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Strong Storms Bring Death, Damage to California’s Humboldt County: NPR Story-level




California continues to deal with treacherous weather. NPR’s Michel Martin speaks with Humboldt County, California Sheriff William Honsal about what residents are experiencing.


We are going to start hearing today about widespread flooding in parts of California. That’s because of what meteorologists call atmospheric rivers. These are tropical moisture plumes that dump large amounts of rain and have been hitting 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 of this is affecting residents, so we called Humboldt County Sheriff William Honsal, who declared a local state of emergency earlier this week and is now with us. Sheriff, thank you very much for being here.

WILLIAM HONSAL: Thank you Michel. It’s good to be on his show.

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

HONEST: I don’t have. This is an unprecedented storm system that has really wreaked a lot of havoc on our county.

MARTIN: Talk a 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’s really diverse geographically. We have the ocean. We have 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 main roads running through it. So when this storm hit, initially we’re going to count on a foot or two of snow. We are eight feet tall on our mountains and our hills.

MARTIN: This is what he said in the… in declaring this local state of emergency. And you are quite clear. In the announcement, he wrote, or his office wrote, back-to-back major winter storms have resulted in heavy snowdrifts, impassable roads, downed trees, interrupted utilities, damaged and flooded roads, mudslides, damaged structures and dead livestock, these impacts deplete and exceed available county resources. Very clear. Yes absolutely. What – does that mean there are people you can’t reach? Like, can you communicate with the residents? For example, if they need help, do they have a way to tell you?

HONSAL: So sometimes they don’t. For example, we are experiencing a case today; It actually started yesterday where we got a call that there is a residence in a certain part of our county that is isolated. They have – their loved ones haven’t heard from them in days. Power in that area is out, so cell phone signals are down. These people live off the grid. And so we spent most of yesterday basically using our Sno-Cat tracked vehicle, you know, trying to access this person’s road.

They live five miles in. We were only able to get to three miles yesterday because of all the downed trees and heavy snow. So we’re calling the bulldozers. We are requesting more resources. They’re trying to reach these people because we really don’t know. And the scary thing is, you know, there may be more casualties that we’re going to find in the next few days when the snow melts and people are able to get to their loved ones because, you know, with the accumulation of snow and now the rain, it’s going to cause some structural failures and some roof collapses.

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

HONSAL: Humboldt County is really unique. This is the third state of emergency that we have gone through in the last three months. We have had our big earthquake in December. We had severe winter storms, high winds, mudslides in January and now this winter storm in February and March. 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 three-month period. So we’re nervous, to be honest.

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

MARTIN: That was William Honsal. He is the sheriff of Humboldt County, California. There he manages the county emergency services. Sheriff, thank you very much for joining us. My best wishes to you, your team and all the people you try to care for.

HONSAL: Michel, I really appreciate it. I hope you have a good weekend.

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