Historic wildfires. Frantic evacuations. Punishing heat waves. The first rolling blackouts in two decades. And that was just this past week.
A coronavirus pandemic that has killed 11,000 Californians, tanked the economy, forced millions out of work and set up epic parent-child battles over online schooling. Violent clashes between police and protesters. Even the odd stuff is ominous, like the guy in Lake Tahoe who tested positive last week for the bubonic plague.
And we still have more than four months to go, including what may be the most divisive presidential election of our lives. You can hardly blame people for wondering, “What else could go wrong?”
“2020 feels almost like the apocalypse everywhere you turn,” said Tiffany Lynn, 26, who fled her home from the wildfires approaching the town of Felton this week. “Everything has torn people apart. It’s just fear in every direction. All you want to do is hug someone and tell them to breathe.”
But this year, even hugging isn’t safe without a face shield, gloves and gown.
Across the Bay Area, where on one day the lights may go out and the next day we struggle to see the sun through a spooky-orange glow of smoke, people whose lives have been sheltered and shaken for the past six months are so done with 2020.
“It’s like a Stephen King novel. I don’t know how it could be worse,” said Edward Qin, 42, an accountant whose clients are in financial tailspins and whose parents were severely ill and quarantined on an Air Force Base after catching coronavirus on a Grand Princess cruise.
The younger Qin has barely left his house except to go to Costco and is working from home while wrangling two toddlers.
And sure enough, as millions of schoolchildren try desperately to get the hang of distance learning from their home computers, the state’s first rolling blackouts in 19 years shut off power to tens of thousands of homes. Our brutal run of triple-digit high temperatures this past week threatened California’s power supply, forcing panicked pleas for conservation from the operators of the state’s power grid. Former Gov. Jerry Brown implored Californians to “turn up your damn thermostat!”
In suburban neighborhoods, parents parked minivans outside Starbucks to pick up WiFi signals so their kids could join online classes. But just days later, Santa Cruz’s city schools shut down for two weeks because so many teachers have been evacuated from their homes in the nearby mountains.
This meme making the rounds on the internet captures the moment: A photo of a giant hornets’ nest hanging in a tree with the line, “If 2020 were a piñata.”
It seems like a swarm of calamities to Cheryl Duffus and her family, who evacuated Thursday from their home on the edge of the River Fire in Salinas.
Just days earlier, she had posted on Instagram an image that, at the moment, seemed to sum it up: There she was, hugging her 18-year-old son, Tyler, as he heads off to his first year of college in San Luis Obispo — with bright orange flames leaping and smoke billowing in the hills behind her house. The image is so surreal, it almost looks like an apocalyptic 2020 Zoom background.
“Honestly could not even make this up if I tried,” Duffus, 53, wrote.“2020 … you stink.”
What she didn’t mention in the post was that her parents evacuated their home two miles away and moved in with them and that her 16-year-old son, Connor, who is missing his junior year football season at Salinas High, was also trying to focus on his online classes while helicopters were retrieving water from the pond outside his bedroom window.
“It’s such a mess,” Duffus texted. “Looks like a war zone. Police and fire everywhere. Helicopters hovering. Smoke and ash covering everything.”
She says she is counting on her faith so her family can get through all of this. She also had a family member hospitalized with coronavirus recently. “2020 just needs to be over,” she said.
All these disasters are creating mental health crises as well. David Mineta, CEO of Momentum for Health which provides mental health services in Santa Clara County, says his staff has seen increases in anxiety, stress and depression since the lockdown began in March.
“I’m beginning to think we really haven’t seen a moment in time like this ever, at least in my lifetime, this prolonged period of an incredible health crisis, the pandemic, the murder of George Floyd, all the race inequity issues, protests and now these catastrophic fires,” Mineta, 56, said. “I’m looking out my window here in East San Jose and I can see the smoke from the fire over the hill. We’re a mile-and-a-half away from an evacuation zone.
“Of course it can always get worse,” Mineta said, “but I just don’t know how much more we can handle.”
Neither does Stacey Silva. She was banned from her father’s hospital bedside when he died from COVID-19 in March. Her wife lost her job and her teenage daughter is stuck home instead of going to real classes at Cabrillo College.
When the heat topped 100 in Gilroy this week, all Silva wanted was a nice cool splash in her above-ground pool. But it’s covered in a layer of ash from the Salinas fires to the south and the blazes burning near Mount Hamilton to the north.
“You can’t even go outside to get a fresh breath of air,” Silva said. “It’s dreary and gross, and I already feel that way.”
When it comes to 2020, she said, “this year can go f-itself.”
Maybe asking whether 2020 could get any worse is the worst possible thing to ask. For some people, the results of the divisive presidential election could make 2020 worse. And in this state, no conversation about “what else could go wrong?” can end without a mention of the Big One.
Californians are still coming to terms with the destruction caused by something that started as such a rare and beautiful light show across the skies of Northern California early Sunday morning, something to marvel at after months of dreary lockdowns. Nearly 11,000 lightning strikes would fill us with awe — then spark devastation across the region.
“It’s ironic,” said Robby Lindahl, 34, of Felton, who had slipped out of bed that Sunday morning to watch the thrilling bursts of light. “Now the sky is raining ash.”
Up the road in the historic mountain town of Boulder Creek, where flames have come perilously close, Troy Hunter said he feels lucky — even though he’s endured back-to-back traumas himself.
Not only did the Silicon Valley software engineer flee his home along Highway 9 last week, but he found himself — along with the rest of the mountain town — terrorized in June by a political extremist who ambushed local sheriff’s deputies and killed one. On the run, the suspect attempted to carjack Hunter and several other motorists before being wrestled to the ground.
In an instant, Hunter found himself looking down the barrel of an AR-15 when the suspect jumped through his passenger window and ordered him to help him escape. Keeping his wits, Hunter jumped out of his vintage Porsche instead. He had some trouble sleeping after that, and on Wednesday, was forced to flee the home along Highway 9 that he bought from his aunt and uncle. Still, he has a place to stay in Campbell.
“There are other people out there suffering greater than I,” Hunter, 32, said. “Driving through Scotts Valley, you see every parking lot and complex with people who don’t have any place to go.”
Despite the lockdowns, quarantines, evacuations and isolation, in times like these — can we really think of any other times like these? — perhaps there’s no better time to feel that we’re all in this together.