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  • Writer's pictureThe San Juan Daily Star

Reflecting on three weeks of extraordinary weather

Flooding from the Sacramento River at a public boat launch in Rio Vista, Calif., on Saturday, Jan. 14, 2023. The state will soon get a chance to dry out and begin recovering from a relentless stretch of storms.


Sometimes you have to see nature’s power firsthand before you believe it.

Heading into New Year’s weekend, meteorologists warned that an inbound atmospheric river would pack a serious punch. Yet as my New York Times colleagues and I checked around the state, relatively few California residents seemed to be filling sandbags or stocking up on emergency supplies.

We’ve seen atmospheric rivers before, including a historically drenching one in Sacramento on Oct. 24, 2021. We could manage this New Year’s storm easily, we thought.

We could not.

Heavy gusts knocked down scores of trees. Many people lost electricity for days, a reminder of how overhead power lines and strong winds do not mix. Some saw their homes and cars destroyed. And the truly unfortunate lost their lives when floodwater inundated their vehicles or trees toppled onto them.

Intense storms continued to slam the state for two more weeks, each time compounding the problems from the previous downpours. Thousands of people were evacuated from their homes, and at least 19 people have died, more than during the past two years of wildfires, as Gov. Gavin Newsom has pointed out.

In California, natural disasters become markers in our lives, as well as lessons for navigating the future. I can recall the 1986 floods, when as an elementary school student, I realized for the first time the possibility that our region could quickly go underwater. The 1989 Loma Prieta earthquake, experienced in the left-field seats at Candlestick Park, was the first time I really understood that we could not control the ground beneath us.

For others, there was the Northridge earthquake, the Montecito mudslide, the Camp fire. The Oroville Dam evacuation. The wine country fires.

These are moments that reshape our understanding of what it means to live in California, where natural disaster lives alongside natural beauty. And the recent storms serve as the latest alarm bell in an era of climate change.

A few days into the new year, residents took the situation more seriously as another big atmospheric river approached. So many people wanted sandbag supplies that some counties ran out. Bottled water and batteries flew off store shelves. Grocery stores had long checkout lines.

Most of us were fortunate enough to muddle through. We’ll gladly take the water that has flowed into our reservoirs and seeped into our soil. And we want more — just not immediately.

Folsom Lake, to the east of Sacramento, offers an example of trying to strike the right balance between serving our needs and avoiding disaster. As desperate as we are to store more water in a drought, the Bureau of Reclamation has to keep the reservoir empty enough to be able to avoid a catastrophic regionwide flood.

Forecasters say we’re approaching the end of an extraordinary three-week succession of atmospheric rivers. We now get a chance to clean up, repair and make preparations for future storms. It is a most welcome respite.

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