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California Storms

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Since late December 2022, Californians have suffered through historic levels of rain and snow that have flooded roads and homes, forced evacuations and cut power to millions.

Almost the entire state received 400% to 600% of its typical average rainfall since Christmas. Nine atmospheric river storms, corridors of air that can carry massive amounts of water over thousands of miles, have produced cascading impacts including landslides, sinkholes and downed trees that have damaged roads and homes.

On Jan. 15, President Biden approved a disaster declaration, providing disaster assistance to the state and making federal funding available to affected individuals in seven counties and Public Assistance A and B to six counties. While clearing debris, providing shelter and supporting other immediate needs are important, philanthropy should already be considering longer-term recovery needs and how to strengthen resilience. On Jan. 19, President Biden visited affected areas in northern California and promised that the federal government would assist the state with the recovery effort.

According to Philanthropy California, “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.”

(Photo: Major storm damage on a state highway in California, Jan. 14. 2023. Source: Caltrans District 7)

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Key facts
Housing

Considering the widespread impacts of the disaster, damage assessments are ongoing and precise numbers are not readily available. However, reports of home damages are emerging, painting a picture of the devastation. Following this disaster, the presence of mud and debris in homes is a significant health and safety concern and prevents people from getting back into their homes.

Santa Cruz County spokesman Jason Hoppin said the storm damaged 131 homes in the county. At least one home was buried by a landslide in remote Matilija Canyon, near the town of Ojai. The canyon creek flooded and the surrounding hills, which were stripped of vegetation in the 2017 Thomas Fire, began to sweep down. Officials in Calaveras County, have red-tagged 20 homes for being inhabitable due to storm damage.

In San Joaquin County, 175 residents of a mobile housing park were evacuated on Jan. 15 due to flooding. Mobile home residents have higher exposure to natural hazards such as wind and tornadoes, hurricanes, extreme heat, wildfires and flooding compared to those who live in other types of housing. On Oct. 12, CDP hosted a webinar about the increased risks manufactured homes face and the role they play in disaster recovery.

Public infrastructure

Significant damages are reported across the state to roads, bridges, water facilities, public buildings and equipment. According to Monterey County officials, the county suffered at least $30 million in public infrastructure damage during the storms. In Sonoma County, officials there estimate the storm caused about $11 million in initial damage to local roads and other public infrastructure.

Adam Smith, an applied climatologist and disaster expert with the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, said that the costs to the state could be in excess of $1 billion, which would make it the first billion-dollar disaster in the U.S. in 2023. According to Smith, an often-overlooked cost associated with disasters is damage to public infrastructure.

Damages to public infrastructure can have knock-on effects including blocking access to isolated or rural communities. The heavy precipitation has resulted in dramatic images of sinkholes which occur when collected water weakens the ground supporting the surface above, making it more prone to collapse.

Investments in infrastructure aimed to provide relief to California, which has been stuck in drought for decades, paid off as millions of gallons of rainwater fell across the state. Rainwater captured by cisterns, catches, wells and underground basins represent gradual and not insignificant progress on the goal of improving the collection of rainwater.

Drought

Despite the significant rainfall totals in California, the recent storms will not end the state’s drought. The storms have helped the Sierra Nevada region reach more than 200% of its typical snowpack for this time of year, which should ease immediate drought concerns. However, it also could lead to spring flooding as the snow melts. After years without enough water, officials have been forced to take drastic measures like releasing excess water from reservoirs. With much of the storm’s runoff ending up in the ocean, there is renewed interest in capturing rainfall for dry times.

Marginalized and at-risk populations

Low-income older adults are in need, particularly those who have been pushed into housing that is located on floodplains and in the wildland-urban interface. Some older adults may have unique needs or may be more at-risk compared to other populations, and their specific needs cannot be ignored.

On the other hand, older adults often provide essential volunteer services, a financial safety net for younger, less-established family members and emotional support to others affected. It is important to include older adults in disaster recovery and consider the contributions they can make in their communities.

There are more than 170,000 homeless people living in California and these individuals face significant challenges in the aftermath of the disaster. The Governor’s Office of Emergency Services has met with representatives of community agencies and nonprofits across California to connect homeless people and other vulnerable groups with resources and shelters. Support for basic needs, safe shelter and mental health will be needed.

CDP has heard from philanthropic groups in California that tribal nations and mixed immigration status families need support. Indigenous peoples and tribal nations will require resources and partnership to meet immediate needs and longer-term recovery priorities. It is important that tribal nations’ sovereignty is acknowledged and respected, and that engagement is based on relationship and trust. Mixed immigration status families are frightened and may not be eligible for or feel comfortable accessing certain services being offered, especially those coming from government agencies.

Home muck out and repair

The term “muck out” refers to the process of removing damaged belongings from the home, removing damaged construction materials and prepping the home for mold treatment. More information can be found in this guide from SBP. Given the prolonged periods of precipitation and significant flooding, many homes will need to be safely cleared of debris.

Disasters often displace people from their homes. Assisting people in repairing their homes to a livable standard will be critical as a safe home helps ensure people can return to normal functioning following a disaster.

Cash transfers

A critical ongoing need will be unrestricted cash transfers to support affected families. Direct cash assistance allows families to secure emergency housing, purchase items and contract services locally that address their multiple needs. It gives each family flexibility and choice, ensuring that support is relevant, cost-effective and timely. Cash assistance can also help move families faster toward rebuilding their lives.

Mental health support

There will be a need for long-term mental health support, given the extent of the disaster. People may be reluctant to seek support, which means it needs to be based locally within traditional support services, such as faith communities or trusted local partners.

Invest in preventing future disasters

While support for immediate needs and lifesaving assistance is critical, it is never too early to be making investments in and planning for disaster recovery, preparedness and mitigation. Look at the root causes of vulnerability in the community and consider how to address them, provide unrestricted dollars to strengthen nonprofit partners before the next disaster, support better planning and preparedness, and build disaster resilience.

Our Disaster Recovery Fund provides support for flood-affected communities. Grants will be focused on supporting marginalized communities in the recovery phase.

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Philanthropic contributions

If you have questions or need help with making a donation to the CDP Disaster Recovery Fund, please contact development.

(Photo: Major storm damage on a state highway in California, Jan. 15. 2023. Source: Caltrans District 7)

Recovery updates

If you are a responding NGO or a donor, please send updates on how you are working on recovery from this disaster to Tanya Gulliver-Garcia.

We welcome the republication of our content. Please credit the Center for Disaster Philanthropy.

Donor recommendations

If you are a donor looking for recommendations on how to help with disaster recovery, please email Regine A. Webster.

Note: If you are an individual who was affected by the disaster, we encourage you to contact your local 211 to see what resources are available in your community.

Philanthropic and government support

Philanthropy California hosted a disaster briefing on Jan. 18 from 1-2 p.m. PST 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 was co-hosted by Philanthropy California, the League of California Community Foundations and the California Office of Emergency Services. CDP was a sponsor of the event.

On Jan. 9, President Joe Biden approved an emergency declaration for California. Then, on Jan. 14, President Biden approved California’s disaster declaration. As of Jan. 20, the declaration (DR-4683), provides Public Assistance A and B for Merced, Monterrey, Sacramento, San Luis Obispo, Santa Barbara and Santa Cruz counties. Individual Assistance is also available for individuals and households in Merced, Monterrey, Sacramento, San Joaquin, San Luis Obispo, Santa Barbara and Santa Cruz counties. A total of 68 Individual Assistance applications had been approved for more than $676,000 as of Jan. 20. A major disaster declaration provides a wide range of federal assistance programs for individuals and public infrastructure, including funds for both emergency and permanent work.

Resources

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Disaster Phases

Disaster Phases

Disasters affect millions of people and cause billions of dollars in damage globally each year. To help understand and manage disasters, practitioners, academics and government agencies frame disasters in phases.

Floods

Floods

Flooding is our nation’s most common natural disaster. Regardless of whether a lake, river or ocean is actually in view, everyone is at some risk of flooding. Flash floods, tropical storms, increased urbanization and the failing of infrastructure such as dams and levees all play a part — and cause millions (sometimes billions) of dollars in damage across the U.S. each year.

Landslides

Landslides

Landslides are a movement of a mass of rock, debris or earth down a slope. Landslides are a type of ‘mass wasting,’ which denotes any down-slope movement of soil and rock under the direct influence of gravity.