Hundreds evacuated after California levee ruptured by floods

A northern California farming community famous for its strawberry harvest was forced to evacuate early Saturday after the Pajaro River levee was breached by flooding of a new atmospheric river who shattered the state.

Across Monterey County, more than 8,500 people were under evacuation orders and warnings Saturday, including about 1,700 residents — many of them Latino farmworkers — from the unincorporated community of Pajaro.

At a Saturday afternoon news conference, Lew Bauman of the Monterey County Water Resources Agency said the levee failed around midnight Friday. Bowman said the breach was about 120 feet long.

“It continues to flow, it will flow out of control until we are able to secure it with interim protective measures,” Bowman said.

California Department of Water Resources personnel were on their way to “formulate a mitigation plan” to “close this breach,” Bowman added.

Bauman said as the water flow continues in the coming days, more warnings and evacuation orders will be issued if necessary.

Monterey County Sheriff Tina Nieto said crews made 90 rescues Friday night and Saturday.

Crews had gone door to door on Friday afternoon urging residents to leave before the rains arrived, but some stayed and had to be pulled out of the floodwaters early Saturday.

A video showed a member of the Guard helping a driver get out of a car trapped in water up to the waist.

“We hoped to avoid and prevent this situation, but the worst scenario happened with the overflow of the Pajaro River and the break of the dyke around midnight”, writes Luis Alejochairman of the Monterey County Board of Supervisors, on Twitter.

Alejo called the flood “massive”, saying the damage will take months to repair.

California floods
A boy and man cycle through flood waters in Watsonville, California on March 11, 2023. Watsonville is located just north of Pajaro.

Nic Coury/AP

The Pajaro River separates Santa Cruz and Monterey counties in the area flooded Saturday. Floodwaters that have entered wells in the area could be contaminated with chemicals, officials said, and residents have been told not to drink or cook with tap water for fear of illness.

Officials were working along the levee hoping to shore it up when it was breached around midnight Friday through Saturday.

It broke “as a result of a heroic effort by our staff to fight this flood, unfortunately they were overwhelmed by the flows coming down this watershed,” Bauman said.

Crews began working to repair the sea wall at dawn on Saturday as residents slept in evacuation centers.

Oliver Gonzalez, 12, told The Associated Press that he, his mother and aunt were rescued around 5 a.m. Saturday in Parajo. He grabbed his laptop, cell phone, and a few important documents, but there were so many left in their rush to leave.

“I’m a little scared,” he said several hours later from an evacuation center near Watsonville. “My mother’s car was left in the water.”

Anais Rodriguez, 37, said first responders knocked on the door of her home shortly after midnight. Her family packed about four days worth of clothes and made their way to safety. She and her two children, husband and parents – along with their dog, Mila – arrived at the shelter about an hour later with few answers about what it would mean for their community in the future.

Governor Gavin Newsom’s office said Saturday it was monitoring the situation in Pajaro.

“Our hearts go out to everyone affected and the state has stepped up to support the community,” the governor’s office wrote on Twitter.

The Pajaro Valley is a coastal agricultural area known for growing strawberries, apples, cauliflower, broccoli and artichokes. National brands like Driscoll’s Strawberries and Martinelli’s are headquartered in the area.

In 1995, the Pajaro River levees failed, submerging 2,500 acres of farmland and the community of Pajaro. Two people died and the floods caused nearly $100 million in damage. A state law, passed last year, advanced public funds for a levee project. It was due to start construction in 2024.

State Sen. John Laird, who led the law and represents the area, said the project is fully funded now, but it was just a bad time with this year’s rains.

“It’s tragic, we were so close to doing it before any storm hits,” he said.

This week’s storm marked the state’s 10th atmospheric winter river, storms that brought huge amounts of rain and snow to the state and helped ease three-year drought conditions. State reservoirs that had dropped to surprisingly low levels are now well above average for this time of year, prompting state officials to release water from dams to help control flooding. and make room for even more rain.

On Saturday across the state, Californians had to deal with torrential rains and rising water levels as a result of the atmospheric river. In Tulare County, the sheriff ordered residents who live near the Tule River to evacuate, while people near Poso Creek in Kern County were given an evacuation warning. National Weather Service meteorologists issued flood warnings and advisories, urging motorists to stay away from flooded roads.

In San Francisco, an 85-foot eucalyptus tree fell on the Trocadero Clubhouse early Saturday morning. The 1892 clubhouse, a historic San Francisco landmark, was badly damaged, with part of the roof crushed and the interior flooded.

California Governor Gavin Newsom has declared emergencies in 34 counties in recent weeks, and the Biden administration approved a presidential disaster declaration for some on Friday morning, a move that will bring in more federal aid.

THE atmospheric riverknown as the “Pineapple Express” because it brought warm subtropical moisture across the Pacific from near Hawaii, melting the lower parts of the massive snowpack built into the California mountains.

Yet another atmospheric river is already in the forecast for early next week. State climatologist Michael Anderson said a third appeared to be looming over the Pacific and possibly a fourth.

California appeared to be “on track for a fourth year of drought” before the series of early winter storms, Anderson said on Friday. “We are in a very different condition now,” he added.

The National Weather Service on Saturday forecast an intensification of rain and snow Monday through Wednesday, with significant flooding possible along the state’s central coast, the San Joaquin and Sacramento valleys and the southern foothills of the Sierra Nevada mid-week.

Another flurry of heavy, wet snow is expected to hit the Sierras and high-altitude areas midweek, the weather service said. Authorities reported about 32 inches of snow fell Saturday morning at the Mount Rose Ski Resort on the outskirts of Reno, Nevada.

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