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Heavy storms bring death and damage to California's Humboldt County


We're going to start today hearing about the widespread flooding in parts of California. That's because of what meteorologists called atmospheric rivers. These are plumes of tropical moisture that dump large amounts of rain, and they've been pummeling parts of the state. In Northern California, some areas have even been experiencing snowfall. Humboldt County recently declared a state of emergency due to the storms.

We wanted to learn more about how all this is affecting residents, so we've called Humboldt County Sheriff William Honsal, who declared a local state of emergency earlier this week, and he is with us now. Sheriff, thank you so much for being here.

WILLIAM HONSAL: Thanks, Michel. It's good to be on your program.

MARTIN: So you've been sheriff for six years. You were born and raised in the area. Have you ever seen anything like this?

HONSAL: I have not. This is an unprecedented storm system that has really caused a lot of havoc in our county.

MARTIN: Talk a little bit about what you're seeing and experiencing there.

HONSAL: So if you're not familiar with Humboldt County, we're in the northwest corner of the state. It is really geographically diverse. We got the ocean. We got the redwoods, the tallest trees in the world. And we have a sparse population. It's a county the size of Connecticut, but we only have 135,000 people. We have two major highways going through it. And so when this storm came in, you know, we're initially going to count for maybe one or two feet of snow. We got eight feet up in our mountains and our hills.

MARTIN: This is what you said in the - in declaring this a local state of emergency. And you're pretty clear about it. In the announcement, you wrote - or your office wrote, consecutive major winter storms have resulted in a large accumulation of snow, impassable roadways, downed trees, disrupted utility services, damaged and flooded roadways, mudslides, damaged structures and dead livestock, these impacts exhausting and exceeding available county resources. So pretty clear. Yes Absolutely. What - does that mean that there are people you can't get to? Like, can you communicate with residents? Like, if they need help, do they even have a way to tell you?

HONSAL: So sometimes, they don't. Like, we're experiencing a case today - actually, it started yesterday, where we got a call that there's a residence in a certain part of our county that is isolated. They have - their loved ones haven't heard from them in days. The power service in that area is cut off, so the cell signals are cut off. These people live off the grid. And so we spent the better part of all yesterday basically using our tracked Sno-Cat vehicle, you know, trying to access this person's roadway.

They live five miles in. We're only able to get three miles yesterday because of all the downed trees and the heavy snow. So we're calling in bulldozers. We're calling in more resources. They're trying - and get to these people because we really don't know. And the scary thing is, you know, there may be further casualties we're going to find in the coming days when the snow does melt and people can get to their loved ones because, you know, with the accumulation of snow and now the rain, it is going to cause some structure failures and some roof collapses.

MARTIN: So before I let you go, sheriff, do you mind if I ask, how are you?

HONSAL: Humboldt County is really unique. This is the third state of emergency we've gone through over the last three months. We've had our major earthquake in December. We had severe winter weather storms, strong winds, mudslides in January and now this February, March, winter storm. There hasn't been a time where we've declared, you know, three local emergencies and then, ratified by the state, state emergencies in a period of three months. So we're rattled, to be honest.

And, you know, there's a lot of our guys that just have worked for weeks on end with no time off. And we're tired, essentially. And our Office of Emergency Services is still recovering from the pandemic. But I'm thankful I have great people that work with me. I have an awesome team. And like I said, it's all about the relationships. Our fire departments, our state office of emergency services, the federal resources have really come together, and I'm really thankful for the teamwork that we can provide, you know, the services to our residents here.

MARTIN: That was William Honsal. He's the sheriff for Humboldt County, Calif. He manages emergency services for the county there. Sheriff, thank you so much for joining us. My best wishes to you and to your team and all the people you're trying to take care of.

HONSAL: Michel, I really appreciate it. I hope you have a good weekend. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.