At the start of the year, rain finally fell. The colors on the drought map started to fade, from the reds of “exceptional” and “extreme” to the oranges of “severe,” even “moderate.” Ponds and creeks appeared in places we’d never known were meant for water.
In those early weeks, the rain came with consequences. Neighborhoods flooded and mudslides wrecked homes. A flower farmer I know couldn’t make his usual trek to our market; a tree had crushed his delivery truck. Power outages caused by more falling trees left another acquaintance with a steep repair bill after a generator malfunction fried her electrical wiring. “But we need it, we need it,” she said of the rain. In church, we thanked God for relief from drought. We’d prayed for it constantly, through smoke-choked air. Now, it was here. “When can we stop praying for rain?” a congregant asked as we stood huddled under the awning afterwards. And so we changed our prayers, petitioning for those who’d lost property and life.
Along with the rain came the analysis. The downpours had not, as we’d naïvely hoped, ended the drought. The reservoirs weren’t yet full, and the fish populations were far from recovered. We simply hadn’t invested in the infrastructure to capture and treat the water for drinking. Now it was draining into the Pacific Ocean—the absurdity! Climate change was to blame for the pace of the storms and the amount of moisture they carried, and thus for the inability of the reservoirs to keep up. More crises were already upon us. Come spring, the Sierra snowpack would melt, and we’d have flooding. And what of the failed Colorado River negotiations, the federally mandated cuts that were soon to come for our state and its thirsty neighbors? Sadly, the restrictions would be necessary. If the river’s level sank low enough, the basin would reach “dead pool,” with no water able to pour through the Hoover Dam.
No, our troubles were far from over. We knew this, even as the rain kept soaking the soil, helping the lupine grow and the orange blossoms bloom.
Half Moon Bay, a coastal town just south of San Francisco, was cut off from our direction. A sinkhole had opened up in the middle of the highway. Even when construction crews arrived to guide cars around the damage, the going was slow. My husband and I saw the line of traffic stretching back, back, back on our weekend drive home from a hike. It had stopped raining, for a moment, and we’d gone to see how the woods had fared. An ancient tree named Methuselah, 1,860 years old, was still standing. He looked good, even after the storms: bark cold and hard to the touch, mottled with purples and minty green. The forest smelled like moss and overturned soil; a banana slug crawled over the mulch. From a high vantage point, we could see the ocean, and also the intervening fields. Artichokes, pumpkins, and Brussels sprouts—as well as the dahlias that our friend from the market will sell once his truck is back in working order.
Two days later, a man shot and killed seven people at two of those Half Moon Bay farms. (Both of them grew mushrooms.) Zhao Chunli, a sixty-six-year-old Chinese citizen, had worked alongside his victims, all immigrant laborers living in “deplorable conditions.” Zhao’s motive? A $100 repair bill for a damaged forklift. He didn’t want to pay; he’d killed the supervisor who made the request. In general, he said, he’d been bullied at work, and his complaints about things had gone ignored. In the video of his arrest, an officer tackles him to the ground easily. Zhao is an old man with silver hair; in any other context, it would be an absurd cruelty, so many armed authorities for one old man.
The analysis that followed the shooting was outraged and desperate. How could something like this be explained—and more importantly, prevented? This was the third mass shooting in California in two days. Yes, gun control was crucial. But the semiautomatic weapon Zhao owned was legal, even under California’s strict firearm laws. A shooting two days before, in Monterey Park, Los Angeles, had also devastated an Asian American community, this time celebrating Lunar New Year in a dancehall. Both of the massacres compounded real fears amid an uptick in hate crimes against Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders, including another shooting last spring at a Taiwanese church in Orange County. In each of these instances—the church, the dancehall, the farms—the shooters were older Asian men. Even if their crimes weren’t motivated by racism, race clearly played a role.
For Zhao, the analysts said, it was about class and age and race, as well as the rage that can arise from the intersection of all three. The workers at the mushroom farms lived in shipping containers; some had no running water or electricity. Zhao himself inhabited a “rudimentary shack covered by a blue tarp.” Many of the workers were undocumented, leaving them reluctant to speak up to authorities about their poor treatment. Surely $100 was a real burden for people making so little money with no health care. Surely a workplace under investigation for wage theft and safety violations was not a place that fostered dignity or respect for its employees—especially for those past the traditional age of retirement, who could no longer work as quickly. In an interview, Zhao said that he suffers from mental illness.
If this analysis is true, it’s also infuriating. It feels as if it takes us nowhere. The problems of guns and race and isolation and radicalization and poverty in California feel just as intractable as anywhere else in America. And even with the motives known and the contributing factors calculated, violence like the Half Moon Bay shooting is terribly shocking. Most people who are marginalized or sruggle with mental illness don’t commit an atrocity like this. That doesn’t make their exploitation okay, and it doesn’t preclude compassion for Zhao Chunli. But it does make his decision always, at some level, mysterious.
A few weeks later, the rain starts falling again. More gently this time, forming small puddles on the sidewalks and leaving droplets on the new magnolias. The rain hasn’t solved the drought, not yet and maybe not ever. Still, I receive it like a blessing. “We need it,” “we need it,” say our neighbors and our friends, a caveat to every complaint about the dreary days. In a less secular place, they might say “thank God, thank God”; their litany feels just as grateful, just as wondrous. There’s a fundamental goodness to this rain, we all feel, and a gratuitousness. It’s a gift we don’t deserve, and for all our meteorology, it’s still hard to predict when it will come.
The Half Moon Bay shooter confesses. The workers, shockingly, go back to work. We learn the names of the victims, who, of course, had spouses and children and friends. Some of the bodies will be transported back to Mexico. We don’t know how to make sense of it, this sudden, terrible suffering. And we don’t know when it will happen again—elsewhere, or just over the hills.