A Northern California farming community famous for its strawberry harvest had to be evacuated early Saturday after flooding breached the levee of the Pajaro River from a new atmospheric flow that devastated 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 Hispanic farm workers — from the unincorporated community of Pajaro.
In a news conference Saturday afternoon, Lew Bauman of the Monterey County Water Resources Agency said the levee was breached around midnight Friday. Bowman said the breach was about 120 feet long.
“It will continue to flow, it will flow uncontrollably until we can ensure that with temporary containment measures,” Bowman said.
Officials at the California Department of Water Resources are on their way to “formulate a mitigation plan” to “fill this gap,” Bowman added.
Bauman said that as the water flow continues in the coming days, further evacuation warnings and orders will be issued as needed.
Monterey County Sheriff Tina Nieto, meanwhile, said crews conducted 90 rescues Friday night and Saturday.
Crews had gone door-to-door Friday afternoon urging residents to leave before the rain hit, but some stayed and had to be pulled out of the flood waters early Saturday.
A video showed a member of the Guard Helping a driver out of a car that was waist-deep in water.
“We had hoped to avoid and prevent this situation, but the worst-case scenario has occurred as the Pajaro River floods around midnight and the dam is breached,” he said. wrote Luis AlejoChairman of the Monterey County Board of Directors, on Twitter.
Alejo called flood “massive” and says it will take months to repair the damage.
The Pajaro River separates Santa Cruz and Monterey counties in the area that flooded Saturday. Floodwater that entered the area’s wells could be contaminated with chemicals, officials said, and residents have been told not to drink tap water or cook with tap water for fear of illness.
Officials had been working along the levee hoping to shore it up when it was breached around midnight Friday through Saturday.
“After a heroic effort by our employees to combat this flood event, they were sadly overwhelmed by the torrents coming down this watershed,” Bauman said.
Crews began repairing the levee 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 in Parajo around 5am on Saturday. He grabbed his laptop, cell phone and some important documents but so much was left behind in their haste.
“I’m a little scared,” he said a few hours later from an evacuation center in nearby Watsonville. “My mother’s car was left in the water.”
Anais Rodriguez, 37, said first responders knocked on the door of her home just after midnight. Her family packed clothes for about four days and drove to safety. She and her two children, her husband and parents – along with their dog Mila – arrived at the shelter about an hour later with few answers as to what this would mean for their community going forward.
Gov. Gavin Newsom’s office said Saturday it was monitoring the situation in Pajaro.
“Our thoughts are with all those affected and the state has mobilized to support the community,” The governor’s office announced on Twitter.
The Pajaro Valley is a coastal agricultural area known for growing strawberries, apples, cauliflower, broccoli and artichokes. National brands such as Driscoll’s Strawberries and Martinelli’s are headquartered in the region.
In 1995, the levees of the Pajaro River broke, flooding 2,500 acres of farmland and the Pajaro community. Two people died and the flooding caused nearly $100 million in damage. A state law passed last year promoted state funds for a dyke project. The start of construction was planned for 2024.
State Senator John Laird, who led the bill and represents the area, said the project is now fully funded but it was only due to poor timing in this year’s rains.
“It’s tragic, we came so close to getting this done before any storms,” he said.
This week’s storm marked the 10th atmospheric flow of winter in the state, storms that have brought enormous amounts of rain and snow for the state and helped ease drought conditions that had been dragging on for three years. State reservoirs, which had dropped to conspicuously low levels, are now well above the average for this time of year, prompting state officials to release water from dams to help with flood control and make room for even more rain.
Across the state, Californians battled torrential rains Saturday and rising water levels in the wake of atmospheric flow. In Tulare County, the sheriff ordered residents living near the Tule River to evacuate, while those near Poso Creek in Kern County were under an evacuation alert. The meteorologists of the National Weather Service issued flood warnings and advisories and asked 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 San Francisco Historic Landmark, suffered severe damage, destroying part of the roof and flooding the interior.
California Gov. Gavin Newsom has declared emergencies in 34 counties in recent weeks, and the Biden administration on Friday morning approved a presidential disaster declaration for some, a move that will bring more federal aid.
The atmospheric flowKnown as the “Pineapple Express” because it brought warm subtropical moisture across the Pacific Ocean from near Hawaii, it melted lower portions of the vast snowpack that was being built in the California mountains.
Another atmospheric flow is already forecast for early next week. State climatologist Michael Anderson said a third appears to be taking shape over the Pacific, and possibly a fourth.
California appeared “on track for a fourth year of drought” ahead of the early winter series of storms, Anderson said Friday. “We’re in a very different state now,” he added.
The National Weather Service forecast increased rain and snowfall Saturday from Monday through Wednesday, with significant flooding possible through mid-week along the state’s central coast, the San Joaquin and Sacramento valleys, and the southern reaches of the Sierra Nevada.
Another bout of heavy, wet snow is expected to hit the Sierras and high elevation areas by mid-week, the weather service said. Officials reported about 32 inches of snow had fallen as of Saturday morning at Mount Rose ski resort on the outskirts of Reno, Nevada.