The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

What it’s like to suffer through an atmospheric river in California

Lee Prince disconnects his trailer from electrical power as he readies to move to higher ground from the Russian River before a powerful storm hits the Mirabel RV Park & Campground in Guerneville, Calif., on Wednesday. (Melina Mara/The Washington Post)
4 min

FORESTVILLE, Calif. — Under increasingly heavy rain, residents of the Mirabel trailer park darted through mud, piling their belongings onto their yards and into pickup trucks, readying to hitch up and evacuate their mobile homes to higher ground as the Russian River surged behind them. It’s a stressful and exhaustive task, but this is not the first time they’ve done it.

The park, tucked beneath towering Redwoods off a woodsy, winding road in Sonoma County, flooded in 2019, the water from the river a stone’s throw from their homes cresting 45 feet over their lots, residents said. But this time is different.

Climate reporter Brianna Sacks reports from the Mirabel trailer park in Forestville, Calif. on Jan. 5 as residents evacuated from rising floodwaters. (Video: John Farrell/The Washington Post)

California declares state of emergency as another massive deluge hits

They’re preparing to be gone from their little community for at least two weeks as powerful storms roll across the region, hitting their homes and saturating their land over and over. The Russian River is expected to swell to near 40 feet by Sunday.

On top of floods, the deluge is even more of a threat because when it drenches the drought-stricken, fire-scarred land above and around them, the valleys and hills can give way, causing mudslides and debris flows.

“If you want the beauty, you have to deal with the pain,” said Steven Owens, who was helping attach his mother’s trailer to the back of a pickup truck.

Mirabel, like many towns and communities in this region, is a self-reliant, close-knit community where residents want to live hidden away in nature and accept the price of doing so. Many of the 35 residents and their families have lived here for more than a decade, their trailers parked next to gardens, outdoor couches, and swingsets.

It’s also become one of the most affordable ways to plant roots in a state where skyrocketing housing costs are pricing out a huge chunk of the population. Here, seniors on Social Security and blue-collar workers pay $650 a month for their own space, while still playing cards with their neighbors around a fire. There are more than 120 mobile home parks in Sonoma County.

Californians braced for another massive winter storm Jan. 4 by setting up sandbags and staying indoors. (Video: Julie Yoon/The Washington Post)

But as climate change has intensified weather over the years, planning for and executing major evacuations from fires and floods has become more frequent and intense. The routine of moving your entire life every year does take a toll.

“It’s an absolute nightmare,” Duncan Stewart said, standing next to his old blue truck filled with possessions. “I am 73, and I don’t take too well to this. Basically, everyone is up for themselves and not much more.”

Stewart has lived in his Hitchhiker II trailer overlooking the water for 10 years. He said he loves the quiet, freedom and community, but these weather events are making it harder for him to pull off. He’s alone, aside from his 12-year-old dog, Blue, retired, and living on $1,100 a month from social security. It’s going to cost him $180 for a driver to relocate his trailer to the top of a hill and then the cost of a hotel. He’s spent the past few hours tying his heavier belongings to trees and driving things he can’t take with him to the dump.

“I’ve had enough,” he said. “I am just too old.”

A few spots over, Lora Meeks, the park manager, scurried back and forth, packing up her belongings, stoking a fire and coordinating evacuation plans. She hurt her wrist earlier Wednesday morning moving a 50-pound box and said she has to go to an emergency room once everyone is out. She’s lived in this park since she was 7 and remembers evacuating for a flood while nine months pregnant with her son, who is now 16 years old and helping tow away his neighbors’ trailers.

“You think this is hard? Nothing compared to that,” she joked, then sobered when she talked about what this is like for those who call the park home. “Packing up your life every time is traumatic.”

Right now, many of them don’t know where they will be for two weeks or how they will afford it. Meeks said it will cost her $700 to post up in another location, more than Stewart’s month of rent. Her park offers an “unusual way of life,” she said, that disasters are making much harder to find and keep, especially for those with disabilities and with low and fixed incomes, like her residents. In the past few years, they’ve also had to flee major fires, and it takes a lot of resources to do that over and over.

“We all come from different backgrounds and different traumas, and we all carry that with us to wherever we go. We carry our demons wherever we go,” Meeks said. “And it’s people like the people we have here who help each other out who get each other out of those messes.”

Sign up for the latest news about climate change, energy and the environment, delivered every Thursday

More on climate change

Understanding our climate: Global warming is a real phenomenon, and weather disasters are undeniably linked to it. As temperatures rise, heat waves are more often sweeping the globe — and parts of the world are becoming too hot to survive.

What can be done? The Post is tracking a variety of climate solutions, as well as the Biden administration’s actions on environmental issues. It can feel overwhelming facing the impacts of climate change, but there are ways to cope with climate anxiety.

Inventive solutions: Some people have built off-the-grid homes from trash to stand up to a changing climate. As seas rise, others are exploring how to harness marine energy.

What about your role in climate change? Our climate coach Michael J. Coren is answering questions about environmental choices in our everyday lives. Submit yours here. You can also sign up for our Climate Coach newsletter.