A puzzled smile spread across Jeremy Lamberson’s face as he studied the deep concern in mine.
Outside, snow was falling in thick, wet piles, quickly piling up in the parking lot of Main Street Automotive in Placerville, nestled in the northern Sierra foothills an hour from Lake Tahoe.
He wanted to know if Lamberson was worried about the ninth, or was it the tenth? The atmospheric river moving into California this year would drop enough rain to melt the massive snowpack just a few miles away and cause catastrophic flooding.
After all, it was only a few weeks ago that another atmospheric river turned the normally placid Hangtown Creek into a raging river, eroding the foundation of his business. Some people would have seen this as a disaster. But instead of turning to the government in his time of need, Lamberson turned to a friend. The two “gold miners from long ago” brought a bulldozer and spent a week shoring up the squat one-story building with cinder blocks.
So more rain? Snow? Another flood? He would notice.
“People,” Lamberson told me, “are too used to the government doing everything for them.”
Normally, this is the kind of conservative comment that you would let in one liberal ear and out the other. But not this time. Not after more than two months of “unprecedented” rain and snow storms that crippled the state’s aging infrastructure and overwhelmed the ability of government agencies to respond to the many people in need in a timely manner.
Now, I can’t help but wonder if there’s a troubling kernel of truth to Lamberson’s comment. Because if we’ve all learned anything this year, it’s that emergency workers can’t be everywhere to help everyone at once.
As I write this, it’s sunny and clear in Los Angeles, but more than 40 of the 58 counties remain in a state of emergency. It’s only March, but Governor Gavin Newsom has already requested, and received, not one, but two. presidential emergency declarations authorize federal assistance for disaster response.
Towns from the Central Coast to the Central Valley have been under water in the past week, and from the mountains of Northern California to the mountains of Southern California, more towns are buried under snow. The death toll is rising, as is the toll of our already limited housing stock. And more rain is forecast for early next week.
“We had more people killed in the storms in January than in the last two wildfire seasons combined,” said Brian Ferguson, deputy director of crisis communication for the California Governor’s Office of Emergency Services. “So a wildfire tends to happen, maybe hit one or two counties. It’s horrible. But the storms. … That’s like two-thirds of the state.”
With climate change promising to deliver even more of this destructive whiplash in the next few years, something must change.
For starters, residents of wealthier communities who have long relied on immediate government assistance will likely have to become more self-sufficient when it comes to preparing and dealing with the initial attack of a disaster
“The government will not be able to reach all doors in a significant disaster,” Ferguson warned. “There also have to be people on the ground helping each other.”
At the same time, the government will have to change the way it helps poorer rural communities, especially vulnerable communities of color, where residents have learned through years of experience not to expect much help to prevent or mitigate disasters. .
“These storms are getting more severe,” said Justin Knighten, formerly with Cal OES and now director of external affairs for the Federal Emergency Management Agency. “They are becoming more frequent due to climate change. And that’s why it’s even more urgent that we reflect the communities we’re trying to engage with. It is a matter of life and death.”
To understand the scope of the challenge ahead, just consider what has already been happening.
When deep snow blanketed mountain communities in San Bernardino County last month, stranding dozens for more than a week, residents were the ones who stepped up to help their neighbors. They made sure everyone had enough to eat. They even removed snow from the roofs of houses and businesses.
“We come together very well with things like this,” Adam Atchison, a pastor at Sandals Church in Riverside who helped deliver supplies to mountain residents, told my Times colleagues Summer Lin and Nathan Solis. “When there is a tangible need, we tend to show up in force.”
Meanwhile, county officials acknowledged they were unprepared for back-to-back blizzards because they had failed to order proper snow removal equipment in time, and at least 13 people have died.
“There are people who call me crying because they are so tired and terrified that they won’t be able to save the lives of their neighbors because they have been digging for days and days to get to people,” Crestline resident Kristy Baltezore told The Times.
Similarly, when a long-vulnerable levee failed in Monterey County this month, flooding the small farming town of Pájaro, residents of neighboring Watsonville were the ones who pooled their money to hand out containers of chicken soup, tacos, and hot chocolate.
“We ran out of food and I felt really bad because people kept showing up with their children,” Jessica Sánchez told my Times colleague Rubén Vives.
This is not how disaster response is supposed to work. And elected officials in San Bernardino and Monterey counties have recognized that they should be doing more to help those suffering on the ground.
That’s particularly true in Pájaro, where many displaced residents are immigrants and have told reporters they don’t know where to look for help from the government: food, water, clean clothes, let alone financial assistance for rent. Some also speak indigenous languages and have been unable to communicate with disaster relief workers who speak English and Spanish.
Similar stories have emerged from other flooded farming towns on the Central Coast and in the Central Valley.
California, at least, has the potential to do better, thanks to a little-known initiative within Cal OES called ready california.
Created not long after the horrific Camp Fire in Paradise in 2018, the effort was envisioned as a way to prevent a repeat of what happened there, when dozens of vulnerable seniors died because they failed to evacuate in time.
Much of the attention was focused on changing the way the government communicates with the public. Not just texting orders to evacuate, for example, but explaining ahead of time, in a culturally competent way, why it’s important to evacuate when a government order is issued.
“We really looked at the fact that emergency management, or emergency preparedness, was still the language of the institutions and it wasn’t really the language of real people,” said Knighten, who helped found Listos California.
Then the COVID-19 pandemic happened, and with it came a different kind of disaster. Knighten left to join FEMA, and the initiative evolved into a series of partnerships with nonprofit organizations across the state, first to promote vaccines and now to build community resilience to weather-induced disasters through through public education.
More recently, those associations have taken advantage of flooded farmworker towns, including Planada in Merced County. Rather than blindly send displaced residents to emergency shelters where Department of Homeland Security vans might be parked outside, the state brought in a local nonprofit to allay any fears about immigration status checks.
“It’s activating those people who in many cases are already in the communities doing this work … using them to help keep people safe in disasters,” said Ferguson, who now helps run Listos California.
Still, for all the associations, a big part of the Ready California initiative is still about self-sufficiency. It’s not so much knowing how to use a bulldozer like Lamberson, but having earthquake kit ready to go, signing up for evacuation alerts, and knowing the dangers where she lives. (Don’t even get me started on all the city folk who have moved to mountain towns during the pandemic and are now trying to drive their Teslas in the snow.)
It’s also about residents helping other residents and communities being more prepared for the next disaster than the last.
In the mountains of San Bernardino County, for example, many were unprepared for the amount of snow that fell, armed only with shovels and snowplows that had worked so well in the past. Preparing for the future may look a little different.
“The government can’t do it alone,” Knighten said. “The infrastructure can be in place, first responders ready to go, emergency management working from the bottom up, from the local county to FEMA. But what is also true is that if our communities depended solely on that, that is dangerous.”