California floods and the climate crisis

The death toll from the storms and flooding in California and parts of Arizona, Nevada and Oregon rose to at least 18 on Wednesday. The most recent death was that of a 43-year-old woman who drowned when her car was submerged 2.5 meters under water. Two more deaths reported by the California Governor’s Office of Emergencies are suspected to be related to the storms and the death toll is expected to rise as flooding continues and the extent of the damage is discovered.

Hundreds more had to be rescued as they traveled during and after the Christmas holidays and found themselves hampered and threatened by flooded roads. Thousands have lost their homes and hundreds of thousands more have experienced intermittent power outages over the past two weeks. About 4.5 million people remain on flood watch, compared to 20 million on Tuesday, and damage is estimated at $1 billion.

The storm system began on December 26 when a wave of seven so-called atmospheric rivers — that is, massive bands of moisture formed over the oceans that can travel thousands of kilometers before discharging that accumulated water on land — reached the West Coast. The flooding began Dec. 31 after record rainfall across the state, including the second wettest day on record in San Francisco and the wettest in Oakland, inundating the plains and turning entire neighborhoods into lakes.

As with every storm in the United States, there is virtually no financial support for those who need to evacuate, including the poor, the elderly, and the homeless. Millions have been left to fend for themselves, forced to climb onto their attics and roofs to escape the floods and survive however they could.

The Californian floods are just one of many extreme weather events that have caused mass death and destruction in recent years across the country. A winter storm from December 21 to 26 produced blizzards in Iowa, Michigan, Minnesota, New York, Ohio, and Wisconsin, as well as Ontario, Canada. The storm and associated low temperatures killed at least 98 people, including 41 in Buffalo, New York alone, which suffered 56 inches of snow in five days.

Flooding is expected to continue. Atmospheric rivers are forecast to continue over California through at least January 23. Yet while California Governor Gavin Newsom and US President Joe Biden have declared emergencies in the hardest-hit regions, neither has ordered the evacuation of those hit for the first or second time by the storms or offered financial aid for those who lost their homes and livelihoods. All Newsom offered was a warning to Californians to be “hyper vigilant” and the opening of 11 shelters statewide with 20 more on hold. For his part, Biden authorized the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) to offer assistance for storm damage control efforts.

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