US President Joe Biden is in California to assess the damage from a series of devastating storms that slammed the western United States, damaging homes and forcing residents to flee mudslides and rising floodwaters.
Biden touched down at Moffett Federal Airfield on Thursday for an aerial tour of Santa Clara and Santa Cruz counties, which were among the areas hardest hit by what is expected to be the state’s first billion-dollar natural disaster of the year.
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He also joined California Governor Gavin Newsom, a fellow Democrat, on a visit to the seaside town of Capitola, which saw its historic wooden wharf ripped in two after flooding from three straight weeks of severe weather.
“If anybody doubts the climate is changing, then they must have been asleep for the last couple of years,” Biden said from Aptos, just south of Capitola.
Biden, who issued an emergency declaration for California last weekend due to the storms, met with first responders, business owners and elected officials during his visit to the state.
Nine consecutive “atmospheric rivers” — intense, narrow bands of concentrated moisture capable of producing torrential rain and powerful gusts — battered California since late December, with a tenth, smaller storm system moving ashore on Wednesday.
Newsom described it as a “stacking of stress” on his state. In his speech on Thursday, he tallied “1,400 heroic rescues” across California.
“When I talked to people on the ground, what they told me is that these storms are coming with hurricane-strength winds,” Deanne Criswell, an administrator with the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA), told reporters as she travelled with the president on Thursday. “[The weather systems] are also making incredible storm-surge-like conditions with the surf. So they felt like it was being hit by hurricane after hurricane.”
The storm systems dropped an estimated 121 trillion litres (32 trillion gallons) of precipitation on California, resulting in record rain in San Francisco and Los Angeles and heavy snow in the Sierra Nevada mountain range.
As of Wednesday, the California Department of Water Resources estimated that snowpack across the state has surged to 248 percent of its normal levels, with parts of the Sierras recording a 292 percent increase.
The storms have resulted in widespread devastation, with at least 21 people reported dead. A five-year-old child, Kyle Doan, remains missing after he was swept away in the floodwaters.
Criswell, the FEMA administrator, said some residents were asked to evacuate up to four times to flee deadly floods and mudslides.
“I’ve instructed my administration to bring every element, every element, of the federal government together to help with immediate needs to long-term rebuilding,” Biden said in his speech on Thursday.
“In terms of the infrastructure, there’s got to be significant changes made,” he added, calling for stronger levees and a more resilient power grid.
The White House estimated that more than 500 personnel from FEMA and other federal agencies are on the ground in California to address the damage.
On Wednesday night, the Biden administration authorised additional disaster assistance, pledging that the federal government would cover 100 percent of the total eligible costs for debris removal and emergency protective measures for 60 days.
The administration late on Saturday had authorised a request from Newsom, the California governor, to approve an “expedited major disaster declaration” to allow for federal assistance in the area.
The California Governor’s Office of Emergency Services said such declarations are requested when damage is so severe “it is beyond the combined capabilities of state and local governments to respond”.
“FEMA positioned supplies for 100,000 meals, 100,000 litres of water, 20,000 blankets, 10,000 cots for shelters,” Biden said on Thursday. “And there will be disaster recovery centres in every impacted area, including Santa Cruz and Merced where survivors can apply for assistance.”
Biden also pointed to the compounding effects of natural disasters on the state, which has seen wildfires and severe, multi-year droughts in recent years. He indicated that the scars left on the landscape by the intense blazes helped precipitate mudslides during January’s storms.
“Since I became president, we’ve spent $9 billion in disaster assistance to California for the extreme weather events they’ve had to go through. Nine billion. And these weeks have shown the compounding effects of the disasters,” Biden said.
Meanwhile, a study issued on Thursday in the journal Nature Climate Change predicted that California and other states in the western US could see a 31 percent increase in precipitation from similar cold-season storms in the future if climate change goes unchecked.
One area of California, approximately 378km (235 miles) north of San Francisco, received 1,213mm (47.74 inches) of rain in the past three weeks alone.
“It could be even worse,” the study’s author, Ruby Leung, a climate scientist at the US Pacific Northwest National Lab, told The Associated Press news agency. “We need to start planning how would we be able to deal with this.”