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Breached Levee Floods Pajaro River Valley, Engulfing Towns as Communities Are Evacuated

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A flooded rural town under brown water with houses and cars from an aerial shot.
 (Courtesy of Alfredo Torres)

Updated 4:30 p.m. Sunday

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The Pajaro River on the border of Monterey and Santa Cruz counties breached a levee late Friday night, flooding the Pajaro River Valley.

Across the Central Coast’s Monterey County, more than 8,500 people were under evacuation orders and warnings, including roughly 1,700 residents — many of them Latino farmworkers — from the unincorporated community of Pajaro. According to Monterey County Sheriff Tina M. Nieto, over 200 people have been rescued from the Pajaro area. No casualties have been reported.

An evacuation order was issued on Sunday by the Monterey County Sheriff’s Office for residents near the Salinas River as storm conditions and flooding have caused road closures and evacuations. There is a full road closure of Highway 1 from Salinas Road to Highway 129 (Riverside Drive) in Watsonville due to flooding. Evacuation orders for Santa Cruz County were lifted at 10 a.m. on Sunday.

On Saturday afternoon, Brian Ferguson, spokesperson with the Governor’s Office of Emergency Services (Cal OES), said officials are focused on helping people who may be in the path of additional floodwaters if more rain comes. They’re also working to get information to people who need it. “We know that vulnerable Californians are disproportionately impacted by natural disasters,” he said.

He added that it is possible there may be additional downstream impacts from this flooding. “We’re not through this,” he said.

“This community is a small, disadvantaged community, mostly Latino, mostly low-income farmworkers,” said Monterey County Board of Supervisors Chair Luis Alejo. He added that this same flooding happened in 1995. “It’s heartbreaking to see the community under floodwaters today. And we know that these residents are going to go through some challenging times over the next several months to try to get their homes repaired and make them habitable again.”

Alejo said the evacuations are continuing and that residents who didn’t leave last night are being escorted out, with vehicles provided by the National Guard and the Salinas Police Department. “We were trying to prepare our residents to be ready for this worst-case scenario. And that moment, unfortunately, has arrived,” he said.

Alejo has already reached out to Gov. Gavin Newsom and the White House, as well as local and state legislators. “When you have flooding, people cannot just return to their homes, because water creates a lot of damage,” Alejo said. “Moisture creates a risk of health hazards such as mold. And so we know that we’re going to need to provide alternative housing in the long run for these residents.”

A flooded street with cars and houses and brown water, a sign that says "No Outlet"
A flooded Bafp Drive in Watsonville, March 11, 2023. (Courtesy of Martha Victoria Vega)

He also said emergency staff are predicting another major atmospheric river storm for Tuesday, meaning that the evacuation and the flooding of the Pajaro River are likely to continue for several days.

Jonathan Linden, reporter for KAZU in Monterey County, said he drove into town on Salinas Road at 2 a.m. When he attempted to drive back the same way less than an hour later, it was submerged in water.

“A county spokesperson told me the entire town is under some level of water, but we can’t say exactly how much,” said Linden in an interview with KQED on Saturday morning.

Linden said he also spoke with residents on the Watsonville side of the river, which hasn’t flooded. Many residents there had evacuated their homes in the middle of the night, and many had slept in their cars.

A flooded street with submerged cars and houses.
Flooding at the intersection of College and Anderson roads in Watsonville, on March 11, 2023. (Courtesy of Martha Victoria Vega)

One family Linden spoke to spent the night in their car because they couldn’t afford a motel and didn’t want to stay in a shelter. Linden said most of the residents he spoke with are concerned about their homes.

“People are coming together, but we need resources,” said Martha Victoria Vega, a resident and teacher in Watsonville, who evacuated her home earlier. “We’re grateful for the community members, the public safety teams, nonprofits, government officials and the media for their help.”

Under food and safety laws, flooded fields must sit fallow for 30 to 60 days to let any possible contamination subside.

“Food that would otherwise have been grown and harvested will not be available. And also the thousands of jobs that would be available to farmworkers will not be available,” said Alejo, of the Monterey County Board of Supervisors.

KQED’s Katherine Monahan spoke with Ramiro Ortiz Calderon while he stood by the river with his wife and daughter. His house flooded, and so did his car, which he would have needed to get to work. Now, he thinks he’ll have no work. And, he’s worried about theft.

“After we returned two months ago, I came back to the house, and there was a lot of vandalism, they stole the tires from my car,” Calderon said, in Spanish. “Let [the police] protect us at least now that we are outside so that there is not so much robbery because we have our things there. It’s not so much about the water, but rather our belongings, the little that we have, inside.”

Despite evacuation orders, some families and residents chose not to leave their homes.

“It’s really sad to see that people didn’t evacuate last night,” said Alfredo Torres, a local insurance agent and Pajaro resident. “They didn’t heed the warnings and people chose to stay. I understand in a community like ours, there’s not a whole lot of housing. So it is limited where people can go, as it is in a highly populated area.”

Torres said the levee system had “never been built to capacity.”

“It was built back in the ’40s, and I think the bigger problem is just that there’s been a lack of focus on maintenance to better it,” he said. “Some [projects] were supposed to be coming down the pipeline soon, but not soon enough.”

Built in 1949, the Pajaro River’s levees have broken several times in the past decades, causing flooding and widespread damage to communities. In 1995, flooding from broken levees left two people dead and thousands of acres of farmland underwater, and caused close to $100 million in damage. In 2022, a state law was passed to advanced state funds for a levee project. Construction is scheduled to begin in 2024.

An aerial view of a flooded river overflowing into two sides of the town with a bridge going over it.
The flooded Pajaro River on March 11, 2023. (Courtesy of Alfredo Torres)

The Monterey County Sheriff’s Office, North Monterey County Fire and the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection (Cal Fire) said in a statement on March 1 that they are currently assisting community members who did not evacuate earlier.

The California National Guard said they conducted 56 rescues of people who were stranded by the flooding throughout the night.

Up-to-date road closures and evacuation maps can be found here. The Caltrans QuickMap app also provides up-to-date information on road closures and openings.

Weather-related power outages affected more than 17,000 customers in Monterey County late Saturday, according to Cal OES.

The County of Monterey has been advising residents of Pajaro to not use tap water for drinking and cooking until further notice, saying that wells for the Pajaro/Sunny Mesa water district were flooded and that “flood water may be contaminated with chemicals that would not be made safe by boiling or disinfection.”

Residents in the evacuation zone in need of help should call 911 immediately. Residents who have already evacuated may call 211 for information and referrals to disaster relief organizations.

Evacuation shelters

The closest evacuation shelter to the community of Pajaro is the Santa Cruz Fairground.

Santa Cruz County Fairgrounds
2061 E. Lake Boulevard, Watsonville, CA 95076

Compass Church
10325 S. Main Street, Salinas, CA 93901

Prunedale Branch Library (temporary evacuation center)
17822 Moro Road, Prunedale, CA 93907

Cabrillo College gym
6500 Soquel Drive, Aptos, CA 95003

Veterans Memorial Building
215 E. Beach Street, Watsonville, CA 95076

This story includes reporting by The Associated Press.

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