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In Merced, Gov. Newsom calls to ‘future proof’ communities amid storms

Michelle Morgante
Central Valley Journalism Collaborative
Gov. Gavin Newsom speaks to reporters after meeting Merced County authorities and visiting with residents affected by flooding during a stop at the Merced County Fairgrounds on Saturday, Jan. 14, 2023.

Editor's Note: This story was updated from its original version with additional reporting on Jan. 14.

MERCED, Calif. — After experiencing a paralyzing week of storms and flooded communities, Merced County got a visit from Gov. Gavin Newsom on Saturday where he issued renewed caution to residents to stay vigilant as new storms passed through.

Since just before the new year, California has endured one atmospheric river storm after another that have, together, dropped trillions of gallons of water onto the state. Newsom signaled the potentially final storm was still approaching, but that already much damage had been done to communities up and down the state.

He met with disaster relief volunteers and local families taking shelter from flooded homes at the Merced County Fairgrounds. Newsom said the storms present a larger task of addressing the impact climate disasters are having on the state.

“I met a young lady with four young kids and whose husband's back is so bad that he can’t work. And they don’t have any other family in the region, no other place to go. This was the only place of solace,” Newsom said. “We’re mindful of the work to do over the course of the next weeks, and many months and, yes, years as we future-proof this region – future-proof Merced County.”

Residents in Merced and nearby communities used a break in the weather a day before Newsom’s visit to clean up from flooding but also stock up on supplies and sand bags.

Storm’s impact in region unexpected

In Planada, an unincorporated community east of Merced that had been completely flooded Tuesday, law enforcement officials earlier in the week blocked roads and escorted residents who needed to collect essential items such as medication, important documents and even pets.

The town of 4,000 is perhaps one of the most affected places so far after flooding from a breached levee forced an evacuation order for all residents before dawn Tuesday.

Hundreds found shelter at the Merced County Fairgrounds.

Esther Quintanilla
Flooding in the small Merced County community of Planada reached up to five feet in some areas after an atmospheric river brought heavy rain to the state.

Merced County Sheriff Deputy Alexandra Britton said water reached up to 5 feet and water entered people’s homes.

We had to use boats to rescue people,” she said.

State Assemblywoman Esmeralda Soria and State Senator Anna Caballero toured small towns like Newman, Gustine and Planada on Friday.

The two also joined Newsom on Saturday. They addressed residents in the county – like farmworkers, low-income people, and medically-uninsured residents – who may be afraid or hesitant to seek support from the storm’s impacts, and said everyone should feel entitled to seek help.

People’s lives have been affected in a way that none of us would’ve predicted earlier in the month.
State Sen. Anna Caballero

“People’s lives have been affected in a way that none of us would’ve predicted earlier in the month,” Caballero told reporters Saturday.

Caballero emphasized the task that is now placed in front of residents of cleaning up and returning their lives back to normal. She said she is working with Soria and Newsom to ensure state resources make it to the region, and to the most-affected communities and residents.

“You heard that there are school children that need to be able to go back to school and their school is flooded. You heard that there are homes that have been tremendously impacted and they need to be cleaned up,” Caballero said.

Danger still present

People living along Bear Creek, a normally picturesque waterway winding through the heart of Merced, were warned to be ready to evacuate and to stay away from banks at risk of dislodging and erosion.

On Saturday, crews worked to reinforce the banks of the streams as the storm caused stress along its edges.

“The creek is extremely hazardous during heavy rainfall events, and all residents are advised to avoid the bike path, creek bank and fast-moving water,” city leaders warned in a statement Friday.

Merced resident Rosary Medlin said she and her neighbors received an evacuation warning this week as the water level reached a historic level of 26 feet early Tuesday.

To see that [the creek] almost got overflowed and houses could have been destroyed is crazy,” Medlin said Thursday, as the creek flowed with brown water.

I love this place. I love it. It's peaceful,” she said.

To the north, officials advised people to avoid flooded areas around the City of Atwater, where a video shared by Merced County Thursday showed inundated streets, homes and fields.

The sheriff’s office said authorities met Friday with representatives of the Federal Emergency Management Agency, the state Office of Emergency Services and the U.S. Small Business Administration who visited county locations impacted by severe flooding.

“Their arrival is a great thing for our county,” the sheriff’s office said in a post on Facebook. “Their assessments could help us secure funding to rebuild our community. … We want to show them the most critically impacted areas. Residents may be asked to show damage to their properties.”

Avoiding more loss

Michelle Morgante
Central Valley Journalism Collaborative
Crews work to reinforce the banks along Bear Creek in Merced, Calif., on Saturday, Jan. 14, 2023. Heavy rains have raised river and creek levels throughout Merced County, leading to breaches that have flooded several communities.

Fire stations around the county were busy with residents and volunteers filling sand bags in preparation for rainfall over the long weekend.

CalFire Capt. Jeremy Silva said his location in north Merced had gone through more than 30,000 bags as of Thursday.

“It’s been a 24-hour operation,” Silva said, giving credit to a group of volunteers from a local Mennonite church who showed up to fill bags for people and deliver them to retirees and anyone in need.

They “were out here at 4 o’clock in the morning on the night where Bear Creek flooded and the Planada incident happened. They were back out here at 7 a.m. refilling bags,” Silva said.

We’re mindful of the work to do over the course of the next weeks, and many months and, yes, years as we future-proof this region – future-proof Merced County.
Gov. Gavin Newsom

Valley and foothill communities were under a flood watch from Saturday morning through Sunday morning.

Along with flooding and destruction of property, the storms have killed at least 19 people to date across California.

Two of those were killed in Tulare County after a storm-related crash on Highway 99. Two other people were killed in nearby Mariposa County in storms of late December after a rockfall near Yosemite National Park.

Newsom highlighted the winter storms as deadlier than the previous two years of wildfires.

“That’s how deadly these are. Six inches of rain you can lose your footing; six inches of rain your car is starting to spin out of control. A foot of rain, your car is starting to float away. Two feet - good luck,” he said.

In Merced, Newsom praised that despite floods and evacuations, no lives had been lost there.

He thanked local officials and volunteers for the response and said the storm has produced heartache but also has brought out humanity. He said he hoped it continued beyond the weather disaster.

“The best of people come out in these moments,” he said. “The question for all of us is, why just these moments? Why can’t we extend this spirit of generosity to address all of the inequities that we experience day in and day out?”

KVPR's Esther Quintanilla and Central Valley Journalism Collaborative's Michelle Morgante contributed to this story.