SAN JOSE, Calif. — President Biden promised extensive federal help for storm-battered California on Thursday after surveying widespread wreckage in a visit to Capitola Village and Seacliff State Beach, two of the areas most heavily damaged by the recent string of atmospheric rivers that left much of the Golden State reeling.
“The country is here for you and with you,” Biden said at Seacliff, located near Aptos. “We are not leaving until things are built back and built back better than they were before. As you recover from these storms, we will be with you every step of the way. And I mean that sincerely. Every step.”
Biden noted that California has withstood a severe drought and record wildfires in the past few years, and now three weeks of battering atmospheric river storms has left at least 21 people dead. Climate change is making weather more extreme, he said.
“If anybody doubts the climate is changing, they must have been asleep for the last couple of years,” Biden said, surrounded by Gov. Gavin Newsom, U.S. Sen. Alex Padilla, U.S. Rep. Jimmy Panetta (D-Monterey) and local officials.
Air Force One touched down at Moffett Field in Mountain View at 11:41 a.m. After walking down the steps, wearing his signature aviator sunglasses, Biden left on a Marine One helicopter a few minutes later for Watsonville airport in Santa Cruz County, surveying damage from the air accompanied by three military Osprey helicopters.
“When you see something, your understanding of it is complete,” said U.S. Rep. Anna Eshoo, D-Palo Alto, who said that she asked Biden on the tarmac to expand the federal major disaster declaration to Santa Clara and San Mateo counties to help with recovery costs. “It’s heavy and costly damage.”
Biden’s motorcade arrived in Capitola at 1:36 p.m. to cheers from hundreds of onlookers. A guitarist with “Funky Fathers” written in rainbow colors in the lid of his instrument case belted out songs. Surfers rode small waves off the beach nearby, strewn with massive logs, and dog owners walked their pets in the bright sun.
“It’s such a historic event to have a president visit a small town like this,” said Michael Lavigne, a downtown Capitola real estate broker. “I think it’s fantastic.”
Biden could be seen shortly after walking with Newsom through damaged restaurants on the Capitola Esplanade. As one restaurant owner told him how the waves had crashed through the windows, Biden was heard to respond, “You’re kidding me!”
Minna and Jeff Lantis, owners of the heavily damaged Capitola Village waterfront establishment The Sand Bar, met Biden as he toured the village.
“You just look right inside, and you can almost fall through to the ocean right off the bat, and the floor is sticking up,” Jeff Lantis said. “I pointed it out to him and said, ‘Look at our beautiful view that we don’t want to waste.’ He said, ‘We’re not going to forget about you.’ He said he was going to help us get back up and running, and we hope that’s the case.”
Afterward, Biden waved to the crowd. Many cheered and yelled “Wooo! Biden! Biden! Biden!” while a few others yelled that he only serves corporate interests and one yelled “war criminal!”
“Even though I’m not a supporter, I was excited to see the president and make my voice heard,” said Rick Holbrook, 40, who wore a red Make America Great Again cap and carried a “Let’s Go Brandon!” banner.
The powerful storms that began Dec. 26 and continued for three weeks caused mudslides, power outages and flooding across California. FEMA Administrator Deanne Criswell told reporters Thursday that damage was “several hundred million” statewide, adding, “but I expect that number to go up.”
At the peak, 200,000 homes and businesses lost power statewide, Criswell said. In Santa Cruz County, which took the brunt of several of the biggest storms, at least 500 homes were damaged, and thousands of acres of farm fields were flooded. She said federal emergency officials are closely watching the huge Sierra Nevada snowpack, concerned about potential flooding if a warm storm hits later this spring.
“We’ve never seen nine atmospheric rivers in a period of just a few weeks like this,” Criswell said. “And so we have to be prepared for this increase in the number of weather events and severe weather events that we’re seeing.”
On Wednesday, Biden signed an order expanding federal aid to the six counties for which he issued major disaster declarations for earlier this week: Santa Cruz, Monterey, Santa Barbara, Sacramento, Merced and San Luis Obispo. Under the order, the federal government will provide up to 100% of the costs to public agencies for debris removal and other measures, instead of the traditional 75%.
Thursday’s visit was the first to Santa Cruz County by a sitting president since George Bush Sr. visited downtown Santa Cruz in 1989 three days after the Loma Prieta Earthquake.
“It’s transition toward hope,” said Santa Cruz County Supervisor Zach Friend, whose district includes Capitola and Seacliff. “We have been living through such a challenging time. The president’s visit really signifies the beginning of the rebuilding process.”
So far the public damage from the storm in Santa Cruz County is at least $55 million, Friend said. That does not include damage to private property or to Seacliff State Beach, where a historic wooden pier and 60 campsites were destroyed after waves breached a sea wall. “I expect it will go over $100 million,” he said.
In Capitola, a picturesque seaside village with a population of 10,000 people, huge waves from atmospheric river storms tore a 40-foot hole in the Capitola Wharf earlier this month and smashed waterfront restaurants and other businesses.
Hours before the president’s visit, Pizza My Heart owner Chuck Hammers surveyed a set of restaurants and pubs, including his original store, where high tides, massive surf and torrential rains inflicted $500,000 worth of damage.
Hammers said the federal government can help with solutions he thinks are inevitable for shoreline communities, including fortifications to protect property.
“We want long-term solutions,” Hammers said. “We know where this is going with climate change.”
Ray Apolskis, 62, was basking in the sun under a San Francisco Giants ballcap with his dog Benny, watching the security team set up a few hours before Biden arrived.
“I think it’s cool,” Apolskis said. “We’re in a beach town, and to have these hot shots come in is good for them and good for us. It’s good publicity. Our beach is a mess, it’s sad to see this. It’s dead. We need help here.”