Sinkholes, fallen trees and demolished piers: California storms devastation captured in dramatic images

Sinkholes, fallen trees and demolished piers: California storms devastation captured in dramatic images

The storms that have been pounding California since New Year’s show no sign of letting up.

“Just as the last episode of heavy precipitation across California is beginning to wind down early this morning, another energetic low pressure system is quickly gathering strength off the West Coast and heading once again toward California,” the National Weather Service announced on Tuesday. “In addition to being highly moisture-laden, this rapidly intensifying system is also packing some thunderstorms.”

At least 17 people have been killed in the extreme weather since late December, according to California Governor Gavin Newsom.

“We’ve had less people die in the last two years of major wildfires in California than have died since New Year’s Day related to this weather,” Mr Newsom said during a visit to the Central Coast town of Capitola, which has been hammered with rain and flooding. “These conditions are serious and they’re deadly.”

Roughly 224,000 people in the state are without power, the Washington Post reports.

The deaths included a pickup truck driver and a motorcyclist who were crushed by a falling tree on Tuesday Highway 99 near Visalia, the Associated Press reports.

Around 90 per cent of the state is under flood watch, according to Axios, impacting about 22 million people.

“We live in California,” Debra Means, who volunteers with a group that evacuates livestock during natural emergencies on the Central Coast, told the Washington Post. “Climate change is here.”

Researchers at the UC Berkeley Central Sierra Snow Lab reported snow levels at 172 per cent of the average precipitation, sending snow drifts up the facility’s second-floor windows.

The NWS estimates that since the storms began, parts of California have been getting rain at 400 to 600 per cent greater levels than normal, causing widespread flooding and destruction across the state, including along Santa Cruz county’s San Lorenzo River, and further south in the farm towns of Watsonville and Gilroy.

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This aerial view shows a flooded home partially underwater in Gilroy, California, on January 9, 2023 (AFP via Getty Images)
This aerial view shows a flooded home partially underwater in Gilroy, California, on January 9, 2023 (AFP via Getty Images)

Flooding wasn’t the only danger. Many California hillsides, scarred by frequent wildfires, lacked trees with deep roots to anchor the soil, making them more prone to landslides during heavy rain.

A California Highway Patrol officer captured a striking video of a slide hurling down a hillside in Fresno County on Monday afternoon, as AccuWeater reports, sending boulders and mud onto the already flooded roadway.

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The sudden changes in the landscape can have deadly results. On 5 January, a tree fell on a mobile home in Occidental, killing 2-year-old Aeon Tocchini, the Associated Press reports.

Downed trees and power lines are a common site across California, following historic storms (AP)
Downed trees and power lines are a common site across California, following historic storms (AP)

In Chatsworth, outside of Los Angeles, a sinkhole opened up in the roadway on Monday evening, dragging cars down with it. Firefighters rescued a mother and daughter from the cave-in, KTLA reports.

Cars remain in a large sinkhole along Iverson Road in Chatsworth, Calif., on Tuesday, Jan. 10, 2023 (AP)
Cars remain in a large sinkhole along Iverson Road in Chatsworth, Calif., on Tuesday, Jan. 10, 2023 (AP)

Conditions have eased slightly in some places.

During a break in the rain, officials in San Luis Obispo County were able to temporarily resume their search for a missing 5-year-old boy who was swept away in rising floodwaters.

In Gilroy, receding floodwaters allowed Highway 101, a major north-south corridor in the state, to reopen, after multiple lanes were shut down.

The threat has also been coming from the sea. Successive January storms drummed up huge storm surges along the coast, which decimated piers in Capitola, and slammed into low-lying beach houses in Stinson Beach.

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Stinson Beach fire chief told SFGate the resulting floods were "definitely the worst we’ve ever seen.”

The storms also brought heavy snows in the higher elevations of the Sierra Nevada mountains.

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The storms, while dramatic, will not end California’s historic water crisis, part of a historic drought that’s seen the Southwest at its driest in 1,200 years.

“No single storm event will end the drought. We’ll need consecutive storms, month after month after month of above-average rain, snow and runoff to help really refill our reservoirs so that we can really start digging ourselves out of extreme drought,” Sean de Guzman, manager of snow surveys for the Department of Water Resources, told the Los Angeles Times.

Twelve of the state’s 17 major reservoirs remain below historical averages, according to the California Department of Water Resources data.