California storms kill 14, Prince Harry’s town evacuated

Montecito, United States | AFP | Tuesday 10/01/2023 – Heavy rains were still expected to hit California on Tuesday, where successive storms have already killed 14 people and prompted authorities to order the evacuation of many regions, including the wealthy town of Montecito, home of the Prince Harry and Meghan Markle.

“Winter storms killed 14 Californians, more than the wildfires of the past two years,” the office of state governor Gavin Newsom said in a statement.

“Several days of bad winter weather are still ahead of us,” added the governor, asking his fellow citizens to be “hyper vigilant”.

In Paso Robles, a small town halfway between Los Angeles and San Francisco, a 5-year-old boy was swept away Monday and remained missing, local media reported, citing the sheriff’s office.

The flood had trapped the car he was in with his mother, who was rescued by a neighbour. Authorities had to suspend their search in the afternoon because of the weather, according to the Fox 11 channel.

The region is still expecting heavy rainfall, thunderstorms and very strong winds on Tuesday, according to the weather services (NWS).

“It’s crazy”

Authorities have ordered the evacuation of Montecito, a coastal town north of Los Angeles and a haunt of celebrities. Actress Jennifer Aniston and TV presenter Oprah Winfrey, among others, own homes there worth millions of dollars.

The area was expected to receive up to 20 centimeters of rain in 24 hours, on hills already saturated with water from the storms of the past few days. Enough to make the city, surrounded by mountains largely weakened by a fire five years ago, extremely vulnerable to landslides.

Five years ago, mudslides caused by heavy rains killed 23 people in the city.

In Montecito, where actress Gwyneth Paltrow and singer Katy Perry also reside, residents were evacuating their homes, but it was still difficult to determine how many had followed the evacuation order.

Spokespersons for the Duke and Duchess of Sussex did not respond to a request for comment.

Roadblocks had been erected by the police to prevent anyone from entering the city where several roads were completely flooded, noted an AFP journalist.

Over the past 30 days, Montecito has received precipitation “well above our annual average,” firefighters recalled on Twitter.

On Monday, TV host Ellen DeGeneres, who also lives in the city, posted a video to Twitter showing a torrent of muddy water.

“It’s crazy,” she said alarmed. “That creek next to our house absolutely never flows.”

Serial storms

The area was not the only one to be evacuated.

In Santa Cruz County, near San Francisco, where a pier was destroyed last week, more than 30,000 residents are also affected by an evacuation order.

Several regions have experienced near-record rainfall in recent days. The ground is completely saturated with water and the US Weather Service (NWS) has issued flood warnings over much of California.

Tuesday morning, nearly 220,000 homes were without electricity, according to the specialized site PowerOutage.

While it is difficult to establish a direct link between these storms and climate change, scientists regularly explain that warming increases the frequency and intensity of extreme weather events.

Last week’s storm had already knocked out power to tens of thousands of people, caused severe flooding and triggered landslides. It had come just days after another deluge of rain on New Year’s Eve.

However, the exceptional rains of the last few days will not be enough to replenish water reserves in California, which has been hard hit by drought for two decades. Several winters of above-normal rainfall would be necessary for this, according to experts.

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