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India Currents gave me a voice in days I was very lost. Having my articles selected for publishing was very validating – Shailaja Dixit, Executive Director, Narika, Fremont

Atmospheric River After Atmospheric River

Over the last several weeks, severe storms pummeled communities across California, underscoring the critical need to inform Californians about the vital resources available to them during extreme weather events.

“These storms are among the most deadly natural disasters in the modern history of our state,” said Diana Crofts-Pelayo, Assistant Director for Crisis Communications and Public affairs at the California Governor’s Office of Emergency Services (CalOES), at a January 17 briefing co-hosted by Ethnic Media Services and California Black Media.

“We’ve had atmospheric river after atmospheric river after atmospheric river,” agreed Vance Taylor, Chief of OES’ Access and Functional Needs, describing the storm as “a pretty rough patch.”

This map shows the total precipitable water vapor in the atmosphere at 5:30 a.m. Pacific Standard Time on January 4, 2023. image credit:

Climate Change Makes It Hotter and Wetter

“The hots are getting hotter, the wets are wetter,” said Crofts-Pelayo, blaming climate change for creating a combination of unprecedented. emergencies, disasters and weather-related natural events that haven’t been seen or experienced before.

“We are a huge state that has very diverse communities and diverse geography, but we’re definitely experiencing climate change now,” she said. It is evident in the atmospheric rivers in winter storms and in intensifying wildfire seasons.

Crofts-Pelayo and Taylor were among experts from CalOES and LISTON, who debriefed reporters on the state’s coordinated emergency response systems to severe weather events.

Deadliest Storm in Modern CA History

During the storms, the hardest hit homes, businesses, and communities experienced destructive flooding, levee breaches, mudslides, hurricane force winds, and even a tornado. “There’s already been 20 reported deaths,” said Crofts-Pelayo.

The human toll that made the recent disasters among the deadliest, disproportionately affected the most vulnerable.

“We’re talking about older adults, we’re talking about people with disabilities. We’re talking about people who are economically disadvantaged, or transportation disadvantaged people have access or functional needs,” explained Taylor.

The Right Place At The Right Time

Storms caused such severe damage, that on January 12, Governor Gavin Newsom requested an expedited major disaster declaration which President Biden approved on January 14 for three specific counties (Merced, Sacramento, and Santa Cruz), out of 49 that the state had requested.

Taylor explained that California’s experience of flooding disasters in the 1997/98 and the more recent 2017 Orville Dam emergency, better prepared the state to get smarter, faster, and more innovative about responding to disasters. The anticipated arrival of atmospheric rivers prepared the state to pre-position and move equipment and personnel to areas expected to suffer intense damage.

“We’ve been able to have some Swiftwater rescue teams and fire engines and emergency personnel in the right place at the right time to be able to make these rescues and saves,” he added.

Aerial photo released by the California Department of Water Resources, showing the damaged spillway with eroded hillside in Oroville. William Croyle, California Department of Water Resources – California Department of Water Resources –
Water flowing from the eroded overflow spillway of Oroville Dam, CA.

Equitable Access to Disaster Relief

Taylor reiterated the state’s commitment to ensuring that emergency management systems, programs, and services rolled out in an equitable and accessible way to everyone.

People in the three impacted counties and other counties under consideration, will be eligible to apply for federal assistance through FEMA. Aid will be provided as grant money and as assistance replacing essential items, such as furniture or durable medical equipment. Potentially, some individuals will receive help with rental aid, housing assistance and needs like eyeglasses, hearing aids, and other assistive devices.

“Individuals will also be able to apply for assistance to receive low interest, SBA loans and other mechanisms to help them to essentially recover and financially to get back on their feet,” added Taylor.

Crofts-Pelayo confirmed that the state had engaged a trusted network of community based-organizations, tribal governments, and CERT teams community emergency response teams to provide in language information for hard-to-reach communities.

“We firmly believe every Californian regardless of age, ability, income or language deserves culturally competent education to prepare for respond to and recover from disasters.”

How to Apply For Assistance

People can apply for disaster assistance by calling 1-800-621-3362 or going to Taylor advised using a FEMA mobile app, or applying online for services that are available in different languages including ASL.

He confirmed that the state will work with FEMA to open up registration centers for those impacted. FEMA will send out Disaster Survivor Assistance Teams to shelters and approved areas to make sure that people can to register. Mobile registration intake centers will be sent to communities who lack access or cannot drive, to ensure that everyone who has been impacted and lives in an approved county, is able to register for services.

Solutions & Safety Nets

Director Kim Johnson from the California Department of Social Services suggested contacting the main website for help with vital safety net resources such as disaster assistance, food assistance, cash assistance for families, and housing assistance. The website provides resource guides, including a disaster resource guide specific to immigrant communities, in English and in Spanish.

Johnson reported that the state’s safety net service delivery was expanding in real time disaster for CalFresh, food assistance, and support. The 5 million individuals participating in CalFresh, and people who lost food resources due to power outages, could get replacements within 10 days of that loss by contacting their county social service agency or calling 1833317hope for help.

So far, the state has set up about 22 congregate shelters at hotels and motels, as well as at services at fairgrounds and community centers to serve vulnerable, impacted communities. In partnership with local counties and the American Red Cross, emergency environmental shelters have programs and mechanisms in place to supplement needs and access to durable medical equipment like wheelchairs, and complex rehab technology.

Tony Signorelli, Deputy Insurance Commissioner for Consumer Services at the California Department of Insurance, advised that homeowners, renters and businesses check their insurance policies to clearly understand what sort of damage was covered. He warned that individuals without separate flood damage insurance would not be covered for flood damage. Signorelli suggested that those with questions about insurance coverage, licensed contractors, and resources, contact the Department of Insurance website or call 800-927-4357 for verification.

Public Health Safeguards

Following a flood, the best advice is really to avoid floodwater whenever possible, said Dr. Jason Wilkin, the CDC Career Epidemiology Field Officer assigned to California’s Department of Public Health. Floodwater may contain harmful elements such as toilet waste and associated bad germs, as well as hazardous chemicals like gasoline. Murky and muddy floodwater could hide sharp objects that can cause injury, while downed power lines in water could pose added dangers.

Wilkin warned that food or water contaminated by floodwater could cause serious illness like diarrhea and skin infections. He urged parents to avoid health risks to children by keeping them from playing in floodwater or with toys doused by floodwater. He encouraged safety precautions – washing hands with soap and water before meals, disinfecting items soiled by floodwater, and wearing rubber gloves and boots to protect skin. Another safety precaution Dr. Wilkin suggested, was to disinfect the outsides of bottled water, food packages, and sealed metal containers before consuming whats inside, but to avoid mixing hazardous cleaning agents. Dr. Wilkin advised households to check in with local water authorities about water potability, the local health department for information on mold remediation, and CDCs flood safety site and the California Department of Public Health for health-related guidance.

Staying Alert and Safe Through the Storms

A critical first step said Taylor, was to make an evacuation plan and create a support network of at least five people who could help in an emergency. He urged people to sign up for free emergency alerts at and to always follow guidance from local authorities  to go to a shelter, or to evacuate. Families needed to keep an emergency kit ready, added Crofts-Pelayo.

Planning for safety, security, and healthy outcomes is integral to an overall culture of preparedness and resilience when natural disasters strike. Drastic changes to the weather can occur suddenly and with little notice. So, staying alert and safe through the storms is crucial, said Crofts-Pelayo. “It’s absolutely imperative to be prepared.”

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Meera Kymal

Meera Kymal is the Managing Editor at India Currents and Founder/Producer at She produces multi-platform content on the South Asian diaspora through the lens of social justice,...