FILE - Brenda Ortega, 15, salvages items from her flooded Merced, Calif., home on Tuesday, Jan. 10. In California, only about 230,000 homes and other buildings have flood insurance policies, which are separate from homeowners insurance. (AP Photo/Noah Berger, File)

While clear weather has returned, the aftermath to clean up the damage caused by relentless storms continues. Throughout Los Angeles and the San Fernando Valley, the pounding rain was so immense it was referred to as “atmospheric rivers,” causing severe flooding, downed trees and powerlines, mudslides and extensive damage to property.

Road and highway infrastructure was damaged across California During the height of the storms. US Sen. Alex Padilla (D-Calif.) joined President Joe Biden to see the impact of the extreme weather across the state.

Work on the sinkhole in Chatsworth that swallowed two cars continues with crews working to stabilize Iverson Road south of the 118 Freeway. It’s estimated that it will take weeks or even months to make it safe again for traffic. The drivers and passengers in the two cars that fell into the sinkhole were fortunate to have survived.

There are lessons learned, LAFD Cpt. Erik Scott pointed out, “It serves as a reminder, you don’t ever want to drive across a roadway where you can’t see your pavement. This is exactly why we provide these warnings.”

Roger Quintanilla, a spokesperson for Councilman John Lee — who represents the west side of the San Fernando Valley, including Chatsworth — said Caltrans has taken jurisdiction over the sinkhole repairs.

“They estimate the cost will be over $4 million dollars. Caltrans will also be the ones to provide an accurate timeline once they determine the extent of the subsurface damage and how much construction will be required to repair and reconstruct the area,” Quintanilla said. “Councilmember Lee will continue to work with local and state departments to properly assess why this happened and the steps needed to prevent something like this from occurring again.” 

The massive sinkhole in Chatsworth has caused concern that there could be other streets that flood at risk for sinkholes.

Public officials across the state emphasized the importance of being prepared.

During a news briefing held recently titled, “Staying Alert and Safe Through the Storms: It’s Not Too Late to Be Prepared,” was presented by CalOES and Listos California and co-hosted by Ethnic Media Services (EMS) and California Black Media noted that residents should factor that our weather is changing. “Drastic changes to the weather forecast can occur suddenly and with little notice. That’s why it’s absolutely imperative to be prepared,” said EMS Director Sandy Close.

“We experienced destructive flooding of homes, businesses and communities. We’ve had levee breaches, mudslides, hurricane-force winds in many of our communities and even a tornado,” said Diana Crofts-Pelayo, assistant director for crisis communications and public affairs with the Governor’s Office of Emergency Services. “These storms are among the most deadly natural disasters in the modern history of our state with 20 reported deaths.”

On Jan. 12, Gov. Gavin Newsom requested an expedited major disaster declaration and President Joe Biden approved the declaration for three specific counties hardest hit in Northern California — Merced, Sacramento and Santa Cruz. “We have made a request for additional counties to be added to the major disaster declaration to receive individual and public assistance as warranted by results of assessing the damage locally,” said Crofts-Pelayo.

Southern California residents can still apply for disaster assistance even though the area has yet to be added. All applicants will be informed whether or not their application has been approved.

“Folks that are in other counties, specifically homeowners and business people, we want you to continue to apply, but let your counties know that you have experienced damages or have been impacted because of the storm, and that will only help them then be able to guide the federal government to show them the extent of damages locally,” said Crofts-Pelayo.

Those with special needs are also encouraged to apply for assistance.

“What we recognize is that anytime there are these types of disasters, that there are individuals who are disproportionately impacted by those disasters — older adults, people with disabilities,” said Vance Taylor, chief, Office of Access and Functional Needs, California Governor’s Office of Emergency Services.

“We are working to ensure their systems are going to be working for everyone. People who are economically disadvantaged, or transportation disadvantaged people who have access or functional needs,” said Taylor.

“If you live in one of the three approved counties, and we are anticipating other counties will be brought in, you’re going to be eligible to apply for federal assistance through FEMA. And some of that means being eligible potentially for grant money,” said Taylor.

“That means being able to have essential items, such as furniture or durable medical equipment replaced, it means potentially current assistance with rental aid. It could also mean being provided with housing and other needs assistance, things like eyeglasses, hearing aids and other assistive devices. Individuals will also be able to apply for assistance to receive low-interest, SBA loans and other mechanisms to help them to essentially recover and financially to get back on their feet.

“In the meantime, everyone should be prepared for the next emergency and be aware of the proper way to respond to protect your health especially when your home has been flooded and you’ve come in contact with floodwater.

“The best advice is really to avoid floodwater whenever possible. Floodwater can contain all sorts of things that are harmful to your health. It can contain toilet waste, and associated bad germs, it can have hazardous chemicals, including things like gasoline,” said Dr. Jason Wilken, career epidemiology field officer at California’s Department of Public Health.

“It can contain hidden, heavy or sharp objects. Floodwater is typically murky and muddy and you can’t see very well in it and it’s very easy to become injured by a sharp or heavy object that’s hidden. Floodwater can also be in contact with downed power lines. And floods can also cause the migration of animals, so you can have live or dead animals in floodwater that you might not normally come in contact with.”

Contact with or consuming contaminated food or water can cause serious illness, including diarrhea and skin infections. Children are especially at risk and may want to play in floodwater.

“Don’t let them play with toys or anything that floodwater has gotten wet until those items can be disinfected. And always make sure to wash their hands with soap and water often, and always before meals. That’s good practice at any point but during a flood is especially important. Next, if you must be in contact with floodwater and if you’re in an area that’s been flooded, wear rubber gloves and wear rubber boots. This is a very good way to protect your skin from contact with floodwater and doesn’t actually accidentally ingest floodwater.”

Floods can also impact your drinking water. Local water authorities should tell residents whether their tap water is safe to use.

“If the outside of sealed bottles of water comes in contact with floodwater, it could also be contaminated. Any fresh or packaged food that has been touched by floodwater should be thrown away. So other than undamaged cans or metal pouches, you should throw out any fresh or packaged food that had been touched by floodwater,” said Wilken. “Even in the case of sealed metal containers, those should still be cleaned and the outside should be cleaned and disinfected before consuming what’s on the inside.”

While during storms, residents can’t control sinkholes, and acts of nature, they can be prepared to address issues in their own homes.

“Drying your home and removing items that have been water damaged is your best route for preventing the growth of mold. Mold will grow on hard surfaces. You can contact your local health department for guidance on mold remediation,” said Wilken.

“It’s important to get those wet items out of your home and dry that home as quickly as possible to prevent the growth of mold. After 48 hours of dampness, you can assume that there will probably be mold growth unless you’ve gotten to dry those surfaces.”

Wilken recommends a tablespoon of bleach into a gallon of water for cleaning surfaces and warns against combining cleaners.

“Bleach plus ammonia, for example, will actually cause chlorine gas to be created and that is something that can easily quickly overwhelm and incapacitate someone. So never mix cleaners.”

Too often, homeowners think they are covered for flood damage but find when making an insurance claim they learn too late that they’re not covered. Simply put, if you don’t have flood insurance, you won’t be covered for flood damage.

“Falling trees on your property from wind and storm damage that damages your property will typically be covered under the standard homeowner’s insurance, renter’s insurance or commercial property insurance policies. Now, flood damage, which could include mudflow, debris flow, that sort of thing, wouldn’t be covered under the standard policies unless you have separate flood insurance,” said Tony Cignarale of the Department of Insurance.

There is one exception, however, you will be covered if you’re in an area that had a prior wildfire.

Cignarale also cautioned drivers who only carry liability insurance that they won’t be covered if their car is damaged by a falling tree. He emphasized keeping track of your out-of-pocket receipts and documenting your damage with photos and video.

“Don’t remediate your damages unless you need emergency repairs until your adjuster comes out to inspect, that could impact whether you’re going to be covered or not covered,” said Cignarale, who said it may be difficult to get reimbursed if you make the repairs before the damage can be officially assessed. “Lastly, don’t get scammed by people that are going to be coming out, whether it’s an unlicensed contractor, unlicensed public adjuster or just anyone that’s offering. Make sure they’re licensed,” he said. The Department of Insurance can confirm the legitimacy of a public adjuster and the Contractors State License Board can verify those who are licensed contractors.

Knowing how to navigate the unexpected can ensure that you receive services and financial support as soon as possible. It’s better not to wait “until the next time.”

“It really is incumbent upon us all to talk to our loved ones – our family and friends — about emergency plans should another storm happen, or an earthquake or even a wildfire later on in the season,” said Crofts-Pelayo. “So have those conversations with your family now, have an emergency kit ready. If you need to leave your house quickly, have a kit if you need to stay at home, and then communicating and checking in with loved ones can really also help be part of this overall culture of preparedness and resilience that we can have here in California.”

 In order to apply for disaster assistance contact FEMA: 1-800-621-3362 or apply online: www.disasterassistance.gov For more information on mold go to: cdph.ca.gov For more information on insurance-related issues you can call(800) 927-4357 or go to: insurance.ca.gov. 

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