’s no time to lose.

A fallen tree is seen during Joe Biden’s survey the storm-caused damage in Capitola, California.
A fallen tree is seen during Joe Biden’s survey the storm-caused damage in Capitola, California. Photograph: Leah Millis/Reuters
People look on as Joe Biden surveys damage caused by recent heavy storms in California.
People look on as Joe Biden surveys damage caused by recent heavy storms in California. Photograph: Andrew Caballero-Reynolds/AFP/Getty Images

“We are only at the beginning of our peak rainy season,” Reid said. But there are also dangers posed by dryness. The downpours will spur vegetation to grow with vigor. Without another adequate dousing before the warmer weather sets in, parched plants could fuel the region’s already-high wildfire risks.

For now though, the county is focused on the daunting task at hand. “We have to support everyone in their recovery journey,” he said. “We can’t let anyone slip through the cracks.”

Sandbags still line the doorways of the brightly-colored buildings in the picturesque Capitola Village, which was hammered by surging surf strong enough to sever the town’s iconic pier. The storms also chewed through Seacliff State Beach, shredding a seawall, destroying a campground and smashing the bathrooms at the popular recreation site.

Along the battered shoreline, vast fields of seaweed created by ferocious tides remain piled high. Splintered debris sat alongside the sodden floorboards and crushed tiles that once belonged to waterfront restaurants and homes. In some areas of the county, the waters still have yet to recede.

“Unfortunately, the people who seem to have the least were hurt the most,” said Don Hufgard, a Red Cross volunteer from Ohio, who deployed into California this week to help residents recover from the disaster. He and his partner, who hailed from Indiana, stationed themselves in Soquel Village for part of this week, where they said some areas were still underwater.

In their mission to hand out food and supplies to residents throughout the region, they’ve encountered roads swallowed by sinkholes, landslides, and neighborhoods weary from the weather whiplash that brought devastating floods to previously drought-stricken areas.

“At least it is beautiful out now,” Hufgard said, gesturing to the cloudless sky as he buttoned up the van. He and his partner were heading out to a shelter in Capitola, another community in need.

Even in the cooler winter months, the vibrant coastal town is typically bustling. Now eerily quiet, bird calls echoed against the brightly-painted buildings that line the shore, many of which still have boarded windows and sandbagged doorways.

“You don’t feel it until you walk the streets,” Biden said after he toured the aftermath on Thursday, looking out at Seacliff state park. “We’ve got to not just rebuild, but rebuild better,” the president said, noting that the climate crisis promised a future where storms of this magnitude would become more common.

This handout satellite image shows the Capitola wharf on 26 October 2022 compared with a view from 17 January 2023.
This handout satellite image shows the Capitola wharf on 26 October 2022 compared with a view from 17 January 2023. Photograph: Satellite image ©2022 Maxar Tech/AFP/Getty Images

Locals agree. As the storm surged and the ocean thrashed against the shore, many felt powerless, even after doing what they could to prepare.

“We were getting it from both sides,” said Capitola police chief, Sarah Ryan. In the preceding days, businesses had been boarded and berms were built with sand. Officers went door-to-door in low-lying areas warning residents that it was time to leave. With evacuation orders in place, the community braced itself for the onslaught. “By that point,” Ryan said, “there was really nothing we could do other than let Mother Nature take its course.”

The community is now rethinking what will be required to withstand a future where extreme weather events become more common. “Knowing something like this could very-well happen again, our threshold has now shifted to a different level,” she said. “That is a conversation that is already starting to take place when we talk about recovery.”

Down the road from the police station, where officers were collecting rakes and shovels to be distributed across the small city, neighbors were convening at the bustling Reef Dog Deli, a sandwich shop and community hub in town. Friends and neighbors shared hugs, stories and smiles, now that the sun was shining, as they stopped to marvel at what the storm left in its wake.

Anthony Kresge, the owner of Reef Dog Deli in Capitola, California, welcomes locals and visitors alike after the severe storms.
Anthony Kresge, the owner of Reef Dog Deli in Capitola, California, welcomes locals and visitors alike after the severe storms. Photograph: Gabrielle Canon/The Guardian

Owner and chef Anthony Kresge has fostered that happy vibe in his eatery, chatting with all who enter. But, he said, the friendly façade masks the deep hurt this community is feeling. “Inside we are all struggling,” he said. “It has been a tough go but we are trying to be positive.”

The catastrophe has changed the community, he said, noting that it was always a welcoming place. But neighbors are now willing to do more to help the village rebound. He and other local business owners have banded together to organize a fundraiser event for the workers left without jobs. “No matter if you were in the flood zone or not, everybody has taken a hit,” he said.

He’s concerned about the downturn, but more than that, he is hopeful that the village will have the chance to come back stronger.

“Everyone wants Capitola to jump back and be alive again, but it’s going to take some time,” he said, calling the storms a wakeup call. This won’t be the last severe storm the community will have to endure.

“We will be stronger in our defense next time,” he added. “Because it is not if – it is when.”

• This article was amended on 23 January 2023. An earlier version spelled Ben Lomond as Ben Lomon.


Gabrielle Canon in Santa Cruz

The GuardianTramp

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