California storms cause widespread devastation

Flooding in a homeless encampment in Sacramento, California. Photo credit: Evan Hibbard

Bomb cyclones. Atmospheric rivers. Pineapple express. These are just some of the phenomena behind the devastating weather impacting California. Add to that two significant earthquakes – one in December and one in January – and it’s been a heck of a beginning to 2023 for the Golden State.

Atmospheric rivers are corridors of air that can carry massive amounts of water over thousands of miles. While these are a normal occurrence in California, rising temperatures due to climate change have increased their strength and number. Precipitation totals are breaking records including in San Francisco, which on Jan. 4 marked the wettest 10-day period since January 1862. Snow totals in the Sierra Nevada mountain range are approaching what is typical for an entire season. While the moisture is helping relieve immediate drought concerns, experts say it will take more than these storms to remove California’s long-term drought.

As of Jan. 11, at least 17 people have died in the storms that have brought high winds (think tornado or hurricane-force wind speeds with gusts as high as 100 mph), massive flooding and power outages. And it’s not over yet. The severe weather is expected to continue well into the third full week of January, with Governor Newsom stating that there would be at least three more atmospheric rivers before Jan. 18. Experts say the damage from weeks of storms could exceed $1 billion dollars, making this the first billion-dollar disaster of 2023 in the U.S.

The celebrity enclave of Montecito was ordered to evacuate this week on the fifth anniversary of the devastating Jan. 9, 2018 mudslide which killed 23 people. While the media is portraying images of these celebrities such as Ellen DeGeneres, Prince Harry and Oprah Winfrey, the stories of everyday citizens are overlooked.

CDP is hearing from our partners that the most challenging problems right now are getting people to evacuate or to shelter in place safely. There’s a large older adult population, for example, that one of our partners is trying to help. The typical challenges of motivating people to leave or ensuring they have the supports to do so have been exacerbated by shelters becoming inaccessible due to roads washing out in areas scarred by wildfires over the past several years.

Sheltering in place is also a challenge. During anticipated disasters – e.g., Atlantic hurricane season – communities have advanced warnings to be able to plan and stock up. In California, what was originally expected to be a one-off heavy rainstorm didn’t seem to require that same level of advanced preparedness. But now, access to food and other resources is becoming a significant problem in some areas. Supply chain disruptions have been issues everywhere, but inaccessible roads due to flooding or mudslides, the inability of staff to get to work, and ongoing heavy rain, wind and hail storms have caused additional shortages and complications.

Generally, extreme weather or natural hazard-related disasters occur quickly, and then recovery can begin. The sustained nature of this disaster is another significant problem. Most emergency preparedness guidance recommends that households prepare to sustain themselves for 72 hours, or 120 hours at most. These storms have been happening over an extended period and are expected to continue for at least another week. Furthermore, this disaster is also layered on top of others: burn scars from fire-affected areas and the two earthquakes in Humboldt County.

While President Joe Biden approved an emergency declaration for California on Jan. 9, that is not the same as a major disaster declaration. It takes much more for California to get a full disaster declaration because of its size, wealth and capacity to respond. The emergency declaration in California would likely have been a major disaster declaration in most other states. This means the gap between assistance and need will require the support of philanthropy. And yet, as our friends and grantee partner Philanthropy California shared, “As California continues to experience these repeated hazard events, it is not sustainable, nor realistic, to expect philanthropy to support individual, isolated disaster that occurs across California at the scale needed for a resilient recovery. We must instead center building community resilience as the highest priority for disaster philanthropy.”

There are a few ways that you can help:

  • CDP is raising funds to support our grantee partners in California. We have been working in the state for years through our California Wildfire Recovery Fund and are extremely familiar with the frontline service providers – especially those who are working with underserved and under-resourced communities, including non-English speakers, migrant farm workers, the unhoused, people with disabilities and older adults. Our funds focus on supporting long-term recovery, as we know the needs will continue for years to come as communities work to rebuild and recover. Donations can be made to our Disaster Recovery Fund by selecting “California Storms” from the drop-down menu, or by contacting our development team.
  • Support one of the frontline organizations working in emergency relief by giving them sustainable, flexible, long-term funding to support their capacity to respond in the weeks, months and years to come. CDP is tracking these organizations and can help funder organizations with recommendations. Contact to get information about these organizations.
  • If you are a funder, please consider attending Philanthropy California’s upcoming disaster briefing (CDP is co-sponsoring). Co-hosted by Philanthropy California, the League of California Community Foundations and the California Office of Emergency Services, this is an opportunity to discuss how philanthropy and the state can best collaborate to build community resilience and the steps that must be taken to shift our approach to disaster response. The briefing will be held on Wednesday, Jan. 18, 2023, from 1-2 p.m. PST. Please register here if you are interested.