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How California is preparing for another massive winter storm

MARY LOUISE KELLY, HOST:

Another massive winter storm will smash into California tomorrow, soaking the already-soaked state with more rain and snow. The National Weather Service says the, quote, "brutal" system could wash out roads and hillsides, flood Bay Area streets and knock out power for much of the state. Well, here to talk about the state's preparations is Brian Ferguson. He's director of crisis communications for California. Brian Ferguson, welcome.

BRIAN FERGUSON: Hi, there.

KELLY: Hi. So y'all are just getting walloped, it sounds like. This storm comes just on the heels of a storm over New Year's weekend that broke levees and flooded highways and I know killed several people. How ready is California to confront another big one?

FERGUSON: You know, California has been preparing for this for a while. We've experienced a number of climate-driven disasters, most notably wildfires. So while we do look forward to a challenging week here that's going to require all of our citizens to be ready, the investments we've made in technology and infrastructure for other climate-driven disasters are going to come into play.

KELLY: You mentioned wildfires, which y'all have also had a lot of in California. And I wonder how that factors in. Are there special concerns in areas where mudslides, flash flooding might be more likely?

FERGUSON: Yeah, the burn scar areas where we've had wildfires in recent years are more prone to mudslides and debris flows. And similarly, areas that are impacted by the drought - so the creeks and culverts and streambeds - may not be able to receive water the same way that they have in recent years, either because the soil just washes away or because it's so rock-hard that it becomes a bobsled chute of water coming downhill. And certainly, as our climate situation progresses, these can be exacerbating factors to make rain like this even worse when we do have it.

KELLY: Right. Well, because there is, you know, the concern that, as the climate warms, California is seeing more - I've seen the term weather whiplash being used. The dry periods are drier and longer, and then the wet periods are wetter and more extreme storms. How do you think about preparing long term?

FERGUSON: Yeah, this really is the new reality that we face. And it requires not just government, but individuals to change the way they think about things - whether it's making a plan for your own family and preparing for a disaster on up to us at the state level of taking aggressive action early when we see a weather pattern come in, with ultimately the goal to be - keep as many people safe as possible.

KELLY: We checked with a couple of our colleagues who are in California, in our offices there, and they said I should ask you about just general safety precautions - said a lot of Californians aren't used to this kind of heavy rain, and certainly not back-to-back huge storms. They mentioned things like just knowing to slow down when you're driving through heavy rain. Turn on your headlights. Don't try to just slam through what looks like standing water and you don't know how deep it's going to be. How is your team working to raise awareness of those type of precautions?

FERGUSON: You know, one thing we always remind people to do is sign up for alerts because information is power. So if you get those notifications from your city or county, don't wait. Go if you think you're in danger and evacuate early, particularly if you have young children or maybe you care for loved ones who are getting up there in age, and you need a little extra time. Because, in a large-scale disaster like this, it may be that first responders can't get to every single house.

KELLY: Any other preparations - any other precautions you want people listening to have in their heads as this storm approaches?

FERGUSON: One of the things we've done is moved close to 400,000 tons of rock into place, 4 million sandbags, swift water rescue teams on flatbed boats and jet skis and trying to put those in positions across the state.

KELLY: Wow.

FERGUSON: We're hopeful that we're not going to need them, but the same thing in your family - have a family emergency plan of how you get a hold of your loved ones. If you weren't able to access your cell phone, know where you would meet and what route you would take if maybe the route you typically drive on is flooded or not available.

KELLY: And I have to ask - I'm intrigued by the detail and the scale of the sandbags, which I hear you saying you hope you don't need. Has California ever done anything on this scale before?

FERGUSON: The last disaster that we saw that was even approaching this scale was 2017, when we saw very challenging releases from our reservoirs and even the possible failure of the Oroville Dam just because of the amount of water that was impacting that area. So certainly, this is not unique to our state, but it's as challenging a storm as we've seen in, you know, five or seven years.

KELLY: Brian Ferguson - he is the state emergency spokesperson for California. Brian Ferguson, thank you so much. Stay dry. Stay safe.

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

Mary Louise Kelly is a co-host of All Things Considered, NPR's award-winning afternoon newsmagazine.
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Christopher Intagliata
Christopher Intagliata is an editor at All Things Considered, where he writes news and edits interviews with politicians, musicians, restaurant owners, scientists and many of the other voices heard on the air.