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California Levee Disaster: One Family's Flight From Climate-Fueled Flooding

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A woman with brown, shoulder-length hair stands in a blue room.
Denia Escutia in her mud-coated bedroom in Pajaro, Monterey County, on March 24, 2023.  (Kori Suzuki/KQED)

This story is part of the third season of KQED’s podcast Sold Out: Rethinking Housing in America. You can find that series here and read about why KQED chose to focus a season of its housing podcast on climate change.

D

enia Escutia dreamed of moving to Southern California to learn how to care for sick kids at UCLA. But when a river swallowed her town and destroyed her home, she deferred those dreams to take care of her family instead.

It’s been seven months since a massive storm over California’s Central Coast dropped as much as 13 inches of rain in some places. Swollen with all that water, the Pajaro River ripped a 400-foot hole in the levee a few miles east of Escutia’s raised, one-story house where she lived with her mom, dad, brother and sister.

The emotional pain of that experience, she said quietly with tears in her eyes, has not waned.

“Often I feel like crying, but I don’t want to cry in front of my siblings, so I just do it on my own time,” she said.

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Escutia is 18. The recent high school graduate with shoulder-length wavy brown hair describes herself as part tomboy, part girlie girl.


In late September, she visited the gutted house where the family still keeps some of their belongings. Lifting a loose floorboard, she examined the crawl space below the tan, two-bedroom home. Deep cracks cut through the soil where floodwaters washed into the dark space.

The teenager wiggled her nose at the smell of decay. Her family’s clothes and bags of canned goods lined the bedroom walls, which were once covered with posters of Disney princesses and K-pop stars.

Escutia said she has flashbacks several times a day of the early morning that her future was almost washed away — floodwaters the color of chocolate milk filling her room, the trash can floating across her yard.

“People are going to be like, it already happened, get over it,” she said. “But they wouldn’t get over it if they were in my shoes.”

Water breached the levee in March. The Monterey County Sheriff’s Office ordered Pajaro’s 3,000 residents to evacuate, before flooding swamped more than 200 homes, rendering Escutia’s unlivable. Her family worried the levee would fail again, so rather than stay and rebuild, they decided to abandon Pajaro in search of someplace safer.

The family’s choice — to make their future away from the floodplain — is one that other Californians will face.

Rivers and streams across the state are penned in by thousands of miles of levees. Much of that infrastructure is aging and is not built for future storms, which could cause major flooding in any given year. With a potentially wet winter ahead, the state’s top water officials are grasping for solutions. And they are quietly considering a blasphemous idea in California politics: moving whole communities away from dangerous waterways.

Leaving Pajaro thrust the family into a seemingly endless search for affordable housing. And it would have a profound effect on Escutia’s life.

“We left because we don’t want the same thing to happen again,” she said. “Having to see my family be sad about something they created just washed away in a matter of minutes was difficult.”

A truck drives through chocolate milk-colored water.
An aerial view shows a truck making its way through a flooded neighborhood in the unincorporated community of Pajaro in Monterey County, on March 11, 2023. (Josh Edelson/AFP via Getty Images)

‘We are going to tame nature’

Rivers have long served as a meeting place for people on the land we now call California. Indigenous people lived for thousands of years following the ebb and flow of water as signals to move to higher ground.

Lush, sprawling river valleys captivated the intrigue of those colonizing California. In that land, they saw an opportunity.

They transformed rivers that once flowed freely to the sea into highly managed waterways, cut off from the people who relied on them. That hubris led to the state’s current flooding vulnerabilities, said Karla Nemeth, California’s top water official.

“A big part of how we got here was we had a mindset of ‘We are going to tame nature,’” she said.

As she sat next to a tall potted plant with frilly green leaves in her Sacramento office, she recited a passage by John McPhee, a Pulitzer Prize-winning creative nonfiction writer: “To the conventional wisdom that one ought never to build on a floodplain, California has responded with its capital city.”

McPhee wrote that when the state’s founding citizens built Sacramento alongside two roaring rivers, it exemplified the mindset that humans could control nature (CGI). Nemeth said California could potentially recommend riverine residents leave the floodplain as storms get more intense.

“Ultimately, what we are going to do is move a lot of people,” said Nemeth, who directs the California Department of Water Resources.

Moving people en masse away from rivers is a controversial practice called “managed retreat.” It is an idea that many officials are not willing to consider. But nature is forcing the conversation.

By the end of the century, climate change may make these deluges up to 37% wetter, according to a study from Bay Area researchers. UCLA climate scientist Daniel Swain recently found that the warming climate has already doubled the probability of a megaflood — weather conditions that could unleash horrific statewide flooding.

“We’ve gotten a taste of widespread flooding this winter, but I think it’s only a taste,” said Swain.

A brightly-colored backpack hangs from a white wall.
Some scattered boxes and chairs sit inside what remains of the Escutia’s living room in Pajaro, California on April 28, 2023. (Kori Suzuki/KQED)

A burden overnight

In the predawn hours of March 11, Escutia woke up to what she thought was her Pomeranian, Lucky, peeing on the bed. But she was wrong. Flood water trickled into her room and was ankle-deep in just a few minutes.

Escutia’s family, scared and panicked, unplugged appliances and threw anything they could onto tables, counters and beds. Another bad storm had pummeled the area just weeks before, but the levee held. Escutia’s family didn’t feel like they needed to leave.

Her mom was shocked by electrical currents in the water. That’s when her family decided to flee, escaping in waist-deep water to an upstairs apartment building across the street.

A few hours later, they caught a ride out of the town in military rescue vehicles. On the way to her grandmother’s, Escutia wondered if she would ever call Pajaro home again.

“My future, I feel like it will look like it is gone,” she said. “I don’t want to leave because I grew up here. But at the same time, I want to leave because I don’t want the same thing to happen again.”

She spent the next two weeks hopping between the homes of different relatives. When she returned to Pajaro in late March, her house was suffocatingly warm and the carpet slick with mud. A photo of her in a blue and black quinceanera dress still hung on the living room wall.

Escutia had just been accepted to UCLA. She had not yet shared the good news with her family. After the flood, her happy secret quickly transformed into a burden.

She couldn’t decide between pursuing her dream in Southern California or staying to help her family.

“I haven’t told my parents yet, but I was planning on telling them,” she said. “All I can think about is how I’m going to be able to help my parents through this, especially financially.”

A man in a blue t-shirt stands in a dirt yard with a young woman in brown pants.
Denia Escutia and her father Juan, talk outside their mud-coated home in Pajaro, Monterey County, on March 24, 2023. (Kori Suzuki/KQED)

‘A case of environmental injustice’

The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers had officially rated the levee along the Pajaro River a “moderate” risk of flooding. The truth is that for decades, officials knew they needed repair but didn’t act. The Corps determined that the town wasn’t worth protecting because property values were too low, according to levee records and interviews with several officials.

For Nancy Faulstich, executive director of Regeneración — Pájaro Valley Climate Action, this callousness created the tragedy in Monterey County.

“It feels like it’s exactly a case of environmental injustice,” she said.

Escutia agreed and said her old neighborhood deserves justice. Pajaro is home to many lower-income earners and farmworkers who work in the fields of Watsonville, Monterey County and elsewhere in this fertile region.

“It deserves climate justice because not everyone is financially well off,” she said. Many Pajaro residents “can’t afford housing. They help with the raspberries, strawberries and lettuce. That’s where everyone gets their food from.”

Other places around the state likely face a similar threat, but the reality is officials don’t even really know the extent of the problem. A KQED analysis of the greater San Francisco Bay Area levees found that just 10% have a federal risk rating, and statewide levee safety varies wildly.

In Pajaro, agencies are working to strengthen the levee that failed earlier this year, a project that’s expected to cost half a billion dollars. Gov. Gavin Newsom signed an executive order in early August to streamline levee repairs across the state (PDF), and lawmakers introduced a bill to accelerate flood control upgrades along the Pajaro River.

The new levee will provide more protection to Pajaro, but there’s still no guarantee the town won’t flood again.

“There’s no way that you can build a levee system that will protect any community from the biggest of big storms in the future,” said Stu Townsley, deputy district engineer for project management for the San Francisco region of the Corps.

When crews finish building the Pajaro River levee in around a decade, it will have 1-in-100-year storm protection — half the protection some water experts believe is needed. That means a house has a 25% chance of flooding during a typical homeowner’s 30-year mortgage.

Jeffrey Mount, senior fellow at the Public Policy Institute of California, said the bare minimum standard for protection everywhere in the state should be based on the likelihood of a 1-in-200-year storm, which has around a 0.5% chance of happening in any given year.

State Sen. John Laird (D-Santa Cruz), who oversees the region, said he intellectually has “a total appetite” for that idea but said the price tag of doubling protection everywhere in California is in the billions of dollars.

“When you start to tell me how we’re going to pay for it, I want to jump off the top of the building,” he said. “I would not be surprised if it doesn’t take some crisis, just as New Orleans had theirs, to realize that we really have to up our game in California.”

A overhead view of a mud-caked field.
The repaired Pajaro River levee looking towards Pajaro on March 26, 2023. (Photo by Paul Kuroda for The Washington Post via Getty Images)

‘Failing as a mother’

Denia’s mother Carla Escutia searched all over Monterey County to find a new home to rent. She didn’t find much in her price range.

A two-bedroom apartment can cost upwards of $3,000 a month in this part of Monterey County, according to rental cost statistics from UC Santa Cruz. She found one house on a hill in the woods about 10 miles outside Pajaro. The family loved that it was nowhere near a river, but the house fell through.

For a while, the Escutias lived in a small trailer just feet from their ruined house. Their landlord tore the mucky, brown carpet out of the house — no more quinceanera photo. The loss of her home and the stress of finding a new place has been too much for Carla Escutia at times.

“I feel like I have failed as a mother because we’re in a place I didn’t want my family,” she said, with her long brown hair covered by a black baseball cap. “I want to provide the best for them, but there’s nothing we can do right now but sit and wait.”

Carla Escutia moved to Pajaro from Michoacan, Mexico, over two decades ago. She works as a custodian at UC Santa Cruz.

But even with so much uncertainty around them, the mother and daughter often smile. Television is their main outlet.

“We have an antenna that does not require Wi-Fi, and all we do is just sit here eating chips and drinking sodas while watching Top Chef,” Escutia said, laughing.

She finally told her parents that she had been accepted to UCLA. They were supportive and encouraged her to pursue her dream.

“I want her to succeed and to be able to provide for herself so she can live somewhere else that is a bit better than what I have given her and her future children,” Carla Escutia said.

But ultimately, Escutia decided not to go so she could stay closer to home to help her family.

“I wanted to stay a little bit here longer with my mom,” she said. “I want to do community college and try to work. To help my mom with some rent and bills, so I can help provide for my siblings.”

A woman in a blue and white striped shirt embraces a younger woman with a black shirt.
Denia Escutia and her mother, Carla, embrace in their now-empty home in Pajaro on April 28, 2023. (Kori Suzuki/KQED)

Retreat is an opportunity not a loss

Escutia’s family is fleeing the Pajaro River because of a natural disaster.

Maybe there’s another way. What if the state and communities could decide together to move away from rivers before the next disaster? But the concept of managed retreat has become a radioactive phrase in California politics while many residents refuse to move away from rivers that flood again and again.

The reluctance to consider the idea is not just an issue with Californians. Obstinance is an American trait.

“People don’t like the word ‘retreat’ because it sounds like we’ve lost,” said A.R. Siders, a climate scientist at the University of Delaware. “That can be a little frightening, but it can also be really exciting.”

For managed retreat to succeed, Siders said entire communities and all forms of government need to buy in. It is an opportunity for Californians to stop fighting nature.

California is not pursuing managed retreat right now along its rivers. Instead, the state is repairing levees and investing in climate modeling to better predict the intensity of storms.

Places like Marina, a small city in Monterey County, have embraced the idea in response to sea level rise and erosion along the coast, although, as Los Angeles Times reporter Rosanna Xia notes in her book, California Against the Sea: Visions for Our Vanishing Coastline, the words managed retreat “have roiled the few cities and state agencies bold enough to utter them.”

Residents of Pacifica, a coastal city in San Mateo County, booted former-mayor John Keener for including the idea in the city’s sea level rise plan. His opponents sent out mailers ridiculing his policies and held a parade opposing any kind of managed retreat. Elsewhere, city leaders have stripped the term from climate plans.

Xia told KQED that Californians need to stop thinking they are at war with water. “Ultimately, it’s shifting the question from how can we fight the rising ocean to how can we work with it,” she said.

Two photos next to each other of people standing in doors. On the left a person looks at flood damage. On the right they stand in a bare room as their mother looks on.
Left: Denia Escutia outside her mud-coated bedroom in Pajaro on March 24, 2023. Right: Denia and her mother, Carla Escutia, in the same room on April 28, 2023. (Kori Suzuki/KQED)

The impact of the flood doesn’t recede with the water

A friend of one of Escutia’s teachers invited her family to live with them in a two-story house in Watsonville, just across the river from Pajaro.

“There is no other word to call them but our angels,” Carla Escutia said of their new housemates. “They told me to save money, take things slow and to find a home with dignity instead of begging for a good deal.”

Still, the family has yet to find permanent housing.

Standing in her old room in late September, Escutia reflected on how the flood forced her to grow up.

Twice a week, Escutia drives her friends to Cabrillo Community College in a used SUV that her dad bought to replace her car that was destroyed in the flood. The SUV reminds her of a “mom car.” They like to sip iced chai lattes as they talk about their futures and the boys they’re too nervous to talk to.

Escutia said she sometimes feels like the odd one out. Her new friends are not worried about where they will live permanently. Her dad told her she might have to give her dog up for adoption.

“My dad’s planning on giving it to a family friend since we don’t have anywhere to keep him,” she said. “I miss my dog a lot.”

She doesn’t regret her decision to stay to help with the family’s living expenses, but now she juggles college life along with babysitting her young sister. She recently applied to be a server at a local Applebees but didn’t land the job. She works part-time teaching for an after-school program.

“I’m busy with kids and making money,” she said. She’s able to buy things for herself, like a lime green frog phone case she’s particularly excited about. “It feels great to earn my own money instead of asking my parents for it.”

Leaving the house she grew up in, Escutia locked the door. Officials hung a yellow and black sign from the house that reads in capital letters: “Lawful only to enter for permitted cleanup purposes only.”

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“Whoever decides to live in this house, I hope they rethink living here,” she said.

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