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Storm Recovery Begins at Beloved State Beach in Santa Cruz County

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Seacliff Pier is seen heavily damaged by a rainstorm in Santa Cruz County, on Thursday, Jan. 5, 2023. (Gabrielle Lurie/The San Francisco Chronicle via Getty Images)

On Jan. 5, a frightening storm clobbered Seacliff State Beach and its famous ocean pier leading to a sunken cement ship off the coast of Santa Cruz County.

A high tide carried over 15-foot waves ashore, flipping cement benches and smashing driftwood through bathroom doors. The ground collapsed, forming sinkholes in the park’s day use and campground areas, and over half of its iconic pier was destroyed.

This storm was one of the nine atmospheric river storms that would pummel Northern California in a span of three weeks. Landslides from the storm parade persisted for many days.

Anticipating sea level rise and climate change, the state may need to relocate camping and gathering sites and set bathrooms back from the formidable Pacific Ocean. Officials also are considering building coastal dunes as a buffer against powerful storm waves.

Scott Shepherd, a California State Parks employee, speculates that many coastal California parks will inevitably have to do the same: reassess what recreational activities they can provide in the future.

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“We don’t want people to lose hope,” Shepherd said. He still foresees RV camping, field trips and fishing returning to Seacliff. “It just may look a little different than it has before.”

Jill Polizzi and Alice Cannella have walked the length of Seacliff State Beach in Santa Cruz County for over 15 years. The longtime friends often stroll along the park’s accessible walkways, preferring that to their own neighborhood and its streets without sidewalks.

On Jan. 25, three weeks after unprecedented storms caused expensive damage to the park, they’re back — with a stroller and sunhats. Unfortunately, for now, their ritual is cut short by large fences.

“It’s sad now that they’ve blocked off the other end,” Polizzi said. “I just hope they can afford to get all this back to normal.” The Jan. 5 storm cut power to Polizzi’s block for three days.

These kinds of storms aren’t new for California, or necessarily caused by climate change, said Gary Griggs, an oceanographer with UC Santa Cruz. A similar storm hit the park 40 years ago, for example. But climate models predict wetter atmospheric rivers, more landslides and more flooding in the state’s future.

“Sea level is going to continue to rise, so anything on the shoreline is probably going to be more and more affected as the years and the decades go by,” Griggs said.

Scientists at the Pacific Northwest National Laboratory found that California’s winter storms could get wetter and cover larger areas. They detailed their findings in a new study published in the journal Nature Climate Change. Their soggy storm projections were based on worst-case climate scenarios of greenhouse gas emissions not reducing.

Ruby Leung, an atmospheric scientist and author on the study, said Californians should engineer more resilient buildings and bridges.

“The information that we used before to design the infrastructure may not be relevant anymore,” she said.

Investing in stronger infrastructure

The January storm brought down Seacliff’s retaining wall, which now needs reengineering. Its job was to protect the park’s campsites and roadways from the ocean. The wall, which has been destroyed eight times now, should be rebuilt differently, Griggs said, fortified with steel and larger wood logs.

State park employees are discussing which materials to use, hoping to brace the retaining wall for rising sea levels coupled with larger storms, said Chris Pereira, the Santa Cruz district roads and trails manager for California State Parks.

Everything is on the table, he said, from rebuilding the wall as-is, bolstering it with steel or large rocks, or building dunes, stabilized with plants, logs and rocks.

His team is now working with engineers specializing in coastal sea level rise to determine what’s salvageable at the park. The pier, they’ve determined, is not, Pereira said. They’ll have to take it down or rebuild it.

Visitor center volunteer Dave Miller used to walk his kids along the pier; he taught them how to fish off the ship at the end. He’s optimistic that the park will be revamped.

“Once you’re destroyed this far, they’re gonna build it back — as the president said, build it back better,” said Miller, referencing Pres. Biden’s visit to Seacliff on Jan. 19. “These parks were never designed for things like ADA compliance.”

During his visit, Biden pledged to help the state rebuild. He expanded federal assistance to Californians, in addition to the state’s resources already in place.

“If anybody doubts the climate is changing, then they must have been asleep for the last couple years,” Biden said.

He noted California’s vulnerability to extreme weather, from storms to wildfires, saying, “We have to invest in stronger infrastructure to lessen the impact of these disasters, because they become cumulative in a sense.”

Government officials in dark coats walk in front of a broken pier.
US Pres. Joe Biden (center) and Gov. Gavin Newsom (far right) visit with first responders and state and local officials to survey recovery efforts in Seacliff State Park in Aptos, on Jan. 19, 2023. (Andrew Caballero-Reynolds/AFP via Getty Images)

Rebuilding begins at Seacliff State Beach

Park employees don’t have a time estimate for Seacliff’s restoration. But on Jan. 25, a 13-person crew hauled piles of beached wood into a truck, some of it destined for repairing storm-ravaged trails elsewhere.

The team was pulled off fire restoration at Big Basin Redwoods State Park to assist with storm recovery. They helped armor the park with hundreds of tons of rock, to protect it from subsequent swells.

“We don’t typically do this kind of work,” said Eamon Reynolds, a crewmember. “[It’s] a little overwhelming at first, but very rewarding at the same time.”

A bearded man with a chainsaw stands in front of piles of wood.
Piles of driftwood litter the post-storm landscape in Santa Cruz County. State park crewmember Eamon Reynolds repurposed a small amount to build retaining walls in other storm-damaged parks. (Anna Marie Yanny/KQED)

Reynolds recently built a retaining wall in Henry Cowell Redwoods State Park with wood repurposed from Seacliff. Next, he’ll help repair storm damage in other parks, including at Wilder Ranch, Portola Redwoods and Butano state parks. Rebuilding trails takes longer than people may think, he said.

Cannella, one of the local walkers, hopes all pathways at Seacliff will be restored soon. Unfortunately, Pereira said, that likely won’t happen by the spring, with all the damage the storm brought.

It was a scary storm, Polizzi recalled.

“But, I mean, look where we live. Who could complain?” she said, gesturing at the ocean. “You know, we’re lucky compared to other states that have hurricanes.”

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Nearby, Reynolds revs his chain saw over the sound of crashing waves.

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