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Rain blamed for 17 deaths in California, a state primed for very different natural disasters

Two types of deaths have been the most common, a state official said: those from trees falling on people and vehicles overwhelmed by water.

FORT BRAGG, Calif. — Seventeen people have died in a series of atmospheric rivers that have slammed into California in the last two weeks, a staggering death toll in a state used to wildfires, earthquakes and drought, a state official said Tuesday.

The deaths have been reported across the state — from San Bernardino County in the south to Mendocino County in the north, according to the California Governor’s Office of Emergency Services. 

A spokesperson for the agency, Brian Ferguson, said two kinds of death have been most prevalent — those resulting from trees’ falling on people and vehicles’ getting overwhelmed by floodwater.

“We haven't had a flood in a long time," he said. "People have a lot of experience with fires. We’re coming out of years of drought. The public is having to learn a new skill.”

Slowly rising water, he said, can seem more innocuous than the kind of massive and fast-moving wildfires that the state has become accustomed to in recent years. While such a fire might have a county or two in its crosshairs, the recent storms have walloped two-thirds of the state with unrelenting rain and powerful winds, he said. 

The 1990s was possibly the last time California had this much rain at once, he said.

More on extreme weather

Gov. Gavin Newsom hinted at the link between climate change and the state's dramatic weather swings. "The dries are getting a lot drier the last three years, and the wets are getting a lot wetter. This weather whiplash — is that the new reality?" he told reporters Tuesday in hard-hit Santa Cruz County.

A work crew cleans up an area of Highway 101 that flooded in Montecito, Calif., Tuesday, Jan. 10, 2023. California saw little relief from drenching rains Tuesday as the latest in a relentless string of storms swamped roads, turned rivers into gushing flood zones and forced thousands of people to flee from towns with histories of deadly mudslides.
A work crew cleans up an area of Highway 101 that flooded in Montecito, Calif., on Tuesday.Ringo H.W. Chiu / AP

The dramatic shifts recalled the last rainfall event with a significant death toll: In 2018, nearly two dozen people died after mudslides hammered the wealthy Santa Barbara enclave of Montecito. The area had been scorched by a wildfire and left vulnerable to flooding.

Five years later to the day, Montecito still appeared vulnerable: On Monday, fearing the high rate of rainfall, authorities evacuated the entire community of 10,000 people. By Tuesday, all evacuation and shelter-in-place orders in the county had been lifted, although a spokeswoman for the sheriff’s office cautioned residents to expect slick roads and debris as they returned home.

Local resident Fidel Osorio rescues a dog from a flooded home in Merced, California, on January 10, 2023. - Relentless storms were ravaging California again Tuesday, the latest bout of extreme weather that has left 14 people dead. Fierce storms caused flash flooding, closed key highways, toppled trees and swept away drivers and passengers -- reportedly including a five-year-old-boy who remains missing in central California.
Resident Fidel Osorio rescues a dog from a flooded home in Merced, Calif., on Tuesday.Josh Edelson / AFP - Getty Images

Another 34,000 people remained under evacuation orders across the state, Newsom said Tuesday.  

Among the most recent deaths connected to the storm were those of people who died in a car crash and a lightning strike in the Tulare County area, Newsom said.

Newsom asked people to pray for a 5-year-old boy in San Luis Obispo County who vanished after the vehicle his mother was driving got stuck. The parent was rescued, but the boy vanished in surging floodwaters, county sheriff’s spokesman Tony Cipolla said.

The sheriff’s office resumed a search Tuesday morning after “extreme” weather hampered the effort Monday, Cipolla said. The search is expected to continue Wednesday, he said.

An end to the rain, meanwhile, still appears more than a week away, Newsom said. Forecasters expect at least three more atmospheric rivers to drench the state over the next eight days.

"The challenge now is one should not be misled by the acuity of the storms in terms of the number of inches of rain and the intensity," he said. That "doesn’t tell the entire story. We're soaked. This place is soaked. And now just more modest amount of precipitation could have as equal or greater impact in terms of the conditions on the ground."