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An update from California's Office of Emergency Services on its severe weather

DWANE BROWN, HOST:

Strong winds and heavy rains have eased a bit and cleanup is underway this morning. So far in California, more than 17 people have died in the onslaught of storms. Much of the state remains under some form of severe weather warning as flooding, fallen trees, downed power lines are making driving particularly dangerous. More rain, though, is in the forecast after some record-setting amounts. Brian Ferguson is with California's Office of Emergency Services and joins us now. Thanks for being here, Brian. Can you tell us right off the bat here where you're seeing the most damage from this weather right now?

BRIAN FERGUSON: Yeah, all across our central coast has been pummeled in recent days by six consecutive storms. We had aerial rescues throughout the area yesterday. We think we may have set a single-day record for the number of people who were rescued via helicopter. And it continues to be a very dangerous and dynamic situation - a bit of a break today, but two large storms massing in the Pacific that we're watching very closely. And because of so much saturation in the soil, so much water in the creeks and streams, that any additional amount of rain does become dangerous very quickly.

BROWN: Yeah. So the central coast hit the hardest so far. What areas are you most concerned about outside of that area or those areas?

FERGUSON: You know, we continue to watch all the areas where our sensitive populations are. We've had over 17 fatalities, as you've referenced, which would already have made this, in wildfire terms, one of the top five deadliest incidents we've had in the history of our state. And unfortunately, we do anticipate that number will rise in the coming days. There are people missing. But this is an event that's impacted the whole of the state, from Humboldt up by the Oregon border all the way to San Diego and Orange County in the south. So, you know, one of the challenges of this incident is just how large and how geographically diverse the dangers are.

BROWN: That's right. More than half of California's 58 counties were declared disaster areas by the governor. What kind of assistance, Brian, is most needed now?

FERGUSON: The governor and president have talked multiple times, and we are lucky the president rapidly approved a federal disaster declaration. So we now have both personnel and resources from the Federal Emergency Management Agency, the Coast Guard and others. And they're actively working to set up shelters, do some of those air rescues we mentioned. And, you know, we are not done yet. We do anticipate that before this gets through, we're going to probably rise to a federal major disaster declaration. And the president's promised they're going to be with us throughout this disaster.

BROWN: Now, if I recall last year here in California, we got lots of rain around this time of the year, but it doesn't seem like as much as we've gotten lately. How does this natural disaster compare, say, to others California has seen lately?

FERGUSON: You know, one of the things that we're experiencing is a sort of weather whiplash where we've had four consecutive years of very dry weather - in fact, a declared drought. And then when we do get weather, it's all at once. And that does make it dangerous because it's been so dry that it - the creeks, streams, culverts almost become a bobsled track for that water to rapidly run down - or in other areas, it could lead to mudslides just because the soil has been so deteriorated by the drought. So, you know, the climate change impacts that we see in wildfire season very much impacted this area as well.

BROWN: Brian, thank you so much. We are drying out but, as you said, another couple of series of storms still headed our way. Brian Ferguson of Cal OES, thank you.

FERGUSON: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Dwane Brown
Dwane Brown is a multiple award-winning newscaster for NPR and joined the network in December 2015. He is the first newscaster to broadcast from NPR West in Culver City, California. His newscasts air during All Things Considered.