California’s winter storms have been deadlier than any wildfire since 2018

California’s winter storms have been deadlier than any wildfire since 2018

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The relentless wind and rain have killed people sleeping in houses and tents. It has taken the lives of those who shelter inside and those who work outside. Some victims were elderly, others very young. And they are spread across 10 California counties and more than 500 miles, a measure of the massive and difficult-to-manage reach of this disaster.

After two weeks of almost non-stop downpours, the official death toll nationwide from the numerous storm surges is 19. That figure will rise, authorities say, but is already more than the number of people killed over the past two seasons. of combined fires. The parade of storms has been deadlier than any single wildfire since 2018, a shocking fact for a state whose worst disasters have been the result of too little water, not too much.

And it’s not over. At least two other storms have California in question. Once the skies clear and the floodwaters finally recede, emergency managers expect this storm surge to rank among the deadliest natural disasters in the state’s history.

Experts say the numbers reveal an unfortunate reality: After so many years of drought, some Californians are unaccustomed to the dangers of rain.

“Water in some ways seems more harmless than a fire that hits you or an earthquake that shakes an entire city, but water – as this event proves – can be just as deadly,” Brian Ferguson, deputy director of the office of utilities of emergency in California. , said in an interview.

Local officials have identified nearly all of the storm’s victims, and their backgrounds are a cross-state breakdown: A Mexican-American father who danced to banda music while cleaning the house; a woman who immigrated from Hong Kong as a teenager and was days away from renewing her vows with her husband of 15 years; a Midwest transplant and mother of five who fell into homelessness and cooked daily for her friends at their riverside camp.

The youngest victim was 2-year-old Aeon Tocchini, who was on the couch when a redwood crashed through the roof of his family’s apartment in a small Sonoma County town. Eon’s father emerged from the wreckage battered but alive. If the tree came down just a few minutes later, his mother, coming home from work, would be inside with them.

Another young boy, 5-year-old Kyle Doan, is still missing. Kyle was separated from his mother when the pair tried to escape their truck as it drove through an overflowing creek. The last thing he said, his father pointed out, “Don’t worry, Mom. it’s okay. Don’t panic.” Nearly 200 rescuers have searched for Kyle along the creek in San Luis Obispo County, where he was last seen. So far, they’ve found only one of his Nike sneakers.

Father recounts ‘worst thing imaginable’ after 5-year-old girl lost in California flood

Most of the storm’s other victims have been among elderly individuals. Of the 16 people for whom an age is known, about a third were over 60 years old.

The first deaths attributed to the storms occurred in late December, when a rockslide in Yosemite Park sent 185 tons of debris falling on a married couple visiting from San Jose. The force of the fall pushed their rental truck into a nearby river embankment.

For the first week and a half of 2023, at least one death was reported almost every day.

Seven people have been found in floodwaters, two of them in submerged cars, and the first say they may have drowned. Five people were killed by falling trees or branches, their structures weakened after years of drought. And five more have died in a car accident.

Californians have faced many severe storms, but in recent years, the worst disasters have been the historic apocalyptic wildfires. Sometimes the tragedy comes down to people being rusty, said Ferguson, with the state emergency office.

“Among the public, some of the muscle memory of how to prepare for a storm may not be there,” he said. The challenge of influencing human behavior — convincing people to evacuate or turn back when they see a flooded street — is “something that keeps me up at night,” Ferguson said.

The state’s perennial drought may also have had a psychological effect on residents, who have recently been praying for rain, said Amir AghaKouchak, a professor of civil and environmental engineering at the University of California Irvine.

“Fire, when you see it, you immediately feel the danger,” he said. “But rain is different, especially in California, where we consider it a good thing.”

Flooding, then, can blind people, he said. And it doesn’t take much water — sometimes just a quarter of an inch in a few minutes — to transform a good hill into a mudslide, AghaKouchak said.

“This is enough to create a human disaster,” he said.

Making conditions more dangerous, recent fires have left more land scorched and scarred than ever, one heavy rain away from disaster. California is seeing the deadly consequences of climate catastrophe, AghaKouchak said, and a preview of its future.

If the toll from this series of atmospheric rivers continues to grow, it could soon surpass the 2018 mudslides in Montecito that killed 23 people, making it the deadliest storm disaster in the state since the 1939 tropical storm that devastated California Southern. Although recent winter weather is the result of multiple storms, officials are combining them when calculating the death toll because they came so quickly.

“The unique challenge of these storms is that they hit so many parts of the state at the same time,” Ferguson said. “Fires are usually confined to one, two or three counties. Right now, we have 41 counties under disaster declaration. This is the equivalent of a hurricane hitting five states along the eastern seaboard.

While the wild floods and rapidly rising waters appear to have affected Californians across all walks of life, those most at risk have been residents living on streets, parks or along waterways, who often sleep in flimsy tents or on top of cardboard.

More than 170,000 people living in the state are homeless, and more than two-thirds are homeless, the most in the country, according to a federal report.

“Those who live on our streets can live in cardboard, they can live in a tent that can’t handle the kind of weather we have — it’s cold,” said Georgia Berkovich, director of public affairs at Midnight Mission. , a long-standing human services organization on Los Angeles’ Skid Row. “There’s no place to go.”

There are only so many beds available in shelters, she said, and in the pouring rain, even handing out blankets and extra clothes can seem pointless: “They’re only good until they get wet, and if they’re wet, that can get you. get sick sooner because instead of warming you, it makes you cold.”

Midnight Mission has seen two members of the homeless community die after being outside in rains that flooded the usually sunny streets of Los Angeles, Berkovich said. These deaths have not been officially attributed to the weather, nor are they included in the state’s total, but they show how the storms have worsened the already precarious situation of the state’s most vulnerable.

In Sacramento County, two of the five storm deaths have been among the local homeless population, despite efforts by officials to encourage people to seek shelter. Authorities targeted high-risk camps along the American River, flying helicopters overhead and going tent-to-tent on foot advising people to leave, said Kim Nava, the county’s spokesman. At peak capacity, nearly 150 people were housed in county shelters and more than 360 used government-provided motel vouchers.

But in the worst conditions, another group was uniquely at risk: emergency personnel.

People like Edgar Castillo, whose jobs begin when disaster strikes.

Castillo’s last social media post was a selfie taken from a hotel room in the Northern California city of Ukiah, where he was sent to help PG&E clear roads and repair downed power lines. “Grindtime,” he wrote at 4:41 a.m., snapping into the mirror, wearing black tracksuits and a fluorescent yellow jacket.

“He had so many pictures of himself in his works,” his wife, Leticia Ramirez, said in an interview. “I’ve never seen anyone more proud to get up at 4 in the morning and travel that distance just to work in that weather and do what he did.”

Castillo, 37, was a Class A driver who worked for a company that was often contracted for jobs like this. It was a union position with great benefits, and he liked knowing he was helping people—taking back power, maybe saving lives.

After taking that selfie, on the morning of January 7, he drove off in his boom truck with an associate. They reached it about 50 miles southwest, near the city of Manchester, not far from the Pacific coast. It’s not clear what exactly happened, but at some point, the truck left the road and overturned, killing Castillo and injuring his colleague.

Ramirez later awoke to a text from her husband, sent around the time he left that day: “Good morning my love,” it read. By then, he was already gone.

The week since has been a blur, Ramirez said, but she still thinks about all the ways Castillo hit her. Like the time he danced around with a plate of barbecue chicken, trying to cheer him up on the anniversary of his father’s death. Or the way he would make grooves mopping the floor in their Elk Grove home, which he had spent years saving to buy.

Castillo treated all the family’s children as his own, the three Ramirez before they met and the twins they shared, she said. He had begun teaching their teenage daughter to drive — a fact that comforted Ramirez, who once mocked the way Castillo navigated the family’s minivan, slow and steady, “like a grandma,” she said. .

The twins, who are 5 and have developmental disabilities, would light up when Castillo returned from work and then follow him around the house, from the front door to the shower.

When Castillo first got the call to enter the storm, Ramirez wanted him to turn it down. She had a bad feeling. But the couple needed money and he couldn’t take a week off work.

Their last conversation was the night before his death, when he called her from Ukiah. It was short and Ramirez remembers every word. After three minutes, she told him she had to go take care of one of their children.

“We said, ‘Goodnight, I love you,’ like we always do,” she said. “And that was it.”

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