Deadly deluge: California flooding risk rises

Your guide to California policy and politics
Sameea Kamal BY Sameea Kamal January 9, 2023
Presented by Dairy Cares, Climate-Smart Agricultural Partnership, Southern California Gas Company and Earthjustice

Deadly deluge: California flooding risk rises

Programming note: I’m Sameea Kamal, politics reporter at CalMatters, and I’ll be in your inbox on Mondays for the next few weeks. You may have seen my bylines covering the Capitol or the 2021 redistricting process. Reply to this email to let me know what’ll make your Monday newsletter the most informative.

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Now, on to the news:

In the last 10 days, 12 people have died in California storms and flooding — more than the number of civilians who died in wildfires in the last two years. 

With that remarkable and sobering fact, Gov. Gavin Newsom announced Sunday that he will include an additional $202 million for levees and other flood protection in the proposed state budget he plans to unveil Tuesday. That would be on top of more than $700 million in flood infrastructure California has invested in since 2019, according to Wade Crowfoot, secretary of the state’s Natural Resources Agency. The federal government has also put in $2.4 billion since then, he said. 

  • Crowfoot: “But let’s not sugarcoat it. While we are deploying some of the world’s most advanced technology to predict the threats we now face, Mother Nature is full of surprises. So it’s clear that we have to be ready.” 

Newsom also said he’s seeking a federal emergency declaration to get “the full support of the federal government in our efforts, which we have all the confidence that we’ll receive based upon the conversations with the White House.” The Biden administration announced this morning that President Biden approved the request. The federal designation is in addition to the statewide declaration by the governor last Wednesday. 

Newsom’s declarations followed another in a series of strong “atmospheric river” wind and rain storms that ripped through the Sacramento region late Saturday and early Sunday, leaving swaths of downed trees (including near the state Capitol) and widespread power outages in its wake and increasing the threat of catastrophic flooding.

As of Sunday afternoon, 20,000 people had been evacuated and more than 400,000 customers, were still without power, said Nancy Ward, the just-appointed director of the Governor’s Office of Emergency Services. The weekend storm caused at least two deaths of homeless individuals whose tents were hit by trees in Sacramento.

And the storm bringing more wind and rain late Sunday into early this morning, and again tonight into Tuesday could be even worse.

UCLA climate scientist Daniel Swain warns that the next atmospheric river will be “unusually unstable” with “quite a lot of thunderstorm activity.” 

  • Newsom on this week’s forecasted storms: “Expect to see the worst of it still in front of us.”

That’s a scary prospect for thousands of Californians, who live along rising rivers or on the coast or in areas scarred by wildfires. 


CalMatters covers the Legislature: With the state Legislature back in session, CalMatters has you covered with guides to keep track of your lawmakers, explore its record diversity, make your voice heard and understand how state government works. We also have Spanish-language versions for the Legislature’s demographics and the state government explainer.


1 Gavin Newsom, the sequel

Gov. Gavin Newsom leaves the stage after addressing attendees at his inauguration for a second term at the Plaza de California in Sacramento on Jan. 6, 2023. Photo by Rahul Lal, CalMatters
Gov. Gavin Newsom leaves the stage after addressing attendees at his inauguration for a second term at the Plaza de California in Sacramento on Jan. 6, 2023. Photo by Rahul Lal, CalMatters

Storm management is the first significant challenge of his second term, but it isn’t the only item on Gov. Newsom’s agenda this week. Fresh off his inauguration ceremony Friday, he’s due to unveil his budget proposal before Tuesday’s deadline. It’s unclear whether that’ll include any more detail on the penalty he has proposed on oil companies for windfall profits. (He sent his draft to the Legislature to fill in some of the big blanks — such as how much the penalty would be, and on what profit margin). 

Newsom briefly nodded to the oil company penalty during his inaugural speech, in which he also reiterated his vision from four years ago of a California for all — despite this year’s projected budget deficit, which may pose a challenge

He also continued to draw battle lines against “red state politicians and the media empire behind them selling regression as progress, oppression as freedom.” CalMatters’ Alexei Koseff reports on how the governor’s ability to balance those priorities over the next four years will be a major test for his political future, especially if he plans, as many expect, to seek higher office. The governor didn’t take press questions on Friday — and in general, limited press access.

Not surprisingly, Republicans were not impressed. 

  • Senate GOP leader Brian Jones in a pre-speech statement: “The governor of a state with the most homeless people living out on the streets sure has a high opinion of himself. While he flaunts so-called accomplishments, families are suffering because he is failing to lead. This state has broken under his watch.”

Also Friday, Attorney General Rob Bonta was sworn in for his first full-term (he was appointed by Newsom last year to succeed Xavier Becerra, who was named Secretary of Health and Human Services). In the year since, Bonta has expanded the role, taking on housing enforcement and  investigating police shootings of unarmed civilians. Read his remarks here.

2 McCarthy becomes speaker, but at what cost?

Republican Leader Kevin McCarthy, R-California, waits for the results of a twelfth ballot for the speakership on the fourth day of the 118th Congress at the U.S. Capitol in Washington, D.C., on Jan. 06, 2023. Photo by Craig Hudson for Sipa USA, via Reuters
Republican leader Kevin McCarthy of California waits for the results of balloting for the speakership on the fourth day of the 118th Congress at the U.S. Capitol in Washington, D.C., on Jan. 6, 2023. Photo by Craig Hudson for Sipa USA, via Reuters

While Gov. Newsom’s inauguration was highly choreographed, the election hours later of Kevin McCarthy as speaker of the U.S. House was chaotic. 

The powerful post did pass from one Californian, Democrat Nancy Pelosi of San Francisco, to another, Republican McCarthy of Bakersfield, but only after late-night drama and angry Republicans getting in each other’s faces.

Through the marathon voting over four days, far-right Freedom Caucus holdouts against McCarthy dwindled from 20 to 6, who voted present in the 15th and final ballot early Saturday Washington, D.C., time, to put him over the top. 

But it’s a fragile and pyrrhic victory — and it won’t be known for a while the impact and downsides of the deals cut and concessions made by McCarthy to finally secure his goal, putting him just behind Vice President Kamala Harris, another Californian, in order of presidential succession.   

The new speaker pledged to check President Biden’s policies, cut regulations, protect the border, stop an increase in Internal Revenue Service agents, end “woke indoctrination in our schools” and “use the power of the purse and the power of the subpoena to get the job done.” 

McCarthy, first elected to Congress in 2006, now holds the highest office ever attained by any former California legislator, according to Alex Vassar, communications manager for the state library. The son of a firefighter, his political career is grounded in Bakersfield, which emerged last fall as a key electoral battleground.

“I hope one thing is clear after this week,” McCarthy said near the end of his first speech as speaker. “I never give up.” 

And as his first act as speaker, at about 1:40 a.m. Saturday, he swore in the House members of the 118th Congress, including five new ones from his home state

  • Speaking of elections that won’t end: While the campaign of Sen. Melissa Hurtado called on Shepard to concede in the Senate District 16 contest, he isn’t yet backing down. She has already been sworn in, and any actions she takes won’t be overturned.
  • And in another long-running political drama, the board of SEIU Local 1000, the powerful union of 96,000 state employees and largest public-sector union in California, removed its president. An independent investigator found that Richard Louis Brown threatened staff, stole documents and improperly suspended other union officials. 

3 Hospitals struggle to get earthquake-safe

Alameda Hospital in Alameda on Jan. 3, 2023. Photo by Martin do Nascimento
Alameda Hospital in Alameda on Jan. 3, 2023. Photo by Martin do Nascimento

It has been about 30 years since California implemented strict seismic safety requirements. But two-thirds of hospitals in the state have yet to upgrade their facilities — and the deadline is nearing, CalMatters’ Ana B. Ibarra reports. Hospital officials across California say paying for those upgrades continues to be a tough task, especially for smaller facilities.

Labor groups, however, opposed hospitals’ ongoing requests for deadline extensions and amendments.

  • Cathy Kennedy, president of the California Nurses Association, told CalMatters: “They have had many, many, many years to do this, and to now say they need an extension is just not appropriate.”
  • Use CalMatters’ tool to check out how earthquake-safe your local hospital is.

CalMatters Commentary

CalMatters columnist Dan Walters: One state appellate court action expands the use of CEQA by those who oppose housing projects. Another restricts its use. The two cases underscore the environmental law’s chaotic role. 

What California can expect from House Speaker Kevin McCarthy: Just as his election, there will be more theatrics and little progress on pressing issues, predicts Mark Martinez, chairperson of the political science department at Cal State Bakersfield.


Other things worth your time

Some stories may require a subscription to read

New state Senate Health chairperson to prioritize mental health. // California Healthline

California is working to pass gun laws — and to defend them. // Politico

Pay transparency law raises questions for video game industry. // The Washington Post

Why did Orange Unified fire its superintendent? // Orange County Register

Katie Porter weighs Senate bid as Feinstein stays mum // Politico

Musk says he can’t get fair trial in California, wants Texas. // San Francisco Chronicle

Hundreds of deserted oil wells in Southern California could soon get plugged. // Orange County Register 

Why are natural gas prices soaring in San Diego? // San Diego Union-Tribune 

Why eggs cost more in California than anywhere else // Los Angeles Times

Opinion: Bay Bridge lights will come down — unless $11 million is donated // San Francisco Chronicle

See you tomorrow


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