The danger lurking along a country road in central California’s wine country wasn’t apparent to Lindsy Doan as she drove her five-year-old son to school on Monday morning.
The region, like most of the state, has been hit by a deadly series of storms, but the family had traveled across the region the day before, her husband told the Guardian, and countless times before on their commute. There was nothing amiss at first, and unlike on previous occasions, there were no signs indicating the road was closed.
It only became clear that the road was unsafe as flood waters began carrying the car into a creek near the village of San Miguel. Kindergarten kid Kyle Dwan was calm, telling his mom, “Don’t worry, Mom. It’s okay — everything will be fine,” according to his father, Brian Dwan. As they got out of the car together, the water rushed in, drawing fast-moving currents and debris from his mother’s arms and forcing Lindsey underwater. Nearby residents managed to save her with a rope, but the water carried her away too quickly.
With the help of the National Guard, law enforcement search and rescue teams spent days searching for the five-year-old, who his father described as an affectionate, sweet boy who loved dancing, playing with Pokemon cards, and watching the Paw Patrol. The search is one of several that have taken place in recent weeks as the state has been hit by a devastating series of storms. Rain and winds downed trees and power lines and flooded rivers and streams, killing at least 18 people, including three in Sacramento County who were found dead in or near their vehicles.
California has recently been accustomed to disasters with droughts and wildfires, but the latest shift in severe weather has highlighted the challenges that come with such a rapid deluge. It also raised questions about how the country will manage the risk of catastrophic floods, which are expected to become more common due to the climate crisis.
In San Luis Obispo County, where Kyle disappeared, and the Sacramento area, the rapid eruption of flooding caught people by surprise.
Locals who navigate more easily the back roads in rural parts of Sacramento County said drivers there didn’t stand a chance. Fueled by torrential rains, the Kossumnes River fled its banks and the water rose quickly and forcefully, submerging vast stretches of roads under a vast sea of brown.
There were no visible signs in the darkness of New Year’s Eve and until the next day, the vehicles followed one after another in the flood. Dozens had to be saved. Some of their floating tops. Others could not escape. Three people died after being swept away by roads or in rushing waters.
“These poor people had no idea where to go — there were no signs,” said Liz Eilers, who borders the dam breach near Highway 99. Furniture and other belongings on tables where water seeped into their home.
Even in their farm truck, with a solid knowledge of the streets and roads that weave through the area’s pastures and farmlands, the escape was harrowing. “The water in the railroad tracks was 4 feet deep – and that was before the levees broke,” she said. When the main road was flooded and the highway closed, people relied on navigation apps to bypass it “and it tells you to go straight for it,” she said.
In the dimly lit area, the flowing water mixed with the darkness. Her husband, Tim Ehlers, added, “It got to over 99 people quickly, so these people didn’t have a chance — there was no warning.”
Lindsey and her son are taken by surprise on a road they have traveled a lot – the family had driven the day before. It was supposed to be the pair’s first day in class since winter break—Lindsey is a special education teacher at her son’s school—and Kyle was excited to be back, having recently fully recovered from a broken leg that required multiple surgeries.
“My wife was driving a 4,000-pound SUV. It wasn’t until she was in the water that she realized what a difference 18 hours could make and there were no signs telling her not to go that route.”
The water quickly pushed their car off the road and into the trees and it began to fill with water. Lindsey ordered her son to take off her seatbelt and walk through her door. His father said he was just as calm as when he broke his leg. But Lindsey and her son were instantly overwhelmed by water and debris, separating them.
“People don’t understand that when there’s fast-moving water with debris it’s impossible to swim. You can’t maintain control. My wife was falling under the water,” he said.[Kyle] He was on his back and they couldn’t reach him. The foundation is very hard. The soil is very much chocolate pudding in a lot of places. There is a lot of waterlogging.”
Later, the car was found overturned, Brian said: “It was the right thing to do to get out of that car.” Officials told him they recovered the wreckage of the car two miles away.
The search has continued daily since Monday, although authorities halted the search several times earlier in the week due to bad weather. His family hopes he will come home, but is prepared for the fact that it will not happen.
“I’m hopeful today maybe we’ll find him,” Brian said. “We won’t get to the next stage until we find him. I love the great news but I’ve been preparing myself. I have to be strong for my family.”
He added that the family was overwhelmed with the support they had received from the community and efforts to find his son. “He really is five and a half years old,” he said in a staccato voice.