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