California evokes images of sunny beaches, majestic mountains, Hollywood celebs, coastal highways and all variations of good times.
But lately, the Golden State has elicited visions of a different kind – houses buried in mud, scorched hillsides and flu-stricken hospital patients.
Californians have dealt with all that and more in these first, whirlwind days of 2018. Pretty much every day so far, the state has made headlines for one calamity or the other.
But don’t underestimate California’s ability to bounce back from almost anything.
“We’re pretty resilient here,” said Bill Hopkins, president of the Southern California Preparedness Foundation. “These communities, like Montecito, they’re a little more close knit.”
The rainy season had a horrendous start in Southern California, where heavy rains last week triggered deadly mudslides that killed at least 20 people. Raging rivers of mud and debris rushed down hillsides in Santa Barbara County, wiping out or burying homes down below. Rescuers are digging through mud, downed trees and power lines, wrecked cars and even boulders searching for survivors. Some were plucked off their rooftop by helicopters while mud surged through their home. At least eight people remain missing.
The affluent coastal town of Montecito was hit especially hard. A “deep rumbling” sound followed by massive mountains of mud awakened residents last week when the slides hit. Residents had little or no time to flee. Rescuers pulled children and babies from the muck, including a 14-year-old girl – coated in mud from head to foot – after she was trapped for hours.
The mudslide was so massive that it temporarily shut down US 101, a major West Coast highway, from Montecito to Santa Barbara. Oprah Winfrey, who lives in the area, wasn’t spared. She shared photos of the damage on social media, including a video of her walking through knee-deep mud in her backyard.
Mudslides aren’t anything new in California, but they were made much worse when the rains that spawned them dislodged vegetation in areas charred by wildfires. Protective brush on hillsides, which would usually be able to soak up floodwater, was consumed by fire, leaving little to no vegetation to prevent mudslides and debris flow.
Wildfires were an absolute menace in California last year. Blazes took 39 lives and torched 199,000 acres in the wine country fires in Northern California in October. One firefighter was killed in the Southern California fires in December. And the largest of those fires smoldered on into 2018. The Thomas Fire – the 282,000-acre monster blaze that burned an area the size of Dallas and Miami combined – wasn’t 100% contained until late last week, according to the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection. It’s the largest fire in state history.
Deadly flu season
The flu season has slammed California so far. There have been 27 flu-related deaths of patients younger than 65, more than normally seen during this point of the season.
“Usually, at this time of year, we have reported in the neighborhood of three or four deaths in people under age 65,” said Dr. James Watt, chief of the Division of Communicable Disease Control at the state Department of Public Health.
California is one of 26 states that the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has classified as having “high” flu activity.
More people in the state are in the hospital with flu-like symptoms, and there’s been some shortages of medications, such as Tamiflu, in pharmacies.
There is some good news though. There is no widespread shortage of the influenza vaccine in California, so if you haven’t had that flu shot yet, go ahead and roll up those sleeves.
Quakes and California go hand in hand, and the state’s first big temblor came four days into the new year.
A magnitude 4.4 quake jolted the Bay Area in the early morning hours a week ago near Berkeley. It woke people up from Santa Rosa to Santa Cruz. It didn’t seem to do much damage beyond some broken dishes and windows, but it forced delays on area commuter trains so that inspectors could check the tracks.
Thankfully there weren’t any deaths or major damage, but it drove home another fact of life for Californians: The threat of the “next big one” may be right around the corner.