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Opinion: In L.A., this is the equivalent of a biblical flood. And we are not coping

Opinion by Jeff Yang

(CNN) — Editor’s note: Jeff Yang is a frequent contributor to CNN Opinion. He co-hosts the podcast “They Call Us Bruce” and is co-author of the bestselling book “Rise: A Pop History of Asian America from the Nineties to Now” and author of “The Golden Screen: The Movies That Made Asian America.” The opinions expressed in this commentary are his own. Read more opinion on CNN.

As I write this, rain isn’t just coming down in sheets — we’re talking full California King bed sets, drenched pillow shams and water-filled duvet covers dumping free-range Acqua Panna on our usually parched L.A. landscape. Due to a moisture-rich atmospheric river hanging over the Southland, some areas of Los Angeles and Ventura County have already gotten more than 10 inches of big wet in the past 48 hours, with plenty more on the way.

Granted, for readers in soggier parts of the world, the storm we’re experiencing here might seem almost quaint. Friends from Asia have texted me asking how I’m enjoying “monsoon season.” Even my relatives back in New York have been unsympathetic, sending me links from their own massive storms, featuring images of tourists previously wading through LaGuardia Airport, Manhattan subway stations inundated with suspicious-looking runoff and people kayaking down city avenues.

But for L.A, a city used to permanent drought warnings and spontaneous brushfires along its freeways, this amount of precipitation is historic. We’ve already gotten more rain in a two-day period than any time in the past 20 years, and it’s not stopping soon. And despite the stark warnings we continue to get about extreme meteorological volatility in an era of ominously advancing climate change, Angelenos still just can’t when it comes to the diabolical threat of fluid falling from the sky.

Even a faint mist is enough to turn highway traffic into a high-velocity, full-contact interstate game of automotive skittles. When rain threatens to top off backyard pools, hoarding commences. As such, three solid days of downpour is the equivalent of the biblical flood, with desperate locals preparing to build arks for their Chihuahuas and Chausies out of yoga mats, Moon Juice empties and inflated Skims.

L.A. houses are also not built for vertical water. Living in homes with flat roofs barely held together by a thin layer of solar panels means that I and many other denizens of SoakedCal are being forced to actually look up from our smartphones to step around buckets and pans placed throughout our homes to catch drip-drip-drips from above. (Speaking of solar panels: With every day of nonstop gray, my electric bill ratchets up a notch. So much for that electric vehicle dividend.)

Detaching tongue from cheek, there have been real and horrific losses to this storm. Three people have died from separate incidents of trees falling on them or their homes. The Los Angeles Fire Department has had to respond to 130 flooding emergencies, 49 mud and debris flow incidents (which have in some cases damaged homes and led to neighborhood evacuations), and several water rescues for motorists trapped in cars surrounded by water, according to the Los Angeles Times. Thousands remain without power. The state and the city have both declared a state of emergency, and people are being told in no uncertain terms: Stay the hell at home.

Being stuck inside in the city in a storm is bad enough, but given that our regional airports are an infernal nightmare to negotiate even when the weather is fair, the true horror of the past few days was being caught away from Los Angeles and trying to get home. My friend Amy Anderson made the mistake of being in Oregon for a fun weekend getaway when the skies began to darken. On the flight back in, they experienced extreme turbulence, pulled back up and circled the airport for 40 minutes, then were rerouted to San Diego, where hours later, the airline generously offered them a flight back to L.A. featuring an overnight layover in San Jose with no hotel voucher.

“I decided to share a rental car to the San Fernando Valley with a stranger I sat next to on the plane,” Amy said. “We drove through crazy wind and rain for hours. I didn’t get home until 1:40 a.m., I hadn’t eaten for 12 hours, and my bladder was about to explode.”

The reality is that when it comes to the weather, business as usual is no longer usual, even for places that smirk at cities that shut down for snow days.

Climate change isn’t the future, it’s the present, and we have just begun to experience its impact firsthand. The jury is still out as to whether we can stave off the worst of what’s coming, given that we’re almost certainly going to blow through the “1.5 degrees of warming” threshold that scientists warned would lead to catastrophe. According to the United Nations, we’ve already seen over the past 50 years, 2 million excess global deaths and $4.3 trillion in economic losses from extreme weather events, and these are only becoming more frequent — and more intense.

Most Americans, and certainly most Angelenos, are still mostly insulated from the harm caused by “once in a millennium” meteorological incidents, though Illinois, Kentucky, St. Louis and Dallas haven’t been so lucky, with all four of them experiencing thousand-year storms in 2022 alone. But maybe news that this once-every-two-decade deluge we’re getting right now will happen 2.5 times more frequently in decades to come will prod annoyed and anxious residents of La La Land to take the climate crisis more seriously.

Either that, or we’ll have to start importing street kayaks from New York.

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