Hell and High Water: California Weather’s Devastation


Coastal Redwood crashed through the roof and into Nicole Valentine’s bedroom while she was away at a party, trying to ignore powerful storms that were pounding Northern California with high winds and the 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!’” said Ms. Valentine, a mother of two and a Sacramento attorney. “I said, ‘Wait – what?’ Thank goodness no one was home but our labradoodle, Charlie. My husband ran home immediately.

In the days following that call on New Year’s Eve, cumulative storms battered California – and Ms Valentine and her family huddled in an Airbnb with Charlie, who survived unscathed. As they tried to schedule claims adjusters, versions of their terrifying experience proliferated in the nation’s most populous state.

Stressed by drought, whipped by the wind and weakened at the root by relentless rains and floods, trees – big and small, old and young, in mountain reserves and suburban yards – have collapsed across the California this week in breathtaking numbers, the most visible sign of a state oscillating between environmental extremes.

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

Pressure mounted on Thursday as rain swelled rivers and snowy whiteouts obscured mountain passes. In San Francisco, trains were delayed due to system-wide disruptions on Bay Area Rapid Transit. In Santa Cruz County, a tidal wave washed away parts of piers and forced the city of Santa Cruz to close its wharf as a safety measure. In Southern California, huge waves threatened Los Angeles County lifeguard towers and flooded the Pacific Coast Highway in Huntington Beach as rain moved south.

As of Friday morning, tens of thousands of customers, mostly in northern California, were still without power as communities braced for another round of torrential rains. National Weather Service forecasters in the Bay Area said the next atmospheric river was expected to arrive late Friday and spread south to central California on Saturday, increasing the risk of flooding and mudslides in the northern part of the region. ‘State. Further inland and around the Sacramentoles area conditions were to be equally dangerous.

If the storm had a theme, it was in the uprooted and broken trees that appeared to blanket the rain-soaked landscape – a loss and danger that state water resources department director Karla Nemeth warned of. that it 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 the scene of an accident in San Jose and trapped cars on soggy roads in Marin County. On Wednesday, firefighters said a West Sonoma County community redwood crashed into a mobile home, killing a toddler.

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

When she saw branches coming through her ceiling and other limbs falling, she said, she grabbed the kids and ran.

“There were live wires everywhere,” she said. “My neighbors had to direct us because it was dark. We just left with what we had on our backs. Literally exhausted – one child didn’t even have tennis shoes.

City of Trees

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

On the grounds of the State Capitol, a giant sequoia lay uprooted Thursday, felled by storms and surrounded by hazard strips and scattered drifts of branches; its fall sheared the branches off one side of a nearby Torrey pine. Paula Peper, a retired urban ecologist with the US Forest Service in Sacramento, estimated that the giant sequoia has stood for 80 to 100 years, thanks to no less than 18 governors.

At Sacramento City College, a felled cedar tree, huge and fragrant, blocked the entrance to the campus. In a neat neighborhood near the American River, Marco Leyva, a local landscaper, rushed to retrieve fallen tree branches, his truck stacked with redwood, oak and liquid amber. Some, he said, appeared to have fallen midway through the New Year’s storm, “and then the wind this time just knocked them down.”

At a press conference, Ms. Nemeth, the state’s director of water resources, blamed the horticultural devastation on drought as well as bad weather. “We are going from extreme drought to extreme flooding,” she said. “What that means is that a lot of our trees are under stress.”

At the same time, weather systems altered by climate change have amplified wind and precipitation, said Jeffrey Mount, senior fellow at the Water Policy Center at the Public Policy Institute of California. 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, said Dr. Mount.

Harder For Trees to Stay Upright

According to the scientists, the punch of increasingly saturated soil and fast-moving winds made it harder for the trees to stay upright.

“It’s no surprise when we start getting these 50 to 70 mph gusts that these big, old trees that are stressed and have their feet planted in what’s basically mud at this point — they fall,” Dr. Mount says. “An amazing number of these tall trees stand up in these big storms.”

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

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

So far, much of their research has focused on extreme heat and drought. But recent storms have shown that these investigations need to grow, she said.

“It’s like heat, drought, floods – hell or flood,” Ms Griswold said. “We take a close look at what is failing, why did it fail, what can we learn from it, and how can we plant more wisely in the future?”

Brian Ferguson, 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 faced in managing public safety in that system. of storm. Falling trees not only threaten buildings and power lines, he said, but can also damage levees by toppling near waterways where branches and debris can be propelled downstream.

The new climate reality, he said, means disasters are intermingling and getting worse: drought is getting worse and fire seasons are getting longer. Global warming intensifies heat waves. Precipitation that can no longer fall as snow lands like a deluge, and flora and fauna strain to survive the ecological disruption.

The current disasters and the living beings experiencing them, 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 the world is changing around us,” he said.

This article is originally published on news-24.fr