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Photos Show California Residents Paddling Around As Catastrophic Floods Turn Towns Into Islands

An intense atmospheric river event sparked catastrophic floods, stranding Northern California communities and damaging thousands of homes.

Posted on February 28, 2019, at 10:18 p.m. ET

Justin Sullivan / Getty Images

Days of unrelenting heavy rains have transformed Northern California communities into islands, stranding thousands of residents and submerging their homes, shops, and schools under several feet of brown water.

The now-inundated towns were caught in what meteorologists call an atmospheric river — a long stretch of water vapor that transports and dumps heaps of moisture like a "river in the sky." The phenomenon can carry roughly the equivalent to "the average flow of water at the mouth of the Mississippi River," US scientists say, and when combined with strong winds, can lead to incredible rainfall and flooding.

The incessant storms warped Sonoma County's Russian River, swelling it to nearly 46 feet — 14 feet above flood stage — and turning the towns of Guerneville and Monte Rio into islands, authorities said. It was the worst flooding the area has seen in more than two decades.

Guerneville is land locked. You cannot get into or out of town. All roads leading to the community are flooded.

More than 4,500 residents were stranded, muddy water encircling their roofs, apartment complexes, mini-golf courses, and markets. Photos captured people loading supplies into kayaks and canoes, navigating submerged streets on long paddle boards, in row boats...and trash cans.

This guy's a hero. Using a dumpster to row through the flooded streets of Guerneville. #GuernevilleStrong #RussianRiver

California Gov. Gavin Newsom declared a state of emergency in Sonoma and five other Northern California counties on Thursday, freeing up funds "to help communities respond to and recover from severe winter storms that have caused flooding, mudslides, erosion, power outages, and damage to critical infrastructure."

A week earlier, the new governor issued emergency proclamations for 21 other counties across the state still unearthing themselves from record-breaking winter storms and snowfalls.

Justin Sullivan / Getty Images

So far, the floods have damaged more than 3,000 structures in Sonoma County, the sheriff's office said Thursday afternoon. Authorities rescued 59 people with boats, helicopters, and high-water vehicles, and scores of roads remain closed.

#Guerneville #RussianRiver and lower Guerneville region getting hit hard by flooding. Sycamore Court residents being pulled out due to top floor inundation.@NorthBayNews @NWSBayArea #flood #CAwx #castorm

Thankfully, the swollen river started to recede Thursday and residents had a rain-free day to go outside and try to assess the damage, though showers are slated to pick up again Friday night.

Stunning photos from the area showed the towns inundated by near-historic flooding, swallowing vineyards, wineries, highways, and mailboxes.

Justin Sullivan / Getty Images

A car sits underwater in a flooded neighborhood on Feb. 27 in Forestville, California.

Medianews Group / Getty Images

Rich Willson paddles through the miniature golf course in Guerneville after the Russian River flooded Feb. 27.

Medianews Group / Getty Images

Gabe Ghirann (left), Taylor Weber (middle), and Nicco Weisskoff paddle through floodwaters from the Laguna de Santa Rosa near The Barlow market in Sebastopol, California.

Josh Edelson / AP

Floodwaters from the Russian River partially submerge properties in Guerneville on Feb. 28.

Medianews Group / Getty Images

Taylor Weber (left) and Nicco Weisskoff paddle through floodwaters in Sebastopol.

Kent Porter / AP

A police helicopter uses Main Street in Guerneville as a landing pad as water continues to rise.

Medianews Group / Getty Images

Sierra Steele and Rachael Parent paddle through the center of Guerneville.

Medianews Group / Getty Images

Chris Tipton moves a plant to higher ground as floodwaters surround her home in Guerneville.

Medianews Group / Getty Images

A man and a dog wait on carport of a home in Guerneville for a boat ride evacuation after the Russian River flooded the town.

Medianews Group / Getty Images

Jude Lamarre and Mario Barajas clean up the flooded patio area of the Fern Grove Cottages in Guerneville.

Medianews Group / Getty Images

Playland Miniature Golf course in Guerneville enveloped in floodwaters before dawn from the rising Russian River.

Medianews Group / Getty Images

Malina Pettibone, a Guerneville native, dances with an American flag while listening to Nelly Furtado as the Russian River waters rise.

While it's been years since Northern California has experienced such intense, damaging floods, scientists say that, because of a warming climate, we could see more of these wetter atmospheric events that drench the ground, sparking floods and mudslides.

"When you have a series of these atmospheric events like we have had this year, the soil can't absorb anymore water and whatever continues to fall gets dumped right into rivers, lakes, and streams," said Paul Ullrich, a climate scientist at the University of California at Davis. "What we are anticipating, in light of climate change, is warmer temperatures that bring more moisture to the air and thus lead to wetter AR events."

While it's normal for California to experience heavy rainfall events, as the climate warms, atmospheric river-fueled storms are delivering more precipitation than we have seen in the past.

As a result, California's wet season may get shorter but more intense, wreaking havoc on communities and infrastructure.

"We were on track to have the driest period on record in California until Thanksgiving weekend and then these storms took off and now we are on track to be the wettest," Ullrich said. "It's pretty wild."

A BuzzFeed News investigation, in partnership with the International Consortium of Investigative Journalists, based on thousands of documents the government didn't want you to see.