How fast-moving floods took a deadly toll on California’s capital: ‘No one expected it’ | California
The water was waist-high as Bobby Lewis rushed through the darkness trying to get equipment and animals to higher ground. Just hours into the new year, torrential downpours had engorged the Consumnes River that lines the rancher’s Elk Grove property south of Sacramento, California, until it burst through the embankments designed to contain it.
The Lewis family has owned this land for decades and weathered many storms, but this one wouldn’t be easily forgotten. Two of Lewis’s cows drowned during the deluge as they tried to swim to safety, last seen as tangles of legs caught between the barren branches of a submerged tree.
Howling winds tore at the ranch through the night, casting the rain sideways as it poured. “I thought the whole house was going to go flying away,” Lewis said, recalling sleepless nights of hurried work to secure his home and land as the storms bore down. “But all you can really do is get everything to high ground – and take a deep breath.”
Three vehicles are submerged in south Sacramento county in Wilton, California. Photographer: Héctor Amezcua/AP
Over the past two weeks, a parade of powerful atmospheric rivers has brought both relief and ruin to California. While the rain is a welcome sight in the drought-plagued state, the violent storms landed in quick succession, causing flash floods, billions of dollars in damage, and killing at least 18 people.
And with more storms to come, even a drizzle could prove dangerous in areas where the soils and infrastructure are already oversaturated.
Sacramento County has been one of the hardest hits. At least five people have died here, the highest toll anywhere in the state, including three who died in their cars on a flooded highway, and two unhoused people killed in the capital city, Sacramento, by falling trees.
Residents have had little time to dry between downpours that began in late December. By New Year’s Day, swaths of land in the rural area just south of the capital had disappeared into a vast sienna-tinged sea that swallowed stretches of road, pastures, and recently parched crops.
The tops of cars bobbed in the brown waters as emergency responders rescued dozens of people in the ensuing hours. Three drivers perished that night as they tried to navigate the floodwaters, becoming the first of storms’ many victims.
“Everybody was caught off guard,” said Tim Ehlers, a longtime resident and rancher in the area, who added that he had never seen the place flood like it did. “When it comes in it floats everything. tyres. dumpsters Barrels of feed. And those little cars float so almost – you can’t believe it. It don’t take much.”
Before rushing to evacuate, Ehlers and his wife, Liz, stacked things in their home on tables and chairs and shifted equipment and pickups on to friends’ properties on higher ground. There wasn’t a lot they could do with only an hour of notice before their property started to flood.
Flooding from the rainstorm-swollen Sacramento and American Rivers, near downtown Sacramento, California. Photographer: Fred Greaves/ReutersTim and Liz Ehlers make sandbags to protect their property. Photographer: Gabrielle Canon/The Guardian
“We weren’t even able to sandbag before we started flooding,” Liz said. “There was just too much stuff to do and no one was expecting it.” But she set to work ensuring their 12 chickens stood a chance to weather the storm, securing them with food and water inside a coop with hen houses 6ft off the ground. “They stayed safe,” she added with a smile. “We didn’t lose any of them.”
By that point, water was coming in from both directions, surging in a strong current that swelled out from the banks of the river. The rain kept pouring and the water kept rising. It was time to leave. “We buttoned up what we could,” Tim said, “but when I was locking the gate, I could barely stand up.”
Record breaking whiplash
This week, as residents savored a brief break in the rains, the immense task of cleaning up began. The topped trees that killed two unhoused people in the capital remain unmoved, their splintered and jagged edges protruding from the muddied earth.
On Tuesday, pockets of blue pierced the silvered sky over Sacramento’s battered cityscape, offering workers enough respite from the rain to begin clearing debris. Branches littered sidewalks and soggy parks and large trunks blocked streets or lay on bashed buildings.
Laura Nussbaum moves her belongings to higher ground from a homeless encampment on Bannon Island, along the Sacramento River, on 4 January. Photographer: Gary Coronado/Los Angeles Times/Getty Images
The floods have capped a year of brutal and record-setting weather whiplash in Sacramento. Just months before, this wreckage of trees helped the city cool down during an oppressive September heatwave when temperatures reached an unprecedented 116F.
The storms delivered a new record for the most consecutive days of rain, just one year after the city marked its longest stretch of dry days, and saw its driest November on record in 2022.
“If you asked me six months ago, I would have said things were so dry around here even the asphalt on the streets were asking for water,” said Matt Robinson, the county’s public information officer. “But things change,” he added, gazing out over the engorged Sacramento River that had swallowed stairs and paths along the edges of the city’s historic district.
In the coming, the hydrological coin is likely to flip yet again. Climate models show more shifts between the extremes are in store as the world warms.
Heat enables the atmosphere to hold more water – 4% more for each degree Fahrenheit the air warms. Heat also bakes moisture out of landscapes, drying them faster. Drought helps produce more heat, and the cycle continues. Atmospheric rivers, like those now sweeping across California, are a natural feature of the state’s weather system, but they are being supercharged.
This destructive set of storms is exactly what climate change modeling predicted would occur, said Dr Marty Ralph, director of the Center for Western Weather and Water Extremes and a researcher at Scripps Institution of Oceanography. “This pattern is consistent – where we go from a very deep drought to a flood situation.”
While the rains have put the state in a better position to weather the drought, new dangers lurk ahead. Grasses seeded by these storms could turn to fuel for future fires when the weather warms and dries. Water resources still remain scarce across the west, as basins like the mighty Colorado River—a major source for California’s farms and cities—remain in peril.
The divergent disasters have also created complications after communities, officials, and residents geared up for another dry winter had to quickly shift preparation and planning. Roads that weren’t closed fast enough became hazardous for unsuspecting drivers and confusion ensued about how to escape rising waters.
Brutally toll on unhoused people
Across California, perhaps no group has been hit as hard as the unhoused. Roughly 170,000 people across the state are homeless and most of them sleep outside, congregating in tents or other makeshift structures or in cars and RVs that leave people especially vulnerable to climate extremes.
Victoria Reyes, a friend of Rebekah Ann Rohde. Photographer: Gabrielle Canon/The Guardian
In the city of Sacramento, an encampment community is in mourning after the loss of one of their own, Rebekah Ann Rohde, who was killed by a fallen tree. “She was my best friend,” said Victoria Reyes of Rohde, who shared more with her than just the muddied earth along the American River. “She gave me her coat when I was cold. Anytime I wanted something to eat she gave it to me,” Reyes-Mendez said. “I’m going to really miss her.”
Reyes called for help as others in the small community pulled Rohde out from under the large trunk that split across her tent. Rohde died in the hospital of her injuries. “We couldn’t save her life, but we tried.” Reyes said.
She and others are bracing for another cold night in sopping clothes under swaying branches, made all the more ominous by the next round of storms scheduled to blow through. “That tree could have hit me and killed me,” Reyes said, wrapping a large coat more tightly around herself. She claims the community wasn’t warned that the weather would turn dangerous and she’s afraid of freezing to death. “Somebody has got to do something,” she said. “It’s going to rain again.”
Robinson, the county spokesperson, hopes that these storms can, at least, serve as lessons for the next siege. It was bad, but could have been a lot worse, he says.
There is still time to bolster infrastructure and instruct the public so that more are ready for the next big shift in conditions. It will take money and focus, both of which are in shorter supply than other disasters become easy distractions. Preparation and adaptation together is a difficult but essential balancing act. The flip from drought to downpour was severe this time and will be just as severe when the coin flips back.
“At some point, we’re going to have this episode again,” he said. “We have to keep it in the back of everyone’s mind.”