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Heavy rains have Californians worrying about flooding again

SCOTT SIMON, HOST:

The latest in a parade of storms has hit California, causing widespread flooding and two deaths. Heavy rain - as much as 10 inches - is compounding the effects of the several atmospheric rivers that hit the state earlier this year. Mudslides are forcing road closures. Some towns have been evacuated. Member station KCRW's Matt Guilhem joins us now from Santa Barbara. Matt, thanks for being with us.

MATT GUILHEM, BYLINE: Thanks for having me.

SIMON: Give us some idea of what's happening there, please.

GUILHEM: Well, in Southern California, where I am, we're getting off pretty easy. Compared to some of the other storms that have come through this season, this one has been pretty mild, but that's what forecasters predicted. It's a different story as you move up the state. In Kern County, which is north of LA, areas surrounding the Kern River have been evacuated due to flooding. I'll let National Weather Service meteorologist Antoinette Serrato explain what caused the river to jump its banks.

ANTOINETTE SERRATO: This warm rain came into the area and in places that had low-elevation snow, that low-elevation snow isn't supported by a very stable, thick snowpack. And so what really happened is that that rain melted the snow and created rain-on-snow runoff.

GUILHEM: It's a similar story for other rivers as well. Many are running above flood stage. And in Santa Cruz County, flooding has triggered mudslides and washed-out roads.

SIMON: And this is rain, not snow like some of the storms that hit earlier this year.

GUILHEM: That's right. Like earlier storms, this one is an atmospheric river, meaning it's like a conveyor belt for moisture, channeling water vapor from hundreds of miles away right into the Golden State. But those were cold storms bringing snow, as you say. This time we're getting hit with a so-called pineapple express. It's a warmer storm, and it's hitting many parts of northern and central California with more rain than snow even at higher elevations.

SIMON: Matt, this is quite a contrast with California, which is usually under drought warnings. Are officials doing anything to try and capture all this water that's suddenly soaking the state?

GUILHEM: Yes, Governor Gavin Newsom issued an executive order yesterday that cuts some of the red tape surrounding water storage. Along with that order from the governor, he's declared states of emergency tied to recent storms in a majority of California's counties. And just yesterday, President Biden authorized an emergency declaration for the state. The regional FEMA director, Robert Fenton, says...

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

ROBERT FENTON: That allows FEMA to direct other federal agencies to provide lifesaving and emergency assistance as needed to respond to not only the current events happening right now, but the other atmospheric rivers as they come.

GUILHEM: If there's any silver lining to all of this, the series of storms has worked wonders for our drought. At the start of the year, 35% of the state was experiencing the U.S. Drought Monitor's most severe conditions. Today we are completely out of those categories and a quarter of the state isn't experiencing any drought.

SIMON: Matt, what indications are about when the storm system might move out?

GUILHEM: Short term, this system should clear out by tomorrow. But another atmospheric river is on its way early next week, so not a lot of time to absorb all this water before we get soaked again.

SIMON: Reporter Matt Guilhem of member station KCRW. Thanks very much for being with us, Matt.

GUILHEM: Happy to do it. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Scott Simon is one of America's most admired writers and broadcasters. He is the host of Weekend Edition Saturday and is one of the hosts of NPR's morning news podcast Up First. He has reported from all fifty states, five continents, and ten wars, from El Salvador to Sarajevo to Afghanistan and Iraq. His books have chronicled character and characters, in war and peace, sports and art, tragedy and comedy.
Matt Guilhem is a native of the Inland Empire. After growing up in the region, he went north to Berkeley for university and earned a degree in English. Matt's passion for radio developed late; he hosted a program while abroad in 2011 and knew he had found his calling. Matt started at KVCR as an intern in 2013; he now serves as both a reporter and host for the station. You can hear him regularly most weekday afternoons on All Things Considered, occasionally filling in on Morning Edition, and filing news reports for both programs.