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California has started rebuilding after weeks of intense storms caused damage estimated to exceed $1 billion. President Biden declared a major disaster for the state, which frees up federal resources to help in the recovery. Stephanie Sy spoke with Brian Ferguson from the California Governor's Office of Emergency Services about the ongoing recovery efforts.
California is in rebuilding mode after weeks of storms battered the state. Storms are blamed for at least 20 deaths and damages estimated to exceed a billion dollars. President Biden declared a major disaster, which frees up federal resources to help in the recovery.
Now, that the worst of the storms has passed, the cleanup has begun.
Marjorie Cruz, Berkeley Resident:
Marjorie Cruz's Berkeley home was destroyed by a mudslide.
We just finished remodeling the house, so it's hard to see it all go and we'll have to start again.
For weeks, nine so called atmospheric rivers, long narrow sections of the atmosphere that carry water vapor pummeled the drought-stricken state. Torrential downpours turned neighborhoods into lakes and triggered hundreds of mudslides, resulting in widespread power outages and mass evacuations. There were sinkholes in Los Angeles County, rockslides in Fresno, blizzards in the Sierra Nevada. And there were daring rescues. In Laguna Hills, first responders airlifted a woman from a rapidly rising creek. This week, President Biden surveyed damage along the central coast.
Joe Biden, (D) U.S. President: If anybody doubts the climate is changing, then they must have been asleep for the last couple of years. We know some of the destruction is going to take years to fully recover and rebuild. But we got to re — not just rebuild. We got to rebuild better.
The community of Felton, southwest of San Jose, flooded three times in two weeks.
Caitlin Clancy, Felton Resident:
It's just a lot. And then to go through the third time, it's just defeating.
Mehrdad Azim, Felton Resident:
It's always tough. You go through this emotional roller coaster. It's going to be okay. It's not okay. But frankly, if my troubles in life is some mud on the floor and some lost gear I consider myself blessed and lucky.
There is one silver lining, the Deluge replenish some of California's depleted reservoirs.
Stephanie Sy spoke with Brian Ferguson of the Governor's Office of Emergency Services about the recovery efforts.
Brian Ferguson, thank you so much for joining us. I know it's been a long, tough couple of weeks for California. Just describe to us the scope of the damage you're seeing and where things stand right now?
Brian Ferguson, Deputy Director Governor's Office of Emergency Services: Yeah, thank you so much for having us. This has really been a dynamic and challenging set of storms, 48 of our counties have proclaimed either a state of emergency or submitted damages to the state. The vast majority of our state has had impacts in some way, shape or form from San Diego and the south, where they were doing swift water rescues, to Humboldt near the Oregon border where we had mudslides and everywhere in between.
And so, really an unprecedented, challenging disaster that is now averting a little bit. But we have a significant amount of cleanup and recovery that is really just now convincing. The Federal Major Disaster Declaration will expedite assistance to the communities for the financial pieces, but it will be months, if not years in some cases, for these communities to repair all the damage that occurred as a result of these storms.
Just as far as the immediate damage to infrastructure, talk about where roads and other thoroughfares that may have been blocked, for example, by down trees or down power lines, where cleanup is with that?
Yeah, we're really lucky that we have some of the best road crews in the nation in terms of getting things back open, particularly our lifeline routes that are critical for people to either get to business or work or for shipping. Many of our coastal communities, it will be sometime. There's a significant sinkhole, about 27 feet around near Half Moon Bay, Big Sur and Highway 1. There are large portions that have been washed out.
And then the infrastructure, the communities and the people that have been impacted are significant. And those businesses, we're trying to maximize assistance so they can rebuild and recover, but certainly not all their losses may be covered. And so really the mission here is to how do we support communities, how do we support individuals and help them get back and recover and rebuild quickly?
Have there been a lot of people displaced? I've read that there were a lot of homes damaged. Whenever we think of California, we worry about housing and homelessness. And I just want to know if how many people may end up being homeless as a result of these storms?
Yeah, we believe that there are several thousand homes. There'll be red tag, which means unoccupiable, either because of flooding or mudslides or debris flows. And one of the things we're constantly looking at, what are the impacts on the most vulnerable in our communities? We know that folks who either are older Californians have disabilities, maybe English is their second language. Those folks are disproportionately impacted by all disasters. And so, a big part of the effort underway now is what services can we provide? What local nonprofits or philanthropic organizations can provide aid so that we can help those who need help the most.
When you're looking at just the mess, the days of intense rain, mudslides, all of that has left, how do you triage that from an emergency services perspective? What is most important right now?
Well, obviously the protection of life and property is the thing that we look at first. Unfortunately, we've experienced 21 fatalities so far. There still is a five-year-old boy who's missing that, you know, very concerned about. And, you know, the work that we do on these is really about how do we protect people, how do we keep lives, how do we keep people safe? We've also had more than 1400 rescues that have occurred either through planes, getting people off roofs, swift water rescue vehicles. And so, really the goal of the folks at Cal OES, the State of California, is to put resources into communities early before the water comes and use the best science and technology that we have to try to put firefighters, first responders, ambulances to get people out safely.
And certainly, this is an incident that could have been much worse if not for those early efforts. And, you know, we always want to learn, involve and to get better at each disaster that we face. And unfortunately, we've had a lot of practice in California and many of the things we've learned during wildfires or other disasters came to bear during this fight we've had the last couple of weeks.
That really brings up my next point, which is that with climate change, a lot of experts predict that California will experience a more extreme cycle between drought and wildfire and flooding. It's even been predicted that California may see a much worse storm event, a so-called mega storm over a period of 30 days. Have these last couple of weeks been a wake-up call? Do you think there will be more policies oriented toward preparation for these type of events in the future?
You know, for those of us who do this work, this is no surprise. We've been seeing the impacts of climate change firsthand, with 1000-year drought in the American West record wildfires occurring and all of these disasters actually compound each other. The rains that have fallen the last several weeks have been worse and been more damaging as a result of the drought and the wildfires. Our burned scars that were the fires have come through can result in mudslides. Other areas have been impacted on drought, get so hard that the water doesn't absorb in the soil and runs downstream almost like a bobsled track, picking up speed as it goes and becoming more dangerous.
It is very clear that the climate change is impacting the way that we do disasters in California and the number of people at risk. We do expect that to continue to get worse in the years to come and that's why we're trying to up our game to keep pace. But ultimately so much of this work is also about individual humans and households and the steps they can take to be prepared as well.
Brian Ferguson with the California Governor's Office of Emergency Services, thank you so much for joining us.
Watch the Full Episode
Stephanie Sy is a PBS NewsHour correspondent and serves as anchor of PBS NewsHour West. Throughout her career, she served in anchor and correspondent capacities for ABC News, Al Jazeera America, CBSN, CNN International, and PBS NewsHour Weekend. Prior to joining NewsHour, she was with Yahoo News where she anchored coverage of the 2018 Midterm Elections and reported from Donald Trump’s victory party on Election Day 2016.
Winston Wilde is a coordinating producer at PBS News Weekend.
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