David Rodgers had barely driven a block from his home in central California when floodwaters began to rise so high he could touch them with an outstretched hand.

From behind the wheel of his wife’s small SUV, the commercial truck driver watched the cars in front of him slowly fill with water and then float down the street.

“It was like watching the Titanic, but you’re living it,” Rodgers said.

He and his wife, his mother-in-law and their three children panicked when a large truck drove past their car and its giant wake crashed into them. He tried to stay calm, but his children were frantic.

“One of the worst things you can hear from your child is yelling ‘I don’t want to die! I don’t want to drown!” she said.

The heartbreaking scene unfolded last week as the family was escaping a spate of torrential rains that hit much of California, knocking out power for hundreds of thousands of people and contributing to at least 20 deaths.

Residents across the state are just beginning to understand the full extent of the damage, especially in underserved communities, as they recover from the deluge.

Image: After days of rain, floodwaters surround homes and vehicles in the Planada community of Merced County, California on January 10, 2023.
After days of rain, floodwaters surround homes and vehicles in the Planada community of Merced County, California on January 10. Noah Berger/AP

“It will take some time to reveal how severe this event is,” said Brett Sanders, a professor of civil and environmental engineering at the University of California, Irvine. “The consequences of natural disasters can linger for years, and assistance often comes too late for disadvantaged communities.”

Sanders is among a handful of UCI researchers studying how low-income neighborhoods are disproportionately at risk of and affected by flooding. He helped develop a high-resolution flood modeling platform that can assess risk every 10 feet across the 2,700-square-mile expanse of the greater Los Angeles basin.

The framework, described in an article published in October in Nature Sustainability, connects the hazards of rainfall, stream flow, and storm surges with demographic data including population density, ethnicity, race, and economic disadvantage. Richard Matthews, a co-author on the paper, said the results seen in Los Angeles can easily be applied to the entire state.

“Almost all of the flooding attention has been focused on coastal flooding – that’s where the wealthiest populations live and it’s so dramatic,” he said.

“Many of those people have insurance and are able to rebuild, sometimes safer and better than before,” he said. “Poorer residents are likely to face displacement or higher rents if properties are improved to better protect them against things like flooding.”

Lana Spurlock, right, watches as Dakota Boone draws water from her flooded home on January 11, 2023 in Planada, California.
Lana Spurlock watches as Dakota Boone draws water from her flooded home in Planada, California, on January 11.Justin Sullivan/Getty Images

A barrage of atmospheric river storms has dumped rain and snow on the state since late December, flooding roads, downing trees, unleashing debris flows and triggering mudslides.

Governor Gavin Newsom signed an executive order Monday to bolster the state’s emergency storm response and help communities that suffered damage, and President Joe Biden ordered federal aid to supplement local recovery efforts.

Biden is scheduled to visit California on Thursday to meet with first responders, state and local officials, and communities devastated by recent flooding and storms.

In Santa Cruz County, seasonal farmworker Francisco Naranjo and his family had no hot water or electricity for two days during the worst of the storms. They took cold showers while the lights went on and off, and ate all the food in the pantry.

Sandbags defended the small home he shares with his wife and two adult children, who also work in the fields in nearby Salinas. Around Naranjo, roads were closed, neighborhoods evacuated, and houses destroyed.

“We are low-income people around here,” Naranjo said in Spanish. “It’s workers like me who can’t work because of the flooding and people are getting worried.”

Before the rains, he hoped work on the farms would pick up after a slow end to the year. Job opportunities dried up in November and she knew she would have to wait until after the holidays to go back to picking apples, raspberries and other produce. She filed for unemployment in the fall and was hoping for new opportunities in January.

But instead of working, Naranjo and other farmworkers are facing about 20,000 acres of flooded farmland in Salinas, according to preliminary estimates by the Monterey County Farm Bureau, a nonprofit association of farmers and ranchers. Initial estimates put the damage to fields, levees and other agricultural infrastructure at between $40 million and $50 million, but that doesn’t include the human cost of lost wages.

Naranjo went from earning $700 a week during the main harvest season to $67 a week on unemployment.

“I am living on bread and water,” he said.

When asked if he would return to work soon, Naranjo replied: «I don’t know.»

Cars driving on a flooded highway in Planada, California, on January 10, 2023.
Cars driving on a flooded highway in Planada, California, on January 10.Josh Edelson/AFP – Getty Images

About two hours away in Planada, a small community of mostly Latino farmworkers, Rodgers has been waiting for insurance adjusters to assess the damage to the home he bought less than three years ago. He and his wife immediately fell in love with the area while looking for a house: there was a community feeling to the place and plenty of playmates for their children.

“Everyone seems to take care of each other,” he said. “I feel bad for a lot of these families, a lot of them don’t have insurance because they’re renters, and all this flooding is basically taking their home away from them.”

Rodgers’ house was flooded last week with water up to our ankles. Family photos, important documents and heirlooms were destroyed when water leaked into her home when nearby Miles Creek overflowed its banks, she said.

It took only a few hours for the flood waters to inundate Planada, which remained under water for several days. At one point, Rodgers was forced to drive his large commercial truck using only a flashlight because floodwaters had risen above his headlights.

“We didn’t get any warning until it was too late,” he said. “In my head, I thought if it was that bad, someone would come tell us, but no one did. We left just in time.