11.1 C
New York
January 30, 2023
NewsAltitude
Top News TOP STORIES

California Storm Updates: More Rain Expected to Worsen Flooding

California Storm Updates: More Rain Expected to Worsen Flooding

Pinned

Jan. 10, 2023, 1:28 p.m. ET

Jan. 10, 2023, 1:28 p.m. ET

CARPINTERIA, Calif. — Relentless rains that started falling on Sunday have flooded parts of Los Angeles, killed at least 15 people statewide and led to evacuation orders for nearly 50,000 residents across California as rivers continue to rise and mudslide fears grow.

Here’s what to know:

  • Forecasters warned Californians to expect unusual bouts of hail, lightning storms, wind gusts of up to 60 miles an hour and possibly even tornadoes to go along with the heavy rain for much of Tuesday. Remote parts of Ventura and Santa Barbara counties, north of Los Angeles, had already received more than 16 inches of rain by early Tuesday, with more on the way. Experts say the cost of the damage done by the storms could top $1 billion.

  • More than 30,000 residents were placed under evacuation orders on Monday in Santa Cruz County, about 70 miles south of San Francisco, as creeks and rivers topped their banks, threatened homes and washed away at least one bridge. Read about the damage on the battered California coast.

  • A 5-year-old boy was feared dead after the vehicle he was in was swept away by floodwaters in San Luis Obispo County on the Central Coast. The authorities called off their search for the boy on Monday when conditions became too extreme, but planned to resume the search on Tuesday. Here’s advice for surviving a flash flood.

  • Looking ahead, seven more inches of rain could fall in many parts of California over the next several days, as yet another “enormous cyclone” that is forming off the coast slams areas of Northern California and the Pacific Northwest on Wednesday, the Weather Service said. Here’s how climate change is shaping California’s stormy weather.

Jan. 10, 2023, 1:35 p.m. ET

Jan. 10, 2023, 1:35 p.m. ET

Soumya Karlamangla

Reporting from San Francisco

In the city of South San Francisco, extreme winds peeled back part of an apartment building’s roof Tuesday morning, allowing water to enter two apartments and forcing the evacuation of 10 residents, said Matt Samson, the city’s deputy fire chief. No one was injured.

Jan. 10, 2023, 1:35 p.m. ET

Jan. 10, 2023, 1:35 p.m. ET

Soumya Karlamangla

Reporting from San Francisco

Samson said the damage, which occurred around 2 a.m., has been among the worst the city has seen over the past two weeks. But he expects such problems to continue and has increased staffing in preparation, with wind gusts forecast to reach 70 mph. “It’s going to be a little longer until we get a break from this one.”

Jan. 10, 2023, 1:18 p.m. ET

Jan. 10, 2023, 1:18 p.m. ET

Image

Crews worked on Monday to clear a mudslide that blocked Route 17 near Scott’s Valley, Calif.Credit…Carlos Avila Gonzalez/San Francisco Chronicle, via Associated Press

After several years of intense drought, California is now being pummeled by weeks of heavy rain. As the state’s residents are discovering, the two opposite meteorological conditions can combine to make for severe mudslides.

In a prolonged drought, soils dry out, harden and become less permeable to water, said Dan Shugar, a geoscientist at the University of Calgary in Canada. When heavy rain falls on soil like that, less of the water soaks in.

“Any gardener who has forgotten to water their flower patch during a heat wave has firsthand experience of this,” Dr. Shugar said.

Water can pond quickly on the hardened soil, and, depending on the terrain, will eventually run off. On steep slopes, the water rushing downhill can accelerate, eroding soil in its path, picking up rocks and debris and joining with other rivulets of water to make a growing and potentially destructive mudslide.

California’s drought has also helped fuel major wildfires in recent years, and post-wildfire slopes are especially susceptible to mudslides. On Monday, concern about potential mudslides prompted evacuations in Montecito, Calif., where 23 people were killed five years ago in a slide that occurred a month after a wildfire on the hills nearby.

After trees and other vegetation are killed in a fire, their roots weaken over the next several years, making the soil they are in less stable. By vaporizing waxy compounds in vegetation that are then deposited in the soil, extremely hot fires can also make soils water-repellent, increasing surface runoff when the rains come and raising the risk of a mudslide.

Mudslides, which are also referred to as debris flows, tend to be shallow, eroding the topmost layer of soil and picking up rocks and other debris on the surface.

But heavy rains can also cause major landslides, when a large part of a slope becomes saturated with water to great depth, increasing the pressure between soil particles and making the slope unstable.

The rugged hills along California’s coast are especially susceptible to this kind of landslide. In 2005, houses in the small town of La Conchita, just below the coastal highway, Route 1, in Southern California, were buried when the hillside gave way, killing 10 people.

Some major landslides may be moving in slow motion for years before heavy rain triggers a much faster-moving failure. After the 2017 slide in Big Sur in Northern California that is considered the largest in state history, when about 6 million cubic yards of debris slid across Route 1, NASA researchers used specialized airborne radar to study the slope. They found that it had been moving at a rate of about 7 inches a year for more than a decade.

Jan. 10, 2023, 1:13 p.m. ET

Jan. 10, 2023, 1:13 p.m. ET

Victoria Kim

Reporting from San Francisco

Gov. Gavin Newsom, laying out his budget for the fiscal year, announced $202 million for levees and other flood risk protections. “Right now, what’s top of mind is flood investments,” he said, noting the state was being hit with a “conveyor belt of storms” that would continue in the coming days.

Jan. 10, 2023, 1:13 p.m. ET

Jan. 10, 2023, 1:13 p.m. ET

Victoria Kim

Reporting from San Francisco

The state will also be spending $2.7 billion on measures aimed at limiting wildfires, and $8.6 billion on water and drought management, he said. After his budget presentation, Newsom is heading down to the state’s hard-hit Central Coast.

Jan. 10, 2023, 12:46 p.m. ET

Jan. 10, 2023, 12:46 p.m. ET

Jill Cowan

Reporting from Santa Barbara County, Calif.

In the now lush, verdant hills of Montecito, the winding roads are studded with falling rocks and small streams of water, making it difficult for cars to get through. A crew cut up a Eucalyptus tree that had uprooted across Sheffield Drive.

Video

CreditCredit…Jill Cowan/The New York Times

Jan. 10, 2023, 12:40 p.m. ET

Jan. 10, 2023, 12:40 p.m. ET

Jill Cowan

Reporting from Santa Barbara County, Calif.

In Santa Barbara, firefighters, sheriff’s deputies and other emergency personnel were heading out to assess conditions. Scott Safechuck, a spokesman for the Santa Barbara County fire department, said there were more than 100 abandoned vehicles in the county and teams had made seven swift-water rescues over the past day.

Jan. 10, 2023, 12:40 p.m. ET

Jan. 10, 2023, 12:40 p.m. ET

Judson Jones

Meteorologist

Dangerously large breaking waves of 20 to 25 feet will be possible along the Central and Northern coasts of California. Surf could also reach six to 15 feet along some Southern California beaches on Tuesday and into Wednesday.

Jan. 10, 2023, 12:27 p.m. ET

Jan. 10, 2023, 12:27 p.m. ET

Victoria Kim

Reporting from San Francisco

In the suburban Chatsworth neighborhood of Los Angeles, a sinkhole 15 feet deep opened up and swallowed two cars on Monday, trapping two people in one of the cars with rainwater gushing in, according to the Los Angeles City Fire Department. They were rescued with minor injuries, fire officials said.

Video

CreditCredit…Los Angeles City Fire Department

Jan. 10, 2023, 12:22 p.m. ET

Jan. 10, 2023, 12:22 p.m. ET

Judson Jones

Meteorologist

More than a foot of rain has been recorded across portions of coastal California over the past two days. A few spots in Ventura and Santa Barbara counties received more than 16 inches, according to the National Weather Service.

Jan. 10, 2023, 12:21 p.m. ET

Jan. 10, 2023, 12:21 p.m. ET

Soumya Karlamangla

Reporting from San Francisco

Parts of Union Station in downtown Los Angeles were flooded with several inches of water on Tuesday morning. L.A. Metro officials warned commuters to expect major delays throughout the system, which serves tens of thousands of Angelenos each day, after several trains were cancelled because of debris on tracks and damage to overhead wires.

To repeat–and now with a visual: There is flooding in the Union Station pedestrian tunnel. To get from one end of station to the other, you can use the B/D Line subway. The turnstiles are unlocked. https://t.co/FX7rvpppGL

— LA Metro (@metrolosangeles) January 10, 2023

Jan. 10, 2023, 12:04 p.m. ET

Jan. 10, 2023, 12:04 p.m. ET

Soumya Karlamangla

Reporting from San Francisco

Bay Area Rapid Transit, which carries thousands of commuters each day, warned on Tuesday morning that trains would be running at slower speeds because of wet weather across the region.

Jan. 10, 2023, 12:04 p.m. ET

Jan. 10, 2023, 12:04 p.m. ET

Judson Jones

Meteorologist

Tuesday’s storms in California will be a little different from those of the last few days. Lightning and thunder will accompany many of the storms, with some even producing hail, as recently reported in the San Francisco Bay area. Some storms could even spawn weak tornadoes.

Jan. 10, 2023, 12:00 p.m. ET

Jan. 10, 2023, 12:00 p.m. ET

Amanda Holpuch

More than 220,000 customers in California were without electricity on Tuesday morning, according to PowerOutage.us. Pacific Gas & Electric, a California utility company, said in a statement that there had been more than 100 cloud-to-ground lightning strikes as of 5:30 a.m.

Image

Credit…Fred Greaves/Reuters

Jan. 10, 2023, 11:28 a.m. ET

Jan. 10, 2023, 11:28 a.m. ET

Victoria Kim

Reporting from San Francisco

There are no updates this morning on the search for a missing 5-year-old boy in San Luis Obispo, who was swept away in floodwaters on Monday as his mom drove him to school. Rescuers had to suspend their search at about 3 p.m. when the storm made it too dangerous to continue, according to the county sheriff’s office. The boy’s mother was rescued by nearby residents.

Jan. 10, 2023, 11:25 a.m. ET

Jan. 10, 2023, 11:25 a.m. ET

Image

Credit…Erin Schaff/The New York Times

The damage from weeks of storms and flooding in California could exceed a billion dollars, according to the state’s emergency agency and private weather forecasters. That toll comes on the heels of 2022, one of the worst on record for large-scale weather and climate disasters around the United States, according to data released Tuesday by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.

“It’s likely that this is going to be at least several billion dollars,” said Jonathan Porter, chief meteorologist at AccuWeather. “It will unfortunately join the club of billion-dollar disasters.”

The nation was struck last year by 18 disasters that caused more than $1 billion each in damage. That’s the third-highest number in the 43 years that NOAA has been keeping records.

The only other years on record with more billion-dollar disasters. adjusted for inflation, are 2020 and 2021.

At the top of the 2022 list is Hurricane Ian, which caused $113 billion in damage, the country’s third-costliest hurricane since 1980 behind Hurricanes Katrina and Harvey. The drought and heat wave in the Western and Central United States was the second-worst disaster in 2022, causing $22 billion in damage.

All told, last year’s 18 large-scale disasters caused $165 billion in damage, according to NOAA — greater than the annual economic output of West Virginia and Alaska put together.

Here are some other reasons last year’s disasters stood out:

  • Hurricane Nicole, which struck Florida on Nov. 10, was the first November hurricane to make landfall in the United States in almost 40 years.

  • Typhoon Merbok, which damaged homes in Alaska, was “the strongest storm to enter the Bering Sea during September in 70 years.”

  • Alaska passed the million-acre mark for land burned by wildfires on June 18 — the earliest in the past 32 years. Average temperatures in Alaska were 2.6 degrees Fahrenheit higher than normal last year, almost double the temperature increase in the contiguous United States.

  • At least 40 percent of the land mass of the mainland United States has been in drought for the past 119 weeks — longer than at any other time in the 22 years the U.S. Drought Monitor has been keeping track.

  • More tornadoes were reported in March 2022 than any other March on record, going back to 1950. There were 1,331 — three times the average for the month.

Jan. 10, 2023, 11:22 a.m. ET

Jan. 10, 2023, 11:22 a.m. ET

Kevin Yamamura

Reporting from Sacramento

The Stockton Unified School District, which serves nearly 40,000 students, has cancelled classes for the second straight day because of storm damage to its campuses. The district also said that food supplies for school meals spoiled because of prolonged power outages. The Sacramento City Unified School District is resuming classes today at most campuses, after shutting down on Monday.

Jan. 10, 2023, 11:38 a.m. ET

Jan. 10, 2023, 11:38 a.m. ET

Vik Jolly

Reporting from Riverside, Calif.

The four Malibu schools in the Santa Monica-Malibu School District switched to remote learning on Tuesday because of the storm, according to the district’s website. Parents were advised to watch for more information from their respective schools.

Jan. 10, 2023, 11:02 a.m. ET

Jan. 10, 2023, 11:02 a.m. ET

Judson Jones

Meteorologist

The next few days will bring even more rain to California. Here’s a day-by-day breakdown of the forecast.

A map showing the precipitation forecast for California and surrounding areas for January 10 to January 15.

Five-day precipitation forecast

Jan. 10, 2023, 10:54 a.m. ET

Jan. 10, 2023, 10:54 a.m. ET

Jill Cowan

Reporting from Santa Barbara County, Calif.

It’s still dark in Santa Barbara County, which was battered by heavy downpours on Monday, but the rain has calmed and winds are light. U.S. Highway 101, normally a crucial artery, is mostly closed and ghostly quiet as drizzle falls.

Jan. 9, 2023, 7:30 p.m. ET

Jan. 9, 2023, 7:30 p.m. ET

Image

Credit…Josh Edelson/Agence France-Presse — Getty Images

CARPINTERIA, Calif. — As rain lashed Southern California on Monday night, parts of Los Angeles County experienced flooding — an unusual twist for a typically dry, sunny place where people tend to worry about droughts.

A flash flood warning for southwestern Los Angeles County that had been issued before 7 p.m. expired early Tuesday. The warning affected nearly 8 million of the more than 10 million residents in the county, the most populous in the United States.

The full extent of flooding in the Los Angeles area was not immediately clear in the predawn hours of Tuesday morning. California’s Central Coast, where officials had ordered evacuations on Monday in a coastal enclave of Santa Barbara County, appeared to be the hardest hit area of a state that has been battered in recent weeks by powerful waves of moisture, known as atmospheric rivers.

But the Weather Service had warned on Monday evening that downtown Los Angeles, Malibu, Hollywood and Beverly Hills were among the places that would experience flash flooding. And as more than an inch of rain fell in some areas of the county that night, early images showed cars partially submerged by floods near downtown. The Los Angeles Fire Department also told an NBC affiliate that firefighters had rescued two people who were trapped inside a vehicle at the bottom of a sinkhole that opened in the Chatsworth area, north of downtown L.A.

And at Los Angeles International Airport, a so-called ground stop issued shortly after 8 p.m. by the Federal Aviation Administration slowed the pace of takeoffs and landings for about an hour amid high winds, said Victoria Spilabotte, a spokeswoman for the airport.

“That usually happens at airports across the country, but we don’t often have a ground stop, mostly because Los Angeles has pretty good weather year round,” she said. “So this type of storm is not typical for us.”

More bad weather was in the forecast. The Weather Service said early Tuesday morning that as the heavy precipitation in Southern California was beginning to taper, a new and “energetic” low-pressure system was gathering strength offshore.

Heavy precipitation was expected across much of the state on Tuesday, and parts of Southern California could see up to seven inches of rain over the next few days, the agency said. “The one good aspect of the recent heavy rains has been relief from the persistent drought that has been plaguing large portions of the West,” it added.

The flooding in Los Angeles on Monday night capped a frantic day in Santa Barbara County, where officials ordered thousands of residents to quickly evacuate the coastal enclave of Montecito amid fears of mudslides in an area where wildfires have made soils and vegetation less stable.

Up to a foot of rain was expected to soak Montecito’s already drenched hillsides. And the evacuation orders were issued five years to the day that a deadly torrent of mud and boulders rushed through neighborhoods in that mansion community, killing 23 people and turning it into a disaster area.

We’re in the midst of a series of significant and powerful storms,” Sheriff Bill Brown of Santa Barbara County said in a briefing. “Currently, we’re experiencing a storm that is causing many problems and has the potential to cause major problems across our county, especially in the burn scar areas.”

A map showing the precipitation forecast for California and surrounding areas for January 10 to January 15.

Five-day precipitation forecast

Late Sunday, President Biden approved an emergency declaration for 17 counties in California, allowing for federal assistance from the Federal Emergency Management Agency and the Department of Homeland Security in relief and rescue efforts.

Elsewhere along the Central Coast, one person was killed by floodwater while trying to navigate a submerged road in San Luis Obispo County, north of Santa Barbara, officials said on Monday. A 5-year-old boy remained missing. Residents were evacuated from numerous communities because of flood risks as their streets turned into gushing streams.

At the Best Western Plus Carpinteria Inn, several miles southeast of Montecito, a steady stream of people clad in rain gear pulled up in SUVs packed with luggage and provisions. Some who had evacuated said they were surprised to be among those ordered to leave because their homes were not in burn scars, areas hit by wildfire that are made more susceptible to landslides.

In the 2018 storm that led to the devastating mudslide, officials had issued mandatory evacuation orders for about 7,000 residents in Montecito and voluntary ones for another 23,000, but many disregarded them because they had just returned home after being forced to leave during a wildfire.

Montecito is a popular haven for celebrities, including Prince Harry and his wife, Meghan, the Duchess of Sussex; Oprah Winfrey; and Ellen DeGeneres, who posted a video on Twitter of a raging creek behind her house that she said “never flows, ever.”

“We need to be nicer to Mother Nature because Mother Nature is not happy with us,” Ms. DeGeneres said.

Evacuation orders were also in place in neighboring Ventura County, including in the tiny community of La Conchita, the site of a 2005 landslide around the same time of year that killed 10 people.

Image

Credit…Mike Kai Chen for The New York Times

In Santa Cruz County, about 70 miles south of San Francisco, more than 30,000 residents were placed under evacuation orders as creeks and rivers topped their banks, threatened homes and washed away at least one bridge. Mudslides blocked two highways in the Santa Cruz Mountains that connect the region to the San Francisco Bay Area.

The flooding in the county besieged an area already reeling from some of the heaviest damage from recent storms. Just last week, the confluence of a storm surge, high tides and high surf collapsed piers and flooded hundreds of homes and businesses.

The storm’s impacts continued farther south along the state’s Central Coast, with evacuation orders along rivers in Watsonville and Monterey County.

Numerous roads were closed amid flash-flood warnings in San Luis Obispo County, where the 5-year-old boy remained missing after he and his mother escaped from a car that was starting to be swept away by floodwaters. His mother, who had been driving him to school around 8 a.m., was rescued by nearby residents, but the boy was carried away by waters coursing down a rising creek, said Tony Cipolla, public information officer with the San Luis Obispo County Sheriff’s Office.

Video

Officials issued evacuation orders for parts of Santa Cruz County as heavy rain inundated the area and caused the San Lorenzo River to rise rapidly.CreditCredit…Sarah Williams via Storyful

Divers with the agency’s underwater search and rescue team scoured the nearby waters for hours, but had to call off the search around 3 p.m. when the rising waters and rapid current made it too dangerous, he said.

Rivers and creeks in the area were gushing like they hadn’t in decades, said Scott Jalbert, the county’s emergency services manager. “They’re pretty monstrous,” he said.

California Polytechnic State University in San Luis Obispo shut down for the day. The university reported that students, faculty and animals were being evacuated from agricultural facilities with a reservoir about to breach.

In the nearby town of Santa Margarita, Tamara Snow Nyren said that for all her preparations the night before — building a fort of sandbags all around her home — she was not ready for Monday’s flooding.

“My God, I look out the window to my alley, and I saw a river coming down my alley,” she said.

Share of customers without power by county

Source: PowerOutage.us
Notes:

 Counties shown are those with at least 1 percent of customers without power.
By The New York Times

Jill Cowan reported from Carpinteria, Calif., Victoria Kim from San Francisco and Mike Ives from Seoul. Katya Cengel contributed reporting from Grover Beach, Calif.

Jan. 9, 2023, 5:00 a.m. ET

Jan. 9, 2023, 5:00 a.m. ET

Image

Extreme rain, wind and powerful waves hit the coast around Santa Cruz, Calif., last week. Another severe storm is expected on Monday.Credit…Mike Kai Chen for The New York Times

APTOS, Calif. — Chuck Hawley stared out at the waves swirling through Monterey Bay as he prepared to destroy the small beachfront home his parents built by hand in 1957.

He had no choice: Storm-fueled waves in the region, just east of Santa Cruz, had torn the 1,100-square-foot house off its foundations and floated it 30 feet into the street. There it sat, miraculously still intact but posing a hazard by blocking the road to cars.

Mr. Hawley’s parents started bringing him and his siblings to the beach house when he was 2, and Mr. Hawley, now the property manager, often rented it to family friends. He recalled sitting on the deck and watching the surf for hours with his father, who has since died. Mr. Hawley, 67, had hoped that one day his grandchildren would form similar memories there.

Instead, he was left with a sense of emptiness. “We’ve had two days to come to the conclusion that this house that’s been around for 65 years is no more,” he said, choking up.

A barrage of powerful storms has surprised residents across Northern California with an unrelenting period of extreme weather stretching over weeks, with only small intervals of dryness. These storms have toppled trees, washed out streets and knocked out power for hundreds of thousands, but they have been particularly devastating to the Santa Cruz region, where prolonged rain and wind have combined with the unique topography to inflict recurring damage.

Image

Chuck Hawley with Isla Dowd, his granddaughter, in front of his home.Credit…Mike Kai Chen for The New York Times

Image

The view from inside Mr. Hawley’s living room. The house was dislodged by flooding.Credit…Mike Kai Chen for The New York Times

Already drenched by a storm on Dec. 31, the Santa Cruz area — a tourist-friendly stretch of beaches on the Central Coast of California, 70 miles south of San Francisco — was again inundated in some parts with as much as five inches of rain and driving winds of up to 75 miles per hour on Wednesday and Thursday.

And the region was experiencing some of the worst effects of the latest storm, which arrived Monday in Northern California. In the Santa Cruz Mountains, a mudslide shut down two highways, and the San Lorenzo River flooded neighborhoods. Officials ordered new evacuations in the oceanside village of Soquel, and along the Carmel River near Monterey to the south.

Video

Officials issued evacuation orders for parts of Santa Cruz County as heavy rain inundated the area and caused the San Lorenzo River to rise rapidly.CreditCredit…Sarah Williams via Storyful

An unlucky confluence of high tides, storm surge and high surf left hundreds of homes and dozens of businesses damaged by floodwater and mountains of sand this past weekend. The extreme conditions eroded coastlines and beaches, destroyed parts of several piers and forced many to evacuate low-lying homes.

“We’re very concerned,” said Dave Reid, the director of the Santa Cruz County Office of Response, Recovery & Resilience. “As you get more and more of these rain events piling on top of each other, our mountains literally begin to melt, and we get more landslides and damage to our infrastructure.”

Mr. Reid said the unrelenting nature of the storms, just days apart from one another, was exhausting emergency responders and impeding the county’s efforts to assess damage and begin repairs.

“We really consider this disaster to be the cumulative effect of all of these events in such a short time frame,” he said.

Santa Cruz has long been far rainier than its neighboring counties, mostly because of its topography, said Jan Null, a veteran meteorologist and former lead forecaster for the National Weather Service. Storms coming from the Pacific Ocean slam into the Santa Cruz Mountains, forcing the air to lift and become colder, which creates more precipitation.

“It’s not uncommon in any given storm to have four times the rainfall in the Santa Cruz Mountains as you do in San Francisco,” Mr. Null said.

The drastic differences in precipitation in places just 10 miles apart is a phenomenon rarely seen outside California, driven by the proximity of the ocean and mountains, he said.

“The whole theme of the Bay Area is microclimates,” he said.

Image

The Capitola Wharf was split during the storm.Credit…Mike Kai Chen for The New York Times

Image

Credit…Mike Kai Chen for The New York Times

Image

A truck was crushed by a large tree that fell amid the high winds and rain.Credit…Mike Kai Chen for The New York Times

The ferocity of the waves and severity of structural damage recalled, for some residents, memories of the disastrous 1982 storm that flooded rivers, badly damaged a bridge and killed 22 people, including 10 in a landslide that occurred just as a 30-hour rainstorm let up. In January of that year, the hillside above Love Creek, about 10 miles north of Santa Cruz, turned to liquid, with approximately 600,000 cubic yards of land — enough to fill 60,000 dump trucks — sliding down the mountain.

This year’s storm rivals 1982’s, “and nothing else in between has come close,” said Carin Hanna, 78, who owns the Craft Gallery gift shop in Capitola, a town next to Santa Cruz. “It shows the incredible force of the ocean,” she added.

Santa Cruz is also prone to flooding because its creeks and its biggest waterway, the San Lorenzo River, are not big enough to contain all of the water from heavy rainfall, experts say. Over the weekend, the river was so swollen that surfers were riding waves headed out to sea, rather than the other direction, and emergency responders warned of flood risks along the banks on Monday.

Parts of West Cliff Drive, a winding Santa Cruz road at the edge of the cliffs overlooking the ocean, were closed after chunks of the street were wiped out by 20-foot-tall waves. Earlier storms had already pounded at the cliffs and washed away some barriers, like riprap — giant rocks placed at the edge of the cliffs to protect against erosion — a frightening sight for some residents.

On Thursday morning, Lindsay Maggioncalda was on her laptop in a meeting for her job at Duolingo, the language platform, on the second floor of her oceanfront home in Santa Cruz. Suddenly, a wave struck the storm-resistant window mere feet away from where she was sitting on the couch.

“Tons of water just went bam, like a huge crash, big vibrations,” Ms. Maggioncalda, 25, said. “I was gasping.”

Her father, Jeff Maggioncalda, ventured into the soaked neighborhood to film the chaos, retreating quickly when more waves blasted through the gaps in the street near him.

“This was by far the worst storm we’ve seen,” said Mr. Maggioncalda, 54, the chief executive of the online education company Coursera.

During a dry period on Saturday, residents were doing their best to clear logs from their yards, replace soggy sandbags and shovel away the sand that had burst through their garage doors.

Walking on Rio Del Mar Beach in Aptos with her two dogs, Isaura Rochin, 52, was picking up trash that had swept onto the beach. In the distance, the S.S. Palo Alto, a World War I-era concrete tanker ship beloved by local residents, who know it as the Cement Ship, had been badly damaged by the storm, and part of the pier connecting it to Seacliff State Beach had crumbled into the sea.

“I’m sad about the wharf,” Ms. Rochin said. “The Cement Ship, I’m sad, but it’s been deteriorating for years and years.”

Image

Dominick King, owner of the restaurant My Thai Beach, expects his business to be closed for months.Credit…Mike Kai Chen for The New York Times

Image

In preparation for the next storm, Mr. King worked with contractors to board up the windows of his restaurant.Credit…Mike Kai Chen for The New York Times

In Capitola, as rain began to drench the streets once again, Dominick King was rushing to save anything he could from his restaurant, My Thai Beach, before the next storm. The restaurant, along with many others next to the beach, was soaked by floodwater that crept up from the foundation, severing plumbing and warping the floor.

Mr. King, 34, had just remodeled the interior after inheriting the restaurant from his mother, who had struggled to steer it through the coronavirus pandemic. Now, he expects it to be closed for months.

“We were trying to get the business back on the right foot,” he said. “Things were going really good. It’s tough, man. It’s definitely a huge setback.”

Gary Griggs, a professor of earth sciences who has taught at the University of California, Santa Cruz, since the 1960s, said that the same spots in Santa Cruz, like the Capitola pier and West Cliff Drive, had been damaged once or twice a decade by storms, but that people had “short-disaster memory.”

He said the region needed to seriously consider moving development away from the coastline because there was no way to escape inevitable sea level rise.

“What this storm is telling us is it’s time to think a little more long term and make some decisions,” he said. “We’ve been Band-Aiding things together for a long time.”

A correction was made on 

Jan. 9, 2023

A picture caption accompanying an earlier version of this article misspelled the given name of the owner of the My Thai Beach restaurant in Capitola, Calif. He is Dominick King, not Dominic.

How we handle corrections

Jan. 6, 2023, 5:00 a.m. ET

Jan. 6, 2023, 5:00 a.m. ET

Fierce Winds and Rain Wreak Havoc in California

  1. Sacramento

    Max Whittaker for The New York Times

  2. Occidental

    Associated Press

  3. Oakland

    Associated Press

  4. Santa Cruz

    Reuters

  5. Santa Cruz

    Reuters

SACRAMENTO — The coast redwood crashed through the roof and into Nicole Valentine’s bedroom while she was away at a party, trying to ignore the powerful storms that were hammering Northern California with fierce winds and rain. On the phone, her neighbor was almost incoherent.

“She’s like, ‘A tree just fell on your house! I smell gas! I called 911!’” Ms. Valentine, a mother of two and a lawyer in Sacramento, said. “I said, ‘Wait — what?’ Thank goodness no one was at home but our labradoodle, Charlie. My husband ran home immediately.”

In the days since that call on New Year’s Eve, cumulative storms have pummeled California — and Ms. Valentine and her family have huddled in an Airbnb with Charlie, who survived unharmed. As they have tried to schedule insurance adjusters, versions of their terrifying experience have proliferated across the nation’s most populous state.

Stressed by drought, whipped by wind and weakened at the roots by relentless rain and flooding, trees — tall and short, ancient and young, in mountain preserves and suburban yards — have toppled across California this week in breathtaking numbers, the most visible sign of a state veering between environmental extremes.

A procession of atmospheric rivers has interrupted an epic drought responsible for the driest three years on California record. The sudden swing from scarcity to excess with back-to-back storms is testing the state’s infrastructure broadly, straining the power grid, levees, drainage systems and roads from the Pacific Coast to the Sierra Nevada.

Image

A downed tree at Sacramento City College is cut into pieces on Thursday.Credit…Max Whittaker for The New York Times

On Thursday, the pressure mounted as rain swelled rivers and snowy whiteouts obscured mountain passes. In San Francisco, trains were delayed amid systemwide disruptions on the Bay Area Rapid Transit. In Santa Cruz County, a tidal surge carried off parts of piers and forced the City of Santa Cruz to close its wharf as a safety measure. In Southern California, huge waves threatened lifeguard towers in Los Angeles County and flooded the Pacific Coast Highway in Huntington Beach, as the rain moved southward.

By Friday morning, tens of thousands of customers, mostly in Northern California, were still without power as communities prepared for yet another round of drenching rain. Forecasters with the National Weather Service in the Bay Area said the next atmospheric river was expected to arrive late Friday and spread south to Central California on Saturday, raising the risk of more flooding and mudslides across the northern section of the state. Farther inland and around the Sacramento area, conditions were expected to be equally dangerous.

If the storm had a theme, it was in the uprooted and broken trees that seemed to blanket the rain-soaked landscape — a loss and a hazard that the director of the state water resources department, Karla Nemeth, had warned would be “the signature of this particular event.”

Falling trees slammed into power lines on the Central Coast, shut down Highway 101 in Humboldt County and snarled rail service in Burlingame and San Francisco. They injured a California Highway Patrol officer at a crash scene in San Jose and ensnared cars on rain-soaked roads in Marin County. On Wednesday, fire officials said, a redwood in the Sonoma County community of Occidental crashed into a mobile home, killing a toddler.

In the Fruitvale neighborhood of Oakland, a tree crashed through a public housing apartment on Wednesday, where Victoria James lives with her adult daughter, her two younger children and her 3-year-old granddaughter. “Everything shook and went black,” Ms. James said. “I thought it was an earthquake.”

When she saw branches poking through her ceiling and more limbs falling, she said, she grabbed the children and started running.

Image

A large tree came down in front of Victoria James’s apartment building, forcing her family to flee.Credit…Jim Wilson/The New York Times

“There were live wires everywhere,” she said. “My neighbors had to direct us because it was pitch black out. We just left with what we had on our backs. Literally ran out — one kid didn’t even have on tennis shoes.”

In Sacramento, which bills itself as the “City of Trees,” the atmospheric rivers claimed nearly 1,000 trees in six days, according to the city’s urban forester, Kevin Hocker, who called the toll “much more than we’ve seen in other storms.” He estimated that 60 fell in one city park alone.

On the State Capitol grounds, a short distance from the spot where Governor Gavin Newsom was being inaugurated for a second term on Friday, a giant sequoia lay uprooted, felled by the storms and surrounded with hazard tape and scattered drifts of branches; its fall sheared the limbs off one side of a nearby Torrey pine. Paula Peper, a retired U.S. Forest Service urban ecologist in Sacramento, estimated that the giant sequoia had stood for 80 to 100 years, through as many as 18 governors.

At Sacramento City College, a downed cedar, huge and fragrant, blocked the entrance to campus. In a manicured neighborhood near the American River, Marco Leyva, a local landscaper, scrambled to retrieve fallen tree limbs, his truck piled high with redwood, oak and liquid amber. Some, he said, appeared to have fallen partway in the New Year’s Eve storm, “and then the wind this time just knocked them down.”

The toll on trees is more than ornamental and nostalgic. At critical juncture in adapting to climate change, scientists say that trees are a physical barometer and manifestation of failure and success.

In California cities, the urban canopy is a critical piece of environmental infrastructure, cooling sidewalks, cleansing air, creating wildlife habitat and giving people of all socioeconomic backgrounds respite from intensifying heat waves. In more remote places, where disease and drought have already turned vast tracts of wilderness into kindling, the fallen trees, unless they are quickly cleared, invite wildfire and pests.

In a news conference, Ms. Nemeth, the state water resources director, blamed the horticultural devastation on the drought as well as the violent weather. “We’re moving from extreme drought to extreme flood,” she said. “What that means is, a lot of our trees are stressed.”

At the same time, weather systems shifted by climate change have amplified wind and precipitation, said Jeffrey Mount, a senior fellow at the Public Policy Institute of California’s Water Policy Center. Last weekend’s storm was very wet — essentially, an atmospheric fire hose hanging over California — but this week’s “bomb cyclone” storm brought much more wind, Dr. Mount said.

Image

Palm tree husks fell around the Mission District as the storm hit San Francisco on Wednesday.Credit…Mike Kai Chen for The New York Times

The one-two punch of ever more saturated soil and speeding winds, scientists say, has made it tougher for trees to stay upright.

“It is not a surprise when we start getting these 50- to 70-mile-per-hour gusts that these big, old trees that are stressed and have their feet planted in what is essentially mud at this point — they fall over,” Dr. Mount said. “An astonishing number of these big trees go toes up in these big storms.”

Emily Griswold, director of horticulture and teaching gardens at the University of California, Davis Arboretum, said that the swings between climate extremes have left even healthy trees more vulnerable. On New Year’s Eve, some 15 thriving trees at the arboretum uprooted — including a “beautiful, healthy” Guadalupe Island cypress planted in 1936.

She and her colleagues research which trees and plants would be best to help shade cities and which would be able to thrive in a rapidly changing California.

Much of their research so far has focused on extreme heat and drought. But the recent storms have shown that those inquiries must expand, she said.

“It’s like heat, drought, flood — hell or high water,” Ms. Griswold said. “We’re definitely looking closely at what fails, why did it fail, what can we learn from this, and how can we plant more wisely in the future?”

Brian Ferguson, a spokesman for the California Governor’s Office of Emergency Services, said the thousands of downed trees have been among the biggest challenges the state has encountered in managing public safety in this storm system. Falling trees not only threaten buildings and power lines, he said, but also can damage levees by toppling near waterways where branches and debris can be propelled downstream.

The new climate reality, he said, has meant that disasters intertwine and compound one another: Drought worsens and lengthens fire seasons. Global warming intensifies heat waves. Precipitation that can no longer fall as snow lands as a deluge, and flora and fauna strain to survive the ecological disruption.

The current disasters, and the living things that endure them, Mr. Ferguson said, underscore the reality that “we are one planet.”

“I’m not a scientist, just a dad with two eyes and a brain, but it’s so clear that the world is changing around us,” he said.

Holly Secon and Derrick Bryson Taylor contributed reporting.

Jan. 5, 2023, 6:33 p.m. ET

Jan. 5, 2023, 6:33 p.m. ET

The western coast of the United States has been hit relentlessly by a series of atmospheric rivers — essentially plumes of concentrated moisture at the altitude where airplanes commonly fly.

Dec. 25

CANADA

UNITED STATES

PACIFIC OCEAN

MEXICO

Dec. 25

CANADA

MEXICO

This abundant moisture has dumped excessive amounts of rain, especially in Northern California and the central part of the state, which has led to flooding, landslides and numerous power outages.

Animated map showing accumulated hourly precipitation from atmospheric rivers for Dec. 25th at 4 p.m. Pacific through January 4 at 12 p.m.

Forecasters said that this series of storms could continue into mid-January.

Here is where forecasters believe the precipitation will fall over the next five days.

A map showing the precipitation forecast for California and surrounding areas for January 10 to January 15.

Five-day precipitation forecast

Even small amounts of additional rainfall could lead to flash flooding because the ground is saturated from previous rainfall. This weakens the soil and can lead to landslides.

But it isn’t just rain. In the higher elevations, snow has fallen by the foot, and more is on the way. The potential impacts on daily life and travel from this winter weather are shown on the map below. Drag the blue circle to see forecasts for future days.

Potential winter storm impact

Source: National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration
Note: Storm impact includes NOAA’s assessments
of snow conditions, ice accumulation, flash freezing and wind.

By Bea Malsky and John-Michael Murphy

All of these precipitation hazards have been accompanied by strong winds, which have been widespread and gusted to more than 50 miles per hour at times, especially over the Pacific Ocean.

On Sunday morning, wind speeds in the Central Valley and off the coast of San Francisco exceeded 39 miles per hour, the threshold for tropical-storm-force winds during hurricane season.

This extreme weather has combined to produce power outages across the West. Nearly 107,000 utility customers were without power across California as of Monday afternoon, according to poweroutage.us.

Share of customers without power by county

Source: PowerOutage.us
Notes:

 Counties shown are those with at least 1 percent of customers without power.
By The New York Times

Jan. 3, 2023, 5:28 p.m. ET

Jan. 3, 2023, 5:28 p.m. ET

Image

A flooded road in San Francisco on New Year’s Eve.Credit…Mike Kai Chen for The New York Times

Drenching rains forecast to pummel California on Wednesday and again over the weekend are poised to be the third and fourth major storms to march through in less than two weeks, raising the prospect of more misery in a season that has already brought flooding, debris flows and power outages to parts of the state.

Over the weekend, rescuers scoured rural areas of Sacramento County looking for people trapped in homes or cars. Levees failed near the Cosumnes River and flooded a highway.

Winter rain and snow typically provide much of the water used throughout the year in California, which has suffered several years of punishing drought. But when these storms, which are known as atmospheric rivers, are particularly severe or sweep through in rapid succession, they can do more harm than good, delivering too much water, too quickly, for the state’s reservoirs and emergency responders to handle.

So far, this winter’s storms have been largely in line with past ones except in their unrelenting pace, said Michael Anderson, California’s state climatologist. “This is where we’re getting hit this year: We’re seeing a lot of big storms fairly quickly.”

These storms get their name from their long, narrow shape and the prodigious amount of water they carry.

They form when winds over the Pacific draw a filament of moisture from the band of warm, moist air over the tropics and channel it toward the West Coast. When this ribbon of moisture hits the Sierra Nevada and other mountains, it is forced upward, cooling it and turning its water into immense quantities of rain and snow.

Climate scientists also distinguish atmospheric rivers from other kinds of storms by the amount of water vapor they carry. These amounts form the basis for a five-point scale used to rank atmospheric rivers from “weak” to “exceptional.”

As humans continue burning fossil fuels and heating the atmosphere, the warmer air can hold more moisture. This means storms in many places, California included, are more likely to be extremely wet and intense. Scientists are also studying whether global warming might be shifting the way winds carry moisture around the atmosphere, potentially influencing the number of atmospheric rivers that sweep through California each year and how long they last. They have not yet come to firm conclusions on these questions, though.

“The dominant thing that’s happening is just that, in a warmer atmosphere, there’s exponentially more potential for it to hold water vapor,” said Daniel L. Swain, a climate scientist at the University of California, Los Angeles. “And that exerts a really profound influence on things.”

Image

Stranded vehicles on Interstate 80 at the Nevada-California border on Saturday.Credit…California Highway Patrol Truckee, via Associated Press

Atmospheric rivers are hugely influential for California’s weather and water supplies. They cause the state’s heaviest rains and feed the biggest floods. They drive its cycles of dry and wet, famine and feast. But they also cause a large share of the state’s levee breaches and debris flows.

One atmospheric river can be enough to flood homes, down power lines and wash away hillsides and highways. But when several sweep ashore in a matter of days or weeks, as appears to be happening this week, the potential damage is multiplied.

Soils already saturated with rainwater might not be able to absorb any more, leading to floods and landslides. Rivers and streams already swollen after one storm could overflow. In the high mountains, rain could fall on snow, melting it and causing water to cascade toward communities below. Emergency services could be stretched to the breaking point.

When big storms come one right after the other, it is also harder for infrastructure to channel all that water into the ground or into reservoirs where it can be kept in reserve for dry summers.

“It’s really helpful if the storms would be so kind as to space themselves out a week or two apart so we have time for water to move through the system,” said Jeanine Jones, an official with California’s Department of Water Resources.

A pile-on of wet weather caused catastrophic flooding across California and the Pacific Northwest in the winter of 1861-62, when deluges swept away homes and farms and turned valleys into vast lakes. As global warming continues, scientists say the risk of a replay of those floods is rising.

Image

Flooding near Highway 99 in Wilton, Calif., on Sunday.Credit…Hector Amezcua/The Sacramento Bee, via Associated Press

In a study published last year, Dr. Swain and Xingying Huang of the National Center for Atmospheric Research in Boulder, Colo., estimated that California today had a roughly 1-in-50 chance each year of experiencing a storm of comparable intensity to 1861-62. Climate change has already doubled those odds compared with a century ago, they estimated.

It is still unclear how global warming might be affecting the likelihood for atmospheric rivers to crash into California in rapid-fire clusters. Another study last year found that in nearly four out of five years between 1981 and 2019, half or more of all atmospheric rivers that affected the state were part of an atmospheric river “family,” or a rapid parade of storms.

Still, the warmer atmosphere’s increased capacity for holding moisture is reason enough for California officials to prepare for more catastrophic rain events today and in the future, Dr. Swain said.

“Even if that were the only thing that’s happening,” he said, “it would act to juice up, if you will, whatever atmosphere rivers are occurring, whether it’s families of atmospheric rivers or one-offs.”

Sept. 26, 2022, 8:54 a.m. ET

Sept. 26, 2022, 8:54 a.m. ET

Image

Credit…Hilary Swift for The New York Times

When disaster strikes, household pets’ lives are among the most vulnerable. Evacuating animals during any type of emergency — whether a hurricane, wildfire or earthquake — adds a layer of stress in a turbulent situation. However, experts with animal-advocacy organizations say that taking care of our furry, purry, feathered and scaly housemates is an imperative lifesaving effort that can be conducted smoothly with advance planning.

Every attempt should be made not to leave animals behind, the advocates say. You might not be able to return home for longer than you anticipate, and abandoning pets can have “devastating consequences,” said Kelly Donithan, director of animal disaster response for the Humane Society of the United States.

“If you’re leaving for any reason, don’t think that it’s safe to leave them behind,” Ms. Donithan said.

Experts emphasized that successfully evacuating with your pets depends on actions you can take well before the threat of an emergency is imminent.

“Every story is going to be unique,” said Dr. Lori Teller, president of the American Veterinary Medical Association. “Planning ahead definitely makes the whole ordeal a lot easier.”

Image

Credit…Scott McIntyre for The New York Times

Image

Credit…Hilary Swift for The New York Times

Ensure your pets are wearing collars with clear, current identification and your contact information. A GPS collar could also come in handy, especially if you have a fearful pet that is prone to making escape attempts in stressful situations, said Jason Cohen, a dog trainer based in New York City.

You’ll need a sturdy leash and a pet carrier or crate labeled with your contact information. Consider getting a backup attachment for your pet’s collar, such as a metal carabiner or double-clip accessory, for added security if a collar accidentally comes off.

Your pets might not be accustomed to traveling, so building their familiarity with different modes of transportation could help. Know the various evacuation routes and practice them in advance.

“If you know where you are going to go, if you know your routes, if you have all the supplies you need, that’s the best-case scenario,” Ms. Donithan said.

Image

Credit…Jim Wilson/The New York Times

Emergencies can happen at any time, so this kit should be updated regularly and kept in a convenient, easily accessible place in your home, advocates said.

The kit should include enough nonperishable food and water to last at least a week.

It should also contain:

  • food and water receptacles

  • a first-aid kit

  • a couple of weeks’ supply of medications, if needed

  • a printed document or USB stick with medical records, such as a rabies vaccine certificate, key details about your pet’s diet, any behavioral issues and contact information for your veterinarian, all enclosed in a waterproof container

  • a toy or two for those idle hours

  • hygiene supplies such as poop bags or a litter box

  • a current picture of you and your pet, in case you later need to prove ownership or reclaim it

Microchips, small transponders embedded into a pet’s skin that are linked to identification and the owner’s contact information, can later be scanned if the pet is lost. Getting your pet microchipped by a veterinarian is a must, experts said. It doesn’t end there. You’ll have to register this information with an online database and verify that the registration is linked to your name and phone number. Once registered, microchip numbers can be searched here.

To help ease your pet’s anxiety, there are a variety of supplements available, some by prescription. You could consider speaking to your vet about what might be appropriate for your pet, Dr. Teller said.

Potential remedies include medications such as trazodone and hemp-based CBD products.

These aids should be tested out before an emergency, especially if you already know your pet is anxious in certain situations, such as traveling, Ms. Donithan added.

Keep vaccinations current and consider obtaining pet insurance.

Image

Credit…Carolyn Kaster/Associated Press

Ideally, you’ll be able to stay with your pet during a disaster, and there are many hotels that allow pets. Emergency shelters in your municipality may not permit pets, so ask local safety officials about their general policies.

If you can’t secure accommodation with your pet, create a backup housing plan by assessing nearby shelters, boarding kennels or out-of-town family members or friends with whom your pet could temporarily stay.

Steps such as crate training, which consists of preparing your pet to spend some quiet time in its kennel, could be “a lifesaver in emergency situations,” Mr. Cohen said.

“If a dog is comfortable in a crate, it will help keep them safe and not add more stress,” Mr. Cohen added.

And it goes beyond dogs. Many animals, including ferrets, pigs and rabbits, can be crate-trained, Ms. Donithan said.

To help your pets get used to spending time in the crate, you could regularly feed them meals inside it, which will build comfort and positive connections with their portable home. You can also toss treats in and out of the crate to help them develop their ease with entering and exiting a pet carrier, Mr. Cohen said.

It could also be useful to brush up on the “come” command and good walking practices, and to identify your pet’s hiding spots at home.

Image

Credit…Gerry Broome/Associated Press

Don’t wait for the mandatory evacuation order to leave. Stay informed by monitoring different websites, including ready.gov, and opting into receiving emergency alerts through your smartphone settings. You should also monitor updates from your local municipality and emergency responders. Then, evacuate as early as possible. It will give you more flexibility and keep you and your pets calmer.

You can do most of the work before actually evacuating, Ms. Donithan said. In an active emergency, it’s about implementing the plan you’ve already made.

“When it’s happening, it’s going to go as well as you’ve practiced or how well-prepared you are,” Ms. Donithan added.

You’ll want to contact your local emergency management office to see if they have temporary housing options for you and your pet. If not, rely on your alternatives.

Certain pets will require extra care. For birds, depending on the weather, you’ll need a blanket to cover the carrier and trap heat or a spray bottle to moisten feathers. If you have a reptile, you’ll need a sturdy bowl for your pet to soak in and something to warm it with. Snakes can be transported in a pillowcase. There are also special considerations for livestock and horses.

Image

Credit…Kristina Barker for The New York Times

The experience could be traumatic for both you and your pet. Some signs of distress your pet might exhibit, such as panting, moderate nausea and shaking, could be normal. But other indicators — excessive vocalization or dangerous attempts to break out of confinement — might require medical attention, Dr. Teller said. Having a grasp of the basics of pet first aid with an app like this one from the Red Cross can help.

And if you must leave your pets behind, take the appropriate actions. Leave out plenty of food and fresh water and do not restrain your pet. Boost awareness of your pet’s location by notifying local law enforcement, animal control officials, and animal shelters.

Also, post a note outside your home, where rescue teams can see it, indicating that you have a pet and where it is, and listing your contact information. You can order an emergency sticker to affix to your window or door from the American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals.

If flooding is expected, you should place your pet at the highest point in your residence.

Image

Credit…Max Whittaker for The New York Times

If your pet is lost, contact your local animal shelters and seek help from neighborhood social media groups. You can also post a notice on microchip databases or print fliers and offer a reward for your pet.

Once you do return home, remember that the transition will not be seamless. The environment, including scents and appearances, may no longer be familiar to your pet. Supervise your pet carefully and help it ease into the home with patience.

Sept. 13, 2021, 1:15 p.m. ET

Sept. 13, 2021, 1:15 p.m. ET

Image

Nearly half of all flash flood deaths are vehicle-related, experts say, which is why you should never drive into a flooded street.Credit…Salgu Wissmath/San Francisco Chronicle, via Associated Press

When heavy rainfall occurs in a short period of time, rushing water can deluge homes and basement apartments, overtake cars and knock people off their feet. Flash floods can develop quickly, within hours or even minutes; and they often catch people off guard, killing an average of 88 people in the United States each year.

Flash floods occur when there’s just too much water coming in too fast,” said Bonnie Schneider, a meteorologist and author of “Extreme Weather.” And climate change is compounding the risks: Warmer air holds more moisture, Ms. Schneider said, which can lead to heavier, more intense rainfall.

Though flash floods are scary, experts say you can increase your odds of survival by staying informed and having a plan. Here’s what to do in advance — and in the moment — to get through a flash flood safely.

The National Weather Service currently issues severe weather alerts in English and Spanish.

If there’s a “flash flood watch,” according to the service, flooding is not guaranteed, but conditions are favorable enough for it to be possible, so be prepared to change your plans.

A “flash flood warning” means a flash flood is imminent or already occurring, and you should immediately move to higher ground if you’re outside or in a basement apartment.

The most dire alert is a “flash flood emergency,” which indicates that not only is flooding occurring, but it’s posing a severe threat to human life. In 2021, New York City received its first notification of this type during heavy rainfall caused by Hurricane Ida.

Long before rain is on the radar, the first step is to come up with a plan for how your family will communicate, meet and evacuate if there’s a flash flood emergency. How will you escape from your home if needed? Who will be responsible for the kids? Where will you meet if your family becomes separated? The American Red Cross has printable templates to help guide your conversation.

You’ll also want to evaluate the flood risks to your home, work and school, as well as the routes between them. The flood maps developed by the Federal Emergency Management Agency are a good place to start. (If you live in a flood zone, you might also want to consider purchasing flood insurance.)

If you need to leave your home in a hurry, it’s crucial to have an easily accessible emergency kit packed with supplies. Consider adding shelf-stable food; water or a portable filtration system; a change of clothing; a headlamp or flashlight with batteries; a phone charger; face masks; cash; and a first-aid kit. If you have pets, don’t forget food, leashes and portable bowls for them, too. Ready.gov also advises creating “password-protected digital copies” of important paperwork, like birth certificates, identification cards, insurance policies, wills, deeds and titles.

If this seems like overkill, it’s not, said Dr. David Markenson, chief medical officer at American Red Cross Training Services. “The human nature side is obviously not to worry,” he said. And many people think, “‘It’s not going to happen to me.’”

But having a plan can help you make better choices in an emergency, said Sabine Marx, a senior trainer at Columbia University’s National Center for Disaster Preparedness. As she described it, she wouldn’t want to “have to come up with this decision on the spot when I’m also possibly fearing for my life.”

If a storm is in the forecast or underway, pay attention to local weather alerts via your phone, radio or TV. In the case of a power outage, a battery-operated radio can come in handy.

If there’s a chance you may have to evacuate, gather essential items that are not already in your go bag — driver’s licenses, credit cards, medications and key documents — and seal them in a waterproof pouch. (A plastic freezer bag works just fine.) Make sure your phone is charged and, if you have time, unplug small appliances so they won’t get fried by electrical surges. Move valuables to a higher floor (if you have one).

If you live in a basement apartment, be extra vigilant when it comes to monitoring rainstorms, said Julie Munger, founder of Sierra Rescue International, an organization that has trained swift-water rescuers for 35 years. If you believe you may be in danger, she recommended immediately moving to a higher floor or evacuating to another location. (To find an emergency shelter, text SHELTER and your ZIP code to 43362.) FEMA warns against climbing into a closed attic, as you could become trapped by rising floodwaters. If necessary, climb onto the roof.

If you find yourself in the worst-case scenario, with water rushing into your apartment, you need to act fast, Ms. Munger said. “Don’t wait, don’t grab anything, just exit,” because if you can’t get out, she added, your only option is to “hope that the water doesn’t fill up the apartment completely.”

According to Dr. Markenson, it’s essential to follow updates closely, since conditions can change rapidly. If you’re told to evacuate, do it. Check road closures on your state’s department of transportation website before heading out if there’s time, and take an alternate route if you encounter a flooded road.

The biggest issue with flash floods, Dr. Markenson said, is that people don’t always evacuate when they’re told to do so. But by trying to ride it out, he warned, you’ll endanger yourself and rescuers.

The best thing to do is avoid all floodwaters if you can — or, as the National Weather Service’s grim catchphrase urges: “Turn Around Don’t Drown.” It takes just six inches of fast-moving water to knock you off your feet, so unless you’re ordered to evacuate, staying where you are is usually the safest choice. (Flash floods generally pass quickly.)

The most immediate risk of entering floodwaters is drowning, but you may also expose yourself to various harmful things floating around the water itself, like human, animal and industrial waste; physical objects like cars, lumber and other debris; stray animals like rodents and snakes; and downed power lines.

Sometimes flash flooding happens when you’re out and about, and you may suddenly find yourself in a life-threatening situation. Nearly half of all flash flood deaths are vehicle-related, which is why you should never ignore barriers. “Don’t drive into a flooded street, period,” Ms. Munger said. “There really is no better advice.”

Not only is it difficult to gauge water depth and road conditions, but just 12 inches of water can float your car and 18 inches can carry off your SUV or pickup truck. “Everybody tends to underestimate the force of the water,” Ms. Munger said. “It takes very little current to wreak havoc.”

That said, if your car does get taken by floodwaters, first, roll down your windows, said Lynn Burttschell, an emergency medical worker, rescue swimmer and founder of Wimberley Rescue Training. If they won’t budge, he recommended breaking the glass with an escape tool (like the one in this Wirecutter guide, which you can store in your glove compartment) or using the metal pole of your headrest as a ram. It’s important to open the windows, Mr. Burttschell said, because “if the water continues to rise, then that car fills up and becomes more of a rock instead of a bobber floating downstream.”

Then, unbuckle your seatbelt and grip it as you climb onto the roof and call 911, Mr. Burttschell advised. Do your best to remain with the car until help arrives. Lie down on the roof to keep yourself stable, and don’t tie yourself to the car, in case it rolls.

During his 32-year career, Mr. Burttschell has found that people who stay with their cars survive at much higher rates than those who abandon them, simply because it’s easier for emergency services to spot a vehicle than a person. “I really don’t ever recommend leaving the vehicle,” he said. To make yourself more noticeable, you can also turn on your hazard lights, activate your car’s alarm with your key fob and, if possible, honk the horn.

If you happen to get caught in a flash flood while on foot, run perpendicular to the water and “get to the highest point possible,” Ms. Munger said — whether that means heading into the nearest building and racing up the stairs, climbing a tree or clambering onto a truck. The bigger and heavier the object, the better, she said, since it will be less likely to float away.

If you do get swept away, don’t attempt to stand up, as you risk trapping your foot in a drain, fence or other object. Instead, Ms. Munger advised swimming perpendicular to the current, as you would with a rip tide, until you get to safety. Since you’ll be fighting against drainages, debris and the current, she warned this is extremely difficult, even for strong swimmers. “People need to realize that most people who lose their footing in a flash flood don’t get out,” she said.

As for camping or hiking, Ms. Munger advised researching the region’s weather patterns and forecast before setting out. If there might be a rainstorm upstream of your destination, she suggested camping above any rivers, rather than beside them. If water starts to rise where you are, head immediately to higher ground.

The subway is “the last place you want to be” during a flash flood, Ms. Munger said. “Because eventually, if the storm drains are overwhelmed, there’s no other place for the water to go.” Your best defense, in other words, is to avoid it altogether.

If you do find yourself underground during a flood, Ms. Munger urged exiting the station as swiftly as possible — even if that means forcing your way up flooded stairs. If you’re on a train that is stuck, don’t leave it until you’re instructed to do so, said Eugene Resnick, a spokesman for the Metropolitan Transportation Authority in New York.

While some of these steps may sound inconvenient, the reality is that following them could save your life. “You never want to be in a position where you’re looking back, or others are looking back, and saying: ‘Why didn’t you just heed simple advice?’” Dr. Markenson said.

Or, as Ms. Munger put it: “It’s going to be much more of a hassle and much more tragic when you don’t make it home.”

Susan Shain is a freelance journalist and future New York Times fellow based in Madison, Wis.

A correction was made on 

Sept. 13, 2021

An earlier version of this article misstated the title of Sabine Marx. She is a senior trainer at Columbia University’s National Center for Disaster Preparedness, not a director of research.

How we handle corrections

Read More