California grapples with cleanup, fallout from deadly storms

Storm-ravaged California scrambled to clean up and repair widespread damage on Wednesday as the lashing rain eased in many areas, although thunderstorms led a new atmospheric river into the northern half of the state.

At least 18 deaths have occurred amid storms slamming state

Californians assess storm damage while bracing for more bad weather

5 months ago
Duration 2:48
Californians are now assessing the damage to their homes and communities after a series of relentless, powerful storms that left 18 people dead. With more stormy weather on the way, some are feeling anxious about what could come next.

Laurie Morse shovelled wet sand into bags in the pouring rain Wednesday, preparing to stack them along her garage in a last-ditch effort to keep out a rising creek on California's central coast, as the storm-ravaged state braced for another round of lashing rains and damaging winds.

Morse's roof was leaking, and along with her neighbours near Santa Cruz, she's spent every day of 2023 trying to figure out how to keep her house dry after an unrelenting onslaught of violent weather caused widespread damage over the past two weeks. Cars were submerged, trees uprooted and roofs blown off homes.

While the rain eased in many areas, thunderstorms led yet another atmospheric river into the northern half of the state and forecasters said the latest system would be followed by more storms this weekend and next week. From the San Francisco Bay Area down to Los Angeles, Californians had little time to rest between assessing damage from the last storm and preparing for the next.

Earlier this week, Morse and her fellow residents of tiny Rio Del Mar were ordered to evacuate as hillsides collapsed and massive logs and stumps tumbled down the bloated Aptos Creek from the Santa Cruz mountains into the Monterey Bay.

A bird's-eye view shows water surrounding homes in a part of West Sacramento, Calif., on Wednesday, Jan. 11, 2023.
Water from the rainstorm-swollen Sacramento River surrounds homes Wednesday in West Sacramento, Calif. (Fred Greaves/Reuters)

Now they were scrambling to clean up while simultaneously stacking sandbags and hoping for the best as the rain got heavier.

"It's one step forward and two steps back right now," said Morse, 59, a disabled Army veteran. "There's so much damage already."

The plume of moisture lurking off the coast stretched all the way over the Pacific Ocean to Hawaii, making it "a true Pineapple Express," the U.S. National Weather Service said.

State hit by 7 recent storms

Michael Anderson, climatologist with the state's Department of Water Resources, said California has been hit by seven storms since the end of December and two more slightly weaker ones were expected before the state gets a reprieve by the end of next week.

A toppled tree is seen in Santa Cruz, Calif., after the San Francisco Bay Area and much of Northern California were hit by severe weather.
A tree that toppled during recent storms sits next to the road in Santa Cruz, Calif., on Wednesday. (Mario Tama/Getty Images)

"The challenge is they're storms eight and nine in the sequence and the cumulative effect is likely to cause impacts larger than the storms themselves might cause," Anderson said.

At least 18 people have died in the storms battering the state. The figure is likely to rise, California Gov. Gavin Newsom said Tuesday during a visit to the scenic town of Capitola, on the Santa Cruz coast from Rio Del Mar, that was hard hit by flooding creek waters. Raging surf destroyed an iconic pier.

A 43-year-old woman was found dead Wednesday in her submerged car a day after calling 911 to say the vehicle was stuck in floodwaters north of San Francisco, according to the Sonoma County Sheriff's Office.

When the search resumed at sunrise Wednesday, divers discovered the car under about three metres of water off a rural road near Forestville, the department said.

Majority of counties declared disaster areas

More than half of California's 58 counties were declared disaster areas and repairing the damage may cost more than $1 billion US, according to Brian Ferguson, spokesperson for the state Office of Emergency Services. 

An aerial view of cars sitting in floodwaters in Planada, Calif.
Cars are submerged in floodwaters in Planada, Calif., on Wednesday. (Justin Sullivan/Getty Images)

Crews worked to reopen major highways that were closed by rock slides, swamped by flooding or smothered with mud while more than 10,000 people who were ordered out of seaside towns on the central coast were allowed to return home.

They included Montecito, a wealthy Santa Barbara County community that is home to Prince Harry and other celebrities where 23 people died and more than 100 homes were destroyed in a mudslide five years ago.

This week's storm brought back harrowing memories for Montecito resident Susanne Tobey, who was rescued when the 2018 mudslide roared through her community.

'Living in a waterfall'

Like five years ago, when the community was asked to evacuate on Monday, the only highway out was closed, she said.

"It was terrifying," she said of the latest storm. "I don't think I slept the whole night and the rain was ... you just can't imagine. It's like just living in a waterfall."

But even with yet another storm on its way, Tobey said she plans to stay put again.

Caution tape blocks an access stairway toward the Pacific Ocean in Santa Cruz, Calif.
Caution tape blocks an ocean-side stairway in Santa Cruz on Wednesday. (Mario Tama/Getty Images)

She said the community has made improvements that she hopes will prevent a similar tragedy, including adding steel nets to catch falling boulders, and debris basins to catch the deluge before it overtakes the hillsides that plunge into the Pacific Ocean.

"You have to be brave to live in California," she said, adding: "I can't imagine living anywhere else."

Despite the precipitation, most of the state remained in extreme or severe drought, according to the U.S. Drought Monitor.

Mudslides damaged some homes in pricey Los Angeles hillside areas, while further up the coast a sinkhole damaged 15 homes in the rural Santa Barbara County community of Orcutt.

Kevin Costner, best-actor winner in a television drama series for Yellowstone, was unable to attend Tuesday's Golden Globe awards in Los Angeles because of the weather. Presenter Regina Hall said he was sheltering in place in Santa Barbara due to flooding.