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Floodwaters in the San Joaquin Valley threaten homes and residents' incomes

LEILA FADEL, HOST:

The latest storm to hit California whipped up 80-mile-an-hour gusts. It knocked out power. It downed trees that derailed an Amtrak train and killed a motorist. And it dropped more rain on places already drenched by storm after storm. And one of those places is the San Joaquin Valley, where Jasmine Garsd checked in on the damage.

JASMINE GARSD, BYLINE: Johnny Dykstra is a farmer in Tulare, Calif. He's mainly a dairy farmer, but also grows almond, pistachio, wheat and corn. He gets emotional as he talks about his family.

JOHNNY DYKSTRA: I'm a fourth-generation dairy farmer, and my great-grandpa started in 1938. So we've been going at it for 85 years now, and hopefully we can make it through this and keep going more than that.

GARSD: When Dykstra talks about water, it's as if it was a creature, one he spent years hoping would return. But now it's back and swallowing the land whole.

DYKSTRA: I call it, like, our Alamo. It's - kind of our last stand is doing everything we can to make sure that the cows stay dry and stay safe. So, I mean, we'll keep - continue fighting. We're just at the mercy of what the water wants to do.

GARSD: The West has been experiencing extreme drought for years. In California's San Joaquin Valley, water is an obsession. Drive through and you'll see billboards that read, pray for rain. This year was different. A series of storms dumped buckets of rain which flooded the area. On top of that, the Sierra Nevada, the mountain range that flanks the valley, received record snow, which is starting to melt.

(SOUNDBITE OF WATER RUSHING)

GARSD: This is the sound of the Tule River raging down from the Sierra. Dykstra's farm is now an island. It can't be reached. In just one week, they got over six inches of water, covering a thousand acres of their land. He says he has little hope that his crops will survive. And he's running out of dry land for his cows. Dykstra, who says he's already reeling from loans he took out during the pandemic, is unsure about the future. A lot of folks here are. So far in this county, 11,000 people are under evacuation orders.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG)

UNIDENTIFIED MUSICAL ARTIST: (Singing in Spanish).

FIDELINO SIGNERO VALDES: (Speaking Spanish).

GARSD: Sitting in his backyard, Fidelino Signero Valdes (ph) says his neighbors were evacuated a few days ago. He was spared, but he's not sure how he'll fare with the next storm. Valdes says in the 30 or so years since he came from Mexico, he's picked every kind of crop - oranges, lemons, olives, grapes. His daughter also works in the fields. This is the story of many workers here - grandparents, parents and children picking side by side. It's overwhelmingly Mexican immigrants who are paid by how much they pick. Valdes says a day without work is difficult. Weeks on end - disastrous.

VALDES: (Speaking Spanish).

GARSD: "People here," he says, "are from the land and live off the land. If there's no work, the money runs out. But the bills keep getting higher." Unfortunately, so do the water levels.

FRANCES LLOYD: We prayed for rain, and we got it.

GARSD: That's Frances Lloyd (ph). She lives in the nearby town of Lindsay, known for its olive groves. Many of those groves have now become small lakes. The water also seeped into Lloyd's garage and basement.

(SOUNDBITE OF SWEEPING)

GARSD: This morning, she's sweeping it out before the next storm hits and throwing out damaged furniture. Just a few miles away, Lewis Creek is raging. A few days ago, with a previous storm, it breached.

HIPOLITO ANGEL CERROS: I'm young, and I'm frustrated. You know, I'm young, and I'm tired of seeing this.

GARSD: At age 24, the mayor of Lindsay, Hipolito Angel Cerros, is the youngest mayor in California, but he's already seen his town suffer year after year of drought and now flooding.

CERROS: If this doesn't mean that we need to take action, I don't know what else we need to go through.

GARSD: He's the only official we speak to around here who says the words climate change.

CERROS: You know, I think, regardless of political affiliation, climate change impacts us all.

GARSD: But he says it affects workers especially hard. He knows. His mother works in the fields.

CERROS: And she couldn't even go to work because of the - the streets were flooded. You know, a lot of these people, they're, unfortunately, living paycheck to paycheck, you know, barely given a livable wage, you know? And so they can't just sit at home and wait until the weather passes. They have to bring some bread to the table.

GARSD: Cerros says it's time to stop acting like these catastrophic weather events are a rarity and prepare for them being the norm.

Jasmine Garsd, NPR News, in the San Joaquin Valley, Calif. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Jasmine Garsd is an Argentine-American journalist living in New York. She is currently NPR's Criminal Justice correspondent and the host of The Last Cup. She started her career as the co-host of Alt.Latino, an NPR show about Latin music. Throughout her reporting career she's focused extensively on women's issues and immigrant communities in America. She's currently writing a book of stories about women she's met throughout her travels.