A Northern California farming community famous for its strawberry crop was forced to evacuate early Saturday morning after the Pajaro River burst its banks. From a new atmospheric river which upset 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 Pajarro.
At a news conference Saturday afternoon, Lew Bauman with the Monterey County Water Resources Agency said the breach occurred around midnight Friday. Bowman said the breach was about 120 feet long.
“It continues to flow, it will flow uncontrollably until we are able to protect it with interim protective measures,” Bowman said.
California Department of Water Resources staff were “in the process of formulating a mitigation plan” to stop this violation, Bowman added.
Bauman said that as the water continues to flow in the coming days, more evacuation warnings and orders will be issued if necessary.
Mandatory evacuation order issued for community of #Pajaro due to #leveebreak. Please heed evacuation warnings/orders. The Pajaro river broke early this morning causing active flooding. #Empty when prompted. #TurnAroundDontDrown @Cal_OES @CaltransHQ @CAgovernor pic.twitter.com/tDttiTcaC0
— California Governor’s Office of Emergency Services (@Cal_OES) March 11, 2023
Meanwhile, Monterey County Sheriff Tina Nieto said crews made 90 rescues Friday night and Saturday.
Crews went door-to-door on Friday afternoon urging residents to leave before the rain arrived but some remained and had to be pulled from the floodwaters early Saturday.
A video shows a member of the Guard helping a driver out of a car stuck in waist-deep water.
“We were hoping to avoid and prevent this situation, but the worst came to pass around midnight with the Pajaro River overtopping and levee breaching,” Monterey County Board of Supervisors Chair Luis Alejo wrote on Twitter.
Alejo called the flooding “enormous,” saying it would take months to repair the damage.
The Pajaro River separates the counties of Santa Cruz and Monterey in areas that flooded Saturday. Flood water that seeped into wells in the region may have been contaminated with chemicals, officials said, and residents were told not to drink or cook with tap water for fear of illness.
Officials were working along the levee in hopes of narrowing it down between midnight Friday and Saturday when it was breached.
It breached “After a valiant effort by our staff to combat that flood event, unfortunately they were overwhelmed by the flow coming down that reservoir,” Bowman said.
Crews began working to fix the levees early Saturday morning while residents slept in evacuation centers.
Oliver Gonzalez, 12, told The Associated Press that he, his mother and his aunt were rescued around 5 a.m. Saturday in Parajo. He grabbed his laptop, cellphone and some important documents but left many things behind in their haste to leave.
“I’m a little scared,” he said hours later from an evacuation center in nearby Watsonville. “My mother’s car was 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 clothing and moved to safety. She and her two children, her husband and her 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 moving forward.
Gov. Gavin Newsom’s office said Saturday it was monitoring Pajaro’s situation.
“Our thoughts are with everyone affected and the state is coming together to support the community,” the governor’s office wrote on Twitter.
The Pajaro Valley is a coastal agricultural area known for strawberries, apples, cauliflower, broccoli and artichokes. National brands such as Driscoll’s Strawberries and Martinelli’s are headquartered in the region.
In 1995, the Pajaro River burst its banks, inundating 2,500 acres of farmland and the community of Pajaro. Two people died and the flood caused about $100 million in damage. A state law, passed last year, developed state funding for a levy project. It was scheduled to begin construction in 2024.
State Sen. John Laird, who spearheaded the legislation and represents the area, said the project is now fully funded but has come at a bad time with this year’s rains.
“It’s sad, we were so close to getting it done before any of the storms,” he said.
This week’s storms marked the state’s 10th winter storm, which the storms have brought Abundantly Rain and snow have helped ease the state’s three-year drought. Reservoirs in the state that had dipped to significantly lower levels are now above average for this time of year, prompting state officials to release water from dams to help control flooding and make room for more rain.
Across the state Saturday, Californians struggled with rising water levels after drenching rains and atmospheric rivers. In Tulare County, the sheriff ordered residents living near the Tule River to evacuate, while people near Poso Creek in Kern County were under an evacuation alert. National Weather Service meteorologists have issued flood warnings and advisories, urging motorists to stay off flooded roads.
In San Francisco, an 85-foot eucalyptus tree fell on the Trocadero Clubhouse early Saturday morning. The 1892 clubhouse, a San Francisco historic landmark, was severely damaged, with parts of the roof collapsing and flooding inside.
California Gov. Gavin Newsom has declared states of emergency in 34 counties in recent weeks, and the Biden administration on Friday morning approved presidential disaster declarations for some, a move that would bring more federal aid.
The Atmospheric riversKnown as a “Pineapple Express” because it brought warm subtropical moisture across the Pacific from near Hawaii, the lower portions of the massive snowpack built up in the California mountains were melting.
Yet another atmospheric river is already in the forecast for early next week. State climatologist Michael Anderson said a third is taking shape over the Pacific and possibly a fourth.
California appears to be “on its way to a fourth year of drought” ahead of an early winter series of storms, Anderson said Friday. “We’re in a very different situation now,” he added.
The National Weather Service on Saturday predicted heavy rain and snow Monday through Wednesday, with significant flooding along the state’s central coast, the San Joaquin and Sacramento valleys, and the southern Sierra Nevada foothills by midweek.
Another heavy, wet snow is expected in the Sierras and higher elevations by midweek, the weather service said. Officials said about 32 inches of snow had fallen at Mount Rose Ski Resort on the outskirts of Reno, Nevada, by Saturday morning.