President Joe Biden walked along the splintered boardwalk of a picture-postcard California beach town on Thursday and heard from business owners struggling to repair damage to their shops after deadly storms caused devastation across the region and killed at least 21 people statewide, according to the governor, Gavin Newsom.
Biden toured a gutted seafood restaurant and the badly-flooded Paradise Beach Grille, not far from the collapsed Capitola pier and the shops painted brightly in pink, orange and teal that were all boarded up following the storms. Walls were crumbling, debris scattered everywhere and floors swept away by raging waters.
Paradise Beach Grille owner Chuck Maier told Biden that water had gushed up from the floor and swamped his business on Monterey Bay not far from Santa Cruz. “No kidding,” Biden exclaimed.
“You don’t feel it until you walk the streets,” Biden said later from nearby Seacliff state park, speaking about how bad the damage was and blaming climate change for the severity of the weather. “If anybody doubts the climate is changing, they must have been asleep for the last couple of years.”
Flanked by first responders, Newsom and Federal Emergency Management Agency (Fema) administrator Deanne Criswell, the president highlighted the damage from the punishing rains, powerful winds, floods and landslides. He warned the climate crisis would create more extreme weather.
“We know some of the destruction is going to take years to rebuild,” Biden said. “But we’ve got to not just rebuild, but rebuild better.”
From 26 December to 17 January, California was deluged by 11.47in of rain and snow on average across the state, according to the National Weather Service’s Weather Prediction Center, with some reports of up to 15ft of snow in the highest elevations of the Sierra Nevada.
California gets much of its rain and snow in the winter from a weather phenomenon known as “atmospheric rivers” – long, narrow bands of water vapor that form over the ocean and flow through the sky.
California has been hit by nine atmospheric rivers since late December. The storms have relented in recent days. Forecasters were calling for light rain toward the end of this week followed by a dry period.
“This has been challenging,” Newsom said. “Twenty-one lives have been lost. That does not include that five-year-old boy. We had nine atmospheric rivers, a stacking of stress, a conveyor belt going back 22 days.”
Criswell said on Thursday on the trip from Washington that the president and staff have to be mindful of what people have been through when traveling to places devastated by storms and other natural disasters.
“There has just been so much trauma to this community and it’s really important that we keep that in mind,” he said. “These communities have had loss of life, loss of their wellbeing and their livelihood, and I think it’s incredibly important that they know that the president is here to support them and that the full force of the federal family is going to be behind them.”
Biden has already approved a major disaster declaration for the state, freeing additional federal resources for recovery efforts. Hours before the visit, he raised the level of federal assistance available even higher.
More than 500 Fema and other federal personnel have been deployed to California to support the emergency operations. Thousands of bystanders gathered for the president’s visit and cheered him as he toured the boardwalk.
Newsom praised the fast federal response, but warned the threat remains high in a state that just a few years ago suffered devastating drought and is now facing record rainfall.
“The scale and scope of these floods is hard to understand unless you get out, and that’s why I couldn’t be more grateful to the president for taking the time to come out again.”