I barely recognize Los Angeles these days.
Runyon Canyon, which just a couple of months ago could have been mistaken for a desert mountain, now resembles something more like the Irish countryside. In Beverly Hills, the medians still have signs that say “Water has been turned off because of the drought,” but the medians themselves are lush and green where they used to be dusty and brown. All over the city, bushes are full and flowers are budding. Things are growing where it had seemed like there would never be life again: In the desert near Palm Springs, flowers whose seeds have been underground for 20 years or more are blanketing the landscape in what people are calling the Super Bloom. Closer to home, at the dog park at the top of Laurel Canyon, I watched recently as a mist rolled in slowly over the hills, which were a beautiful patchwork of different shades of green. It looked like the coast of Oregon, not Mulholland Drive.
In my four years in LA, I’d gotten used to a parched, withered landscape. It was 80 degrees in January; winters went by with barely a drop of rain. At first I didn’t really mind, especially having moved from the East Coast, where you’d be foolish to ever plan an outdoor event without an indoor backup plan for rain or snow. A place where you never had to worry about whether your flight was going to be canceled due to weather seemed like a dream. But as the drought got worse, it started to feel less convenient, more apocalyptic. Last year at this time, over 99% of the state was in drought.
Wells in the Central Valley ran dry; rich people started hoarding bottled water and paying fines to keep their lawns green. Water restrictions went into effect for the rest of us: You could only water your lawn before 9 a.m. or after 6 p.m., three days a week. Most people adhered to the rules, but there were always a few who didn’t, defiantly turning on their sprinklers in the scorching middle of the day. I sometimes took pictures and emailed them to the water department. It felt like snitching in the name of survival.
Rain is always a big story in Southern California; local TV stations will open the evening news with breathless reports about a quarter inch. But this year, when it finally started raining after so many dry seasons, it was a huge story. The first few storms were East Coast-style and scary: It rained all day and all night, and streets, many of which don’t have storm drains in LA, flooded. People had to be rescued from the LA River. The authorities warned of landslides, because the ground had been so dry for so long it wouldn’t be able to absorb all the precipitation. Still, no one knew how long the rain would last, and no one wanted to get their hopes up too high.
Water itself has always been a fraught subject in Southern California. Late–19th-century city leaders realized LA’s growth would be stunted if they couldn’t figure out a way to get more water to the city. Their solution was to divert water from the Owens Valley region in Central California by building an aqueduct, finished in 1913. Their machinations to buy up land and water rights in the region from farmers and build the aqueduct would come to be called the California Water Wars, and were partly the basis for the movie Chinatown.
Today, LA gets most of its drinking water from the Colorado River. The water travels through a system of pipes and drains until it reaches Lake Havasu, on the Arizona border, and from there, the Colorado River Aqueduct carries it nearly 250 miles to LA, San Diego, and cities in between. (Historically not the best-tasting, it's gotten better in recent years after the Department of Water and Power changed the chemicals used to treat it. Yum!)
Before the current drought, the worst droughts of the last 100 years were between 1987 and 1992, and 1928 and 1934 (the so-called Dust Bowl). But scientists have determined that California historically also went through periods of mega-drought — that is, droughts that lasted for 10 to 20 years, even up to close to 250 years — before it was settled in the 1800s by Europeans. It doesn't seem crazy that a mega-drought could happen again — with climate change, maybe a drought that lasts only six years is actually getting off easy.
So it almost seemed like the rain that finally came was too good to be true — and then it just didn’t stop. The warned-of landslides finally did materialize, in Laurel Canyon, where the back patio of a house collapsed and rolled down the hillside, closing a main artery between the San Fernando Valley and West Hollywood for days. When the next storm hit, another house started rolling down the hill — right into an $8.5 million home newly purchased by Demi Lovato, who hadn’t even moved in yet. The wealthy might be able to get around a drought, but it turns out that rain is a great equalizer. A storm in February killed two people, and a sinkhole in Studio City swallowed two cars.
Things are worse in Northern California. Near Sacramento, the Oroville Dam’s main and emergency spillways failed because of the heavy rain; nearly 200,000 people had to be evacuated. A bridge leading to Big Sur, on the coast near Monterey, collapsed — 350 people are trapped, and officials are helicoptering in supplies. The town has been cut in half, and it will take at least six months, and more likely a year, for the bridge to be rebuilt. A 61-mile-long section of Highway 1, the iconic coastal drive that snakes along the Pacific Coast, is now closed. In February, Big Sur got 1,150% of its yearly average rainfall.
Certainly in LA, no one is equipped for this kind of rain. Everyone has an earthquake kit in their house and their car, but they drive 50 miles per hour on the freeway in a downpour with their lights off. The only reason I have a waterproof jacket and a pair of rain boots is because my husband and I went to Iceland and London on our honeymoon a year and a half ago.
I went to a restorative yoga class a couple days after the sinkhole incident, and the teacher told us that we were all weathering the storm, literally and metaphorically. This isn't the kind of thing that people in New York say with a straight face; it was the kind of speech that, a few years ago, I might have rolled my eyes at. But as I sat there with my eyes closed and my hands resting on my knees (palms down, to feel more grounded), I found myself nodding.
Certainly, we've always been powerless over weather, but climate change has started to make weather wildly unpredictable — even in California — and can bring catastrophic results. We're experiencing shifts that we're simply not prepared for (63 degrees in the Arctic?!). When you've spent your life conditioned to expect sunshine, drops of rain feel novel, and a little bit scary. But the new normal isn't just a little rain; it's a deluge. Every snowstorm is a snowpocalypse; every drought lasts years. Now we live in the extremes.
I'd never stopped to think about the degree to which weather shaped my consciousness until I moved somewhere without much of it. Growing up on the East Coast, the unexpected was my “normal”; when I first moved to LA, some fellow East Coast transplants who’d been here for longer told me how much they missed seasons — even the winters — back home. At the time, this seemed so ridiculous to me: I was fleeing seasons. I was fleeing New York winter, with its brutally short days and bitter cold and gray slush. I used to post on Twitter every time it was cold enough to wear tights under pants.
I was also fleeing sticky New York summers in apartments with window unit air conditioners that weren't up to the task, sweating while putting on makeup in the bathroom, sweating while walking to the subway, sweating while standing on the subway platform. Really, it was just four months or so of never being able to truly stop sweating. In LA, the summers are different too. I used to roll my eyes at the phrase "dry heat," but it's real, and much less crazy-making, even if it's 90 degrees during the day.
I moved less than six months after Hurricane Sandy tore through New York, leaving devastation in its wake — killing 43 people in the city alone, shutting down the subways, leaving half the city without heat or power for days. This would turn out to be my breaking point. When I got to LA that first spring, I felt like I’d been a sad, droopy plant that’d never gotten enough sunlight, and now I had been repotted and put on a shelf near a window; I swore I could feel my skin absorbing Vitamin D.
But it was more than that. At the time, I couldn't put it into words, but I realize now that I was looking for a safe haven, a place where — despite the always-present threat of The Big One — day-to-day life would feel more stable, where I wouldn't have to expend the psychic energy you need to handle life in a city where the weather can literally ruin your day.
The simple act of checking what the weather's going to be like each morning — second nature when you grow up in the Northeast — turns out to be almost completely unnecessary when you move to Southern California. Until the rains started this year, the weather during the day tended to be some variation on warm and sunny. I found comfort in the predictability.
But the endless sunny days also mean that you start to lose track of time. Seasons, it turns out, are also markers, and without them, everything is elided. You went to that party and it was the first nice day of the spring, and you wore your new dress and met that boy who turned out to be a jerk but who you had a few fun weeks with; you had that job interview and it was so cold that you were wearing two pairs of tights under your pants; you celebrated your birthday and it had been raining all day but then, miraculously, it stopped and you could have everyone hang out on the patio. It’s easier to remember things more clearly when you have this kind of visceral sense-memory to go along with it.
Here, though, I have no idea whether that party was in April or December or July. Then, suddenly, four years have gone by.
So when the rains started this year, they became more than drought relief; they reshaped more than the city's landscape for me. They gave me back my ways of marking time. They gave me a weekend spent inside, staying in my soft pants and slippers all day, binge-watching something on Netflix, or cleaning the apartment from top to bottom, or lying on the couch reading for hours. Snuggling for an afternoon. All the rainy-day activities I hadn't realized I missed, now neatly demarcating this winter — because it was, for the first time in a long time, something that felt akin to a season.
This was the winter when my husband and I spent a freezing, wet December week in Palm Springs with old friends, giving each other tarot readings; the winter I started acupuncture; the winter I replaced my 13-year-old bike; the winter my niece turned 1 and my friends who'd been struggling to have a baby finally had their son; the winter we got a president who has referred to climate change as a hoax.
This was the winter when it rained.
Doree Shafrir is a senior tech writer for BuzzFeed News and is based in Los Angeles.
Contact Doree Shafrir at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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