California storm death toll climbs to 20 as deluge begins to subside

Nine powerful atmospheric rivers delivered about 24.5tn gallons of water across the state, causing over $1bn worth of damage

Sunshine beamed across parts of California on Tuesday, signaling a hopeful end to extreme downpours that drenched the Golden state. The nine powerful atmospheric rivers that bore down in quick succession over the last three weeks – dropping an estimated 24.5tn gallons of water across California from 26 December to 11 January – left death and disaster in their wake.

At least 20 people have been killed during the deluges, as the severe storms submerged streets, produced fast-moving flash floods and tore into inundated hillsides that sent mud sliding on to homes and highways. Along with torrents of rain, blustery winds ripped down trees and power lines, leaving hundreds of thousands without electricity during the storms.

Joe Biden issued a major disaster declaration in three California communities hit hard by the storms, freeing important federal aid that will help with cleanup and recovery.

The president is scheduled to visit parts of the central coast on Thursday, to tour affected areas and meet with first responders. Along with Santa Cruz, Sacramento, and Merced counties – the three designated as major disasters – 41 of California’s 58 counties have been given federal emergency declarations, and Governor Gavin Newsom proclaimed a statewide emergency.

The cost of the catastrophe is estimated to far exceed $1bn, making the series of storms the first billion-dollar disaster of 2023. But, even as the clouds cleared this week, another storm was swirling over the Pacific that could gain enough strength to become California’s 10th atmospheric river. A shot of precipitation from a quick system was also predicted for Wednesday or Thursday, the National Weather Service said.

Forecasters cautioned that although the midweek rainfall will be light, it could still cause problems across the sodden state. Overly saturated soils and systems, overwhelmed by moisture after months of dryness, will not be able to withstand more water, as tens of thousands remained under evacuation orders on Monday.

“With more difficult days ahead, it’s critical that Californians stay alert to conditions in their area and follow guidance from local emergency responders to stay safe,” Newsom said in a news release about preparation for the next round of rain.

As some communities across California brace for more, others are using the dry reprieve to begin the arduous cleanup process. The state saw more than 500 landslides since New Year’s Eve according to the California Geological Survey, and many transportation corridors remain closed or slowed due to the damage and debris.

By Monday, two northbound lanes of Interstate 5 near Castaic in northern LA county were closed indefinitely after a hillside collapsed, and in Berkeley, 10 homes were evacuated on Monday when a sodden hillside collapsed, sending mud on to properties. Dozens of residents of Matilija Canyon in Ventura county, whose homes are tucked into a remote hillside in Los Padres national forest had to be rescued by helicopter after “towering piles of rock and mud” collapsed last week, covering the single road exit out of the canyon, Ventura county sheriff’s office said.

“When I found the mud was coming into my yard, that’s when I got scared,” resident Brian Briggs told the LA Times, describing a harrowing 36-hour battle to protect his home and neighbors during the deluge. “When we got off the helicopter, it finally hit me, and I broke down sobbing.”

The severe and destructive storms that delivered a year’s worth of rain in mere weeks in some areas did do some good in the drought-stricken state, filling badly depleted reservoirs and securing a strong snowbank that will provide moisture for the thirsty landscapes through the spring and summer months as it melts.

But the deluge was not enough to end the drought, which developed over years. The cycle of extreme weather that vacillates dangerously from wet to dry is a symptom of the climate crisis that models show will only grow more intense as the world warms.

For now though, Californians are welcoming the chance to bask. There has been little time to dry since the start of the year. “Wondering what that bright object in the sky is?” the NWS in Sacramento tweeted playfully on Monday, “It’s the Sun!”

The Associated Press contributed to this report


Gabrielle Canon and agencies

The GuardianTramp

Related Content

Article image
‘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

Gabrielle Canon in Santa Cruz

21, Jan, 2023 @11:00 AM

Article image
Storm-ravaged California scrambles as fresh atmospheric river rolls in
Newest round of storms expected to produce torrential downpours and gale force winds along the northern coast

Dani Anguiano and agencies

11, Jan, 2023 @7:47 PM

Article image
California debates naming heatwaves to underscore deadly risk of extreme heat
Experts and advocates are also exploring new ranking systems to add urgency to the growing disaster of rapidly warming landscapes

Gabrielle Canon

01, Mar, 2022 @6:00 AM

Article image
Fire-friendly weather returns as second largest blaze in California history burns
Dixie fire grew to an area of 765 sq miles by Sunday evening and was just 21% contained

Dani Anguiano and agencies

09, Aug, 2021 @4:08 PM

Article image
Two dead as ‘bomb cyclone’ brings heavy winds and rain to California
Officials order evacuations in high-risk coastal area in latest in rapid series of ‘atmospheric rivers’ to hit state

Gabrielle Canon and agencies

06, Jan, 2023 @12:14 AM

Article image
Frantic search continues for boy, five, swept away in California floods
Kyle Doan, pulled into raging waters as he and his mother, Lindsy Doan, were trying to escape sudden flooding

Dani Anguiano in Los Angeles and Gabrielle Canon in Sacramento county

13, Jan, 2023 @6:00 AM

Article image
California sizzled in a record heatwave this week. We mapped where it was hottest
As one of the most brutal September heat events dragged on, the red numbers climbed ever higher

Guardian staff

09, Sep, 2022 @10:00 AM

Article image
‘They’re a little crazy’: the ultramarathon runners crossing Death Valley – in a drought
A hundred runners are picked each year for the 135-mile race. This time the climate was especially brutal

Erin McCormick in San Francisco

23, Jul, 2021 @10:00 AM

Article image
Record Death Valley flooding ‘a once-in-1,000-year event’
Hundreds were marooned in the downpour as the climate crisis increases the likelihood of extreme weather

Gabrielle Canon

10, Aug, 2022 @6:50 PM

Article image
Q&A: will the California storms ease the state’s drought?
Years of devastating dryness have depleted reservoirs and hurt farms. The deluge may offer a little help

Associated Press

11, Jan, 2023 @7:02 PM