After the Atmospheric River Exits, Disaster Relief Volunteers Push In

Julie H. Case

From sawing and route clearance to cleaning out flooded homes, Team Rubicon’s Greyshirts are deploying across California to help communities and homeowners hit by devastating storms.

The atmospheric river weather event that swept California from late December through mid-January brought with it severe winds and inundating rains. The Pacific Ocean pushed into coastal cities, rivers swelled over banks and through towns, and landslides took out hillsides and covered freeways. Over the three weeks that the storm pounded California, it brought devastation to wealthy and working-class neighborhoods alike, and an estimated $30 billion in damages and losses to the state as a whole.  

In response, disaster response nonprofit Team Rubicon has begun deploying its volunteers—known as Greyshirts—across the Golden State in a series of operations to help individuals and communities try to bail out from the excessive damage. 

Sawyers Start Service in Sacramento

Team Rubicon’s response to the atmospheric river in California actually began on January 1 when it received an emergency call from the City of Sacramento for road and route clearance. The continuing impact of the atmospheric river had resulted in more than 300 unmet requests for tree removal and road clearance in the City of Sacramento alone. When added to the needs of Sacramento and Placer Counties, the need was assessed at 500 to 600 trees, and county and city public works departments were tasked beyond their capabilities. 

Greyshirts help clear debris left by the atmospheric river events in Sacramento. Photo by Chris Council.

Within 90 minutes, Team Rubicon had put 11 sawyers on the street. That initial 12-hour day was followed by six days of additional road and route clearance. Then on January 14, local volunteers, supported by additional sawyers from all over the country, deployed to Sacramento, where they continued with route and road clearance and began assisting local homeowners with debris removal. By Monday, January 23, Greyshirts had completed more than 60 work orders for homeowners and the county. 

Muck Outs Begin in San Mateo

By January 21, Team Rubicon had also deployed nearly 20 Greyshirts to San Mateo to conduct muck out, debris removal, and chainsaw operations in support of residents in the county. Among the first places the Greyshirts headed was to the Belmont Trailer Park, which flooded at least four times in January—more than 4-feet in many places—and where a retaining wall behind the park prevented floodwaters that entered from three directions from receding. 

“Every time the water would recede, and an inch of water was left, we’d think the worst was over,” said one homeowner. “Until it came again.” 

Greyshirts are beginning to muck homes in the area to remove saturated insulation, flooring, and walls in hopes of allowing evacuated homeowners to safely return soon. 

Removing Debris in Ventura County

When 17 inches of rain fell in just one week in Ventura County, it brought with it widespread flooding and mudslides so massive that piles of rock and mud 40 feet high were left behind in some places, according to the sheriff’s office. 

A Greyshirt in California removes debris left by the severe storms. Photo by Naoto Nakamura.

To assist those attempting to recover from the devastation, Team Rubicon began deploying 30 Greyshirts to the county on January 22 where they are conduct chainsaw operations and assist local homeowners with vegetative and non-vegetative debris removal and muck outs.

Cleaning Up Santa Cruz

As the atmospheric river surged across California, Santa Cruz got hit from all sides. Streets disappeared under storm surge from Monterey Bay, just as bridges collapsed under river flooding—the Pajaro River crested at nearly 28 feet on January 10.

The resulting widespread damage throughout Santa Cruz County hit homes, businesses, and public infrastructure. In response, Team Rubicon mobilized more than two dozen Greyshirts to Santa Cruz County on January 22 to conduct vegetative & non-vegetative debris removal, core operations, muck-out, and chainsaw operations.

The four different responses are just the beginning of how the veteran-led nonprofit expects to respond to the devastating storms.

Greyshirts: Deploy on a California Storm Response Operation, Now

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