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Storms keep pummeling California, causing widespread flooding and evacuations

LEILA FADEL, HOST:

In California, powerful storms have killed at least 17 people and forced tens of thousands to flee their homes.

DWANE BROWN, HOST:

And more torrential rain is on the way. Here's California governor, Gavin Newsom.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

GAVIN NEWSOM: We're not out of the woods. We expect these storms to continue at least through the 18 of this month. We expect a minimum three more of these atmospheric rivers.

FADEL: NPR's Nathan Rott is in one of the affected areas, in Ventura County, northwest of Los Angeles. He joins us now. Good morning, Nate.

NATHAN ROTT, BYLINE: Hey. Good morning, Leila.

FADEL: So what's the situation where you are?

ROTT: All right, so some parts of this county got more than 18 inches of rain over two days, just to give you a little perspective here. So there's still some localized flooding, road closures. But generally speaking, Ventura County is doing better than a lot of places along the California coast. The Ventura River, which cuts along the west end of town, is down significantly compared to where it was. But even still, Leila, this is a river where it meets the coast that you can usually kind of roll up your pants, walk or even jump across, and yesterday when I went down there, it was at least 50 yards wide and who knows how deep because it...

FADEL: Wow.

ROTT: ...Looked like chocolate milk that you definitely wouldn't want to drink.

FADEL: Oh, man. So more than a dozen people had to be rescued from that river, right?

ROTT: Yeah, that's right. There was a lot of coverage about it here. I actually talked to some of those folks. They are unhoused and usually live in a little tent encampment down by the river. They're now camped out under a nearby overpass. One of the guys, Frankie, who didn't want to give his last name because some of his family don't know that he's currently homeless, said his brother actually woke him up in his tent when the flooding started. And I'll let him tell you the rest.

FRANKIE: I looked outside, and it was already ankle deep all around the tent. In probably about 20 minutes, it was up to our waist. And by the time they shot a ladder over the bridge down to us, we were hanging on to tree stumps, you know, tree foliage, you know, coming out of the ground, stuff like that. We were - there's seven of us. We all climbed up on the ladder and - rescued.

ROTT: And he said it was probably one of the scariest moments of his life.

FADEL: Sounds terrifying. How's the rest of the state doing with all of this water?

ROTT: It really depends on the location.

FADEL: OK.

ROTT: There's been widespread flooding along some parts of the coast. There were some levee failures inland. San Francisco was seeing pea-sized hail for a while yesterday. And this whole storm system isn't over, as we heard from the governor. Mike Anderson, the state climatologist, said in a press conference yesterday there's still uncertainty about how severe the upcoming storms later this week and weekend will be. Let's take a listen.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

MIKE ANDERSON: Challenge now that we're getting to is that the river should not receding as much as they were earlier due to how much rain has fallen and the volume of water in the system.

ROTT: So any new water coming from these upcoming atmospheric rivers won't have as many places to go, which, of course, could lead to even more flooding.

FADEL: So let's talk about climate change and the role it's playing in these storms.

ROTT: Yeah. So look; it's still too early for any attribution science to have been done, which is basically how we'd be able to definitively say that, yes, climate change has played a role in these storms. The link between climate change and atmospheric rivers, which are normal phenomena here in California and in many parts of the world, that is still not totally clear. What we can say, though, is that warmer air holds more moisture, and that's what's been fueling some of these really destructive hurricanes we've experienced in the Southeast. And so we do know the world's air is warmer because of human actions, so these kinds of major precipitation events are expected to happen more frequently into the future.

FADEL: NPR's Nathan Rott in Ventura, Calif. Thank you so much.

ROTT: Yeah. Thank you, Leila. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Leila Fadel is a national correspondent for NPR based in Los Angeles, covering issues of culture, diversity, and race.
Nathan Rott is a correspondent on NPR's National Desk, where he focuses on environment issues and the American West.