Shawn Huston didn’t leave his family’s Wilton home of 49 years when Sacramento County gave an evacuation order last week.
He also didn’t evacuate when previous floods struck the area, including in 2017 and 1986, when he watched part of a levee break from his bedroom window.
“Most people who've been here any length of time kind of know what the river's going to do,” Huston said.
In interviews and messages with CapRadio, multiple longtime Wilton residents shared similar reasons for not evacuating during the storms, which have repeatedly flooded the area since New Year’s Eve. Other residents said they assessed the risks of evacuating or looked to neighbors for their experiences with flooding.
The Cosumnes River lies along Wilton, which is located about 30 minutes from downtown in southern Sacramento County and has a population of 6,000 people, according to the 2020 U.S. census. The river doesn’t have any dams, and levees along it are designed for agriculture. Wilton has recorded previous flooding in 2017, 1997, 1986 and 1982.
The most recent floods began with a storm on New Year’s Eve. At first, the county issued an evacuation warning, which means there is a potential threat to life or property. People who need extra time to leave, or who own pets or livestock, should go during an evacuation warning, according to county spokesperson Samantha Mott.
“We want to issue a warning early enough so that residents have plenty of time to prepare to evacuate, and can hopefully leave the area while it is daylight and it's not in the middle of severe weather or the peak of a storm,” Mott said.
The county issues flood evacuation warnings based on forecasts from the National Weather Service and monitoring river gauges.
But many residents in the Wilton area ignored these warnings during recent powerful storms.
Huston says residents in and around Wilton have experience and understand how flooding will impact their properties, including the “worst case scenario.”
“They're used to it, and they already know what areas of their property are going to flood and what levels the water's going to get to,” he said. “You just let the land teach you instead of you trying to teach the land.”
Two weeks of evacuations
Mott with Sacramento County says that, based on the 2017 flooding, “the Wilton area becomes basically an island and roads become impassable,” so the safest way to evacuate is when there is a warning in place.
On New Year’s Eve, she says the county issued a shelter-in-place order a couple hours after its evacuation warning, because forecasted conditions and river gauge levels changed, making it unsafe to travel. A shelter-in-place order means there’s a threat outside, Mott said, and people should stay indoors to protect themselves.
That shelter-in-place order lasted six days, until the county lifted it the morning of Jan. 6. Then two days later, on Jan. 8, the county issued an evacuation warning in the morning, followed by an evacuation order in the evening. The county estimated 3,200 to 3,500 people lived within the evacuation area.
The Slough House Kitchen off Jackson Road surrounded by floodwaters on New Year's Day, 2023.Andrew Nixon / CapRadio
The county opened an evacuation center in Elk Grove that day, and Red Cross spokesperson Steve Walsh said 63 people used it between Jan. 8 and 12. But the center was open to anyone who needed it and not restricted to people living in an evacuation center. It is unclear how many people who evacuated from Wilton used the center, and Walsh said when it closed, everyone there had been experiencing homelessness since before the flooding.
CapRadio visited the evacuation center while it was open, but people using the services declined interview requests.
Although emergency officials lifted that order the morning of Jan. 10, they issued another evacuation warning, followed by an order, on Jan. 14. The county lifted the order the next day and ended the warning Tuesday.
‘You may not be able to be rescued’
An evacuation order is lawful, according to certified safety professional Yousif Abulhassan, an associate professor at Sacramento State teaching classes on emergency preparedness. And an order means people need to leave an area because of an immediate threat to life or property.
Abulhassan says governments issue evacuation orders based on facts that could cause injury, death or the inability of first responders to rescue people. Flooding has killed an average of 88 people per year from 1992 to 2021 across the nation, according to the weather service, Abulhassan added.
Three people died in southern Sacramento County over New Year’s weekend because of flash flooding. All of the victims were from out of town, a couple residents noted. So far, 20 people have died across California in the recent storms.
“You may not be able to be rescued if you do not follow an evacuation order,” Abulhassan said. “And if you feel like you are willing to take that risk, have a really good plan set in place — which is very, very difficult to do.”
He says people who stay may not know how long it will take for help to reach them or when roads will be safe again, all of which makes disobeying an evacuation order increasingly dangerous.
But Abulhassan says people also evaluate risk factors when they receive an evacuation order. They might consider the location of their home, or the flooding severity and how it might affect their safety when deciding whether to leave or not.
Wilton residents explain why they did not evacuate
Third-generation Wilton resident Megan Weatherford says she and her husband assessed their situation during the recent flooding. They bought their property in 2019, and the previous owners told her the property never got inundated like it has over the past couple weeks.
Like Huston, Weatherford said her house isn’t on a floodplain as defined by the Federal Emergency Management Agency. She has three children — ages 15, 14 and 12 — plus four goats, a pig, chickens, three dogs and barn cats to take into consideration.
The main reason they didn’t evacuate, Weatherford explained on Thursday, was because she says the exit roads weren’t safe. Winds knocked down many power lines, and Weatherford says they didn’t want to risk more unknowns or getting stuck.
A downed power pole in Wilton, Calif., Monday, Jan. 9, 2023. Andrew Nixon / CapRadio
Dillard Road would have been an evacuation route, she added, but first responders found the body of one of the flooding victims near there. That made her question the option.
They also didn’t have anywhere to take their animals and didn’t feel comfortable leaving them behind. In its evacuation orders, the county has told the public to call 2-1-1 to determine where to take pets or livestock.
“I have always been the type of person to watch the news when there's hurricanes, fires and people refusing to evacuate, and then you see all of the rescues that have to happen,” Weatherford said. “So, I hate that I'm one of those people. But after this experience, all I can say is that we just basically had to assess our risk.”
As of Thursday, flood waters didn’t reach their house. But they will need to rebuild their entire farm. The chicken coop went under water and two 200-foot trees demolished their barn. They built temporary pens for their surviving livestock and must wait for the mud to dry to get the trees removed.
The family also watched a river form on the back half of their property, covering about three acres with water as far as the eye can see. Most of the water receded by Thursday, leaving some ponds and the culverts full.
Weatherford said she has been in close contact with her parents and grandfather, who moved to Wilton in the 1960s. They didn’t evacuate during the first two weekends of January, nor did they leave during flooding in 2017 or 1997.
But it isn’t completely unheard of for a longtime Wilton resident to evacuate.
Mike Luna was born in Wilton in 1955 and has lived in the area most of his life. He says he has never evacuated, but his mother evacuated their home during the 1997 flooding.
Storms that year brought about a foot of water into the house, despite sandbags the family placed, Luna said. But as of Thursday, the house hasn't flooded since the New Year’s Eve storm.
Luna said the government follows protocols by ordering mandatory evacuations, but he says he knows where the water flows. He wasn’t worried during the power outages, either, because he had enough supplies. He stayed at home at night, instead of driving in the rain, and says he gave advice to neighbors who asked questions.
“Common sense goes a long way, especially in tough times like this,” Luna said.
I felt the same sick feeling that I had when I did evacuate for the fires. Just questioning, ‘Am I making the right decision?’
Cathy Divodi moved to Wilton in 2021 and considered what longtime residents did during flooding. Divodi previously lived in Sonoma County, where she received multiple wildfire evacuation orders. She rides horses competitively and evacuated them three times while living there.
But during the Wilton flooding evacuation order on Jan. 8, Divodi decided not to leave. She weighed her risks and looked at Facebook groups to understand how longtime residents were responding to the orders.
“The Wilton residents of 20 to 30 years truly understand how the water flows here [and] what the exposures are,” Divodi said. “Some of them, most of them perfect strangers, but I trust them over the county or anybody official, because I feel like they just put us all in the same category this time.”
Mott, the Sacramento County spokesperson, said the Office of Emergency Services follows state guidance for how it defines warnings and orders. When the county issues an evacuation, Mott says it means there is an immediate threat to life and the area is closed to public access.
“Those who choose to stay and not evacuate could become cut off from the community,” Mott said. “There were a lot of power outages in that area, and we can’t predict how long an evacuation order could stay in place. So, if they need help or medical help, medics may not be able to get there.”
Divodi says there are areas of Wilton that are not part of a flood zone, and that it seemed like the county didn’t take this into account. She considered how she lives near the edge of the evacuation zone, and her five horses, two dogs, two bunnies, her elderly father and his caregiver informed her decision.
Stress can cause sickness and death for horses, Divodi said. Standing in water will not stress a horse out, Divodi says, but fire, smoke and sitting in a stall for a long period of time can.
Ultimately, she decided to stay.
“I felt the same sick feeling that I had when I did evacuate for the fires,” Divodi said. “Just questioning, ‘Am I making the right decision?’”
‘We just weren't concerned about it’
Mechanic Travis Spriggs and volunteer fire Capt. Dan Kunz inspect a fire truck used for water rescues at a Wilton Fire Protection District station in Wilton, Calif. on Jan. 12, 2023.Kristin Lam / CapRadio
Flooding causes hazards that can affect people’s lives for days and weeks after, Abulhassan said. Dangers include injuries from sharp objects displaced by flooding, damaged electrical and gas lines, electrocution in stagnant water and diseases spread by mosquitoes, he said.
“There seems usually in communities a sense of complacency associated with flooding,” Abulhassan said. “That, ‘Oh, it's not necessarily going to affect me. You know, it might just be people that travel on roads’ and such.”
Dan Kunz is a volunteer captain with the Wilton Fire Protection District and also says many longtime residents are familiar with flooding conditions. He has been with the fire district for 17 years and lived in Wilton for more than 30. On Thursday, he worked with a mechanic to assess and repair water rescue equipment, including a fire engine that went through deep water.
Kunz said the fire district did close to 30 water rescues, mostly on New Year’s weekend. Most of the people rescued were from out of town, he said.
When the county issued evacuation warnings and orders over the past two weeks, Kunz says he and his wife didn’t leave because he knows the condition of the river and levees. Through his work, he gets reports on water levels from Reclamation District 800, which maintains the levees along the Cosumnes River.
“I'm going to stay because of work, sure, but I would get her out if I was that concerned of it,” Kunz said. “But being with the fire district, we knew what the levee district was telling people and we just weren't concerned about it.”
This week, a period of dry weather is in the forecast after nearly a month of storms. But California’s rainy season typically lasts into April, and emergency officials have warned that soils remain saturated and river levels are high.
You can sign up for emergency alerts, including flooding and evacuation warnings, at Sacramento-Alert.org.
Follow us for more stories like this
CapRadio provides a trusted source of news because of you. As a nonprofit organization, donations from people like you sustain the journalism that allows us to discover stories that are important to our audience. If you believe in what we do and support our mission, please donate today.