CAPITOLA, Calif. (KRON) — California was slammed by six atmospheric rivers this winter, and at least three more are on the way, Governor Gavin Newsom told reporters at a news conference held in Capitola Tuesday.
Newsom toured the small beach town to survey heavy damages left in the wake of storm-triggered tidal surges, flooding, and huge ocean waves. Capitola, a colorful tourist destination and gem beloved by locals, was transformed by Mother Nature into a storm disaster zone.
“It’s remarkable … and we’re not out of the woods. We expect these storms to continue until at least the 18th. We expect, at minimum, three more of these atmospheric rivers in different shapes and forms. The magnitude of this is not isolated,” Newsom told reporters.
The governor emphasized the seriousness of January’s storm systems and dangers. He urged all Californians to obey evacuation orders from their local law enforcement agencies and never try to skirt around Caltrans road closures.
“We are soaked. This place is soaked. Now modest precipitation can have equal or greater impact in terms of conditions on the ground. These conditions are serious and they are deadly,” Newsom said.
Seventeen Californians have been killed by storm-related impacts, including lighting strikes and toppled trees.
“We now have 17 confirmed deaths. That number is tragically likely to grow,” Newsom said.
The governor said he is praying for a 5-year-old boy, Kyle Doan, who was swept away in a raging Paso Robles floodwaters and still remains missing. “A young 5-year-old is missing. If you have any faith, it’s at moments like this that we just pray for a miracle down in Paso Robles,” Newsom said.
The boy’s mother was driving a truck when it became stranded in floodwaters just before 8 a.m. Monday, according to Tom Swanson, assistant chief of the San Luis Obispo County Fire Department. Bystanders were able to pull the mother out of the truck, but the boy was swept out of the vehicle and downstream, likely into a river, Swanson said. Water levels were too dangerous for divers to enter, and a search for the missing boy turned up only his shoe.
In Sonoma County, a fierce January 4 storm toppled a redwood tree onto a family home, killing a 2-year-old boy. The toddler, Aeon Tocchini, was sitting on a living room couch when he was crushed by the tree.
Newsom said Tuesday, “Around 34,000 people are currently under evacuation orders. That number is dynamic. The number of inches of rain and the intensity doesn’t tell the entire story. It’s incredibly important that everybody is mindful to take seriously the (evacuation) orders or recommendations coming from law enforcement.”
When Highway 101 in Gilroy turned into a “river” with flooding on Monday, some motorists still attempted to drive around road closures, according to witnesses. Don’t let one driver’s “dumb decision” impact your choices while navigating roads through storm weather, Newsom said.
“Caltrans is out there for a reason with purpose. When they are saying, ‘this is a detour,’ don’t test fate just because it looks clear. We’ve seen that over and over and over again. Someone makes a dumb decision and everybody else thinks that gives permission for everyone else to do it. Cars floating down the road. Wait this out. Be mindful of local conditions. These storms manifest very differently in different parts of the state. Search and rescue teams, as well as Coast Guard, have been heroic,” Newsom said.
“It’s so important people take care of themselves, and use common sense,” Newsom said.
More victims have been killed by January’s relentless rainstorms than the number of victims killed by the past two years of wildfires, Newsom noted.
The governor said California’s climate will continue to become hotter and drier in the summer, and wetter in the winter. “This weather whiplash is that new reality. In this state, emergency mindset is ever-present. This has happened in the middle of a mega drought. The dries are getting drier, and the wets and getting a lot wetter,” Newsom said.
Newsom submitted a request to the White House for a Presidential Emergency Declaration to support ongoing storm response and recovery efforts.
Millions of Californians are still under flood warnings as heavy rains, hail and landslides continue unfolding across the state. Swollen rivers swamped homes and triggered evacuation orders for thousands.
Lighting struck San Francisco’s iconic Transamerica Pyramid and Sutro Tower on Tuesday afternoon as hail poured and thunder boomed over the city.
Theo Harris, who has been living on the streets of San Francisco since 2016, fortified his shelter with tarps and zip ties and took in his girlfriend after her tent flooded.
“The wind has been treacherous, but you just got to bundle up and make sure you stay dry,” Harris said. “Rain is part of life. It’s going to be sunny. It’s going to rain. I just got to strap my boots up and not give up.”
More rain is forecast to arrive Wednesday in Northern California, and then a longer storm system was predicted to last from Friday until Tuesday, Jan. 17.
The Associated Press contributed to this report.