.Pajaro River Levee Breaks

The breach causes more flooding and forces over 1,700 residents to evacuate

An estimated 100-foot-wide breach in the Pajaro River Levee has sent floodwaters into the community of Pajaro, forcing the evacuation of roughly 1,700 residents and causing untold damage to the homes, businesses and farm fields in the rural, agricultural community.

On Friday crews were working along the levee, trying to lessen the impact of possible breaches, Monterey County officials said.

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The National Guard helps evacuate residents impacted by the Pajaro River flooding. PHOTO: Tarmo Hannula

Despite their efforts, the breach in the levee happened around midnight near Murphy Crossing Road according to Mark Strudley, executive director for Pajaro Regional Flood Management. 

It was shortly after midnight on Saturday night that local resident Andreas Garcia and his family got notice to evacuate. The family grabbed what they could but found the shelter at the Santa Cruz County Fairgrounds full. 

“Right now we’re living out of our cars parked here in Watsonville,” Garcia said. “I lived through the flood of ‘95, too. That was a lot worse. Many of us did not want to evacuate because of looting. Last month when people left some had their homes broken into.”

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The evacuation site at the Santa Cruz County fairgrounds reached capacity last night, but has since opened up an additional building to accommodate evacuees. Shelter space in Salinas is reaching capacity as officials move to open more. 

Capt. Curtis Rhodes of Cal Fire said officials were helping evacuate people all night. By his estimate, dozens of homes and businesses have flooded.

Local agencies along with the National Guard are also on the scene, bringing families and their belongings to safety through the flooded streets of Pajaro. 

By 9:30am on Saturday hundreds of people, many of them with young children, swarmed atop the Main Street Bridge between Pajaro and Watsonville, anxious to check on family members and their homes. Streets in the surrounding areas of the Watsonville side of the bridge had turned into a crowded parking lot overnight by evacuees.

Monterey County Supervisor Luis Alejo, who spent Friday warning residents that an evacuation was possible, said that floodwaters reached two feet in some places.

“My heart hurts, because I know the suffering that the residents of Pajaro are going through again,” Alejo said. “Many who endured the 1995 flood, they are now enduring this one.”

Efforts to rebuild the levee to offer protection to the communities on both sides of the Pajaro River have been ongoing for years. 

In October, officials from Monterey and Santa Cruz counties and from the City of Watsonville gathered alongside the Levee to celebrate the funding for a $400 million project that will give 100-year flood protection to the area.

The water has slowed, Alejo said, but another atmospheric river storm expected Tuesday is kindling new flooding concerns and will possibly hinder repair work.

“The amount of water is massive, and it’s much worse because of the ground saturation causing more water to run off into the Pajaro River,” Alejo said. “And that’s why I believe the levee could not hold and sustain itself under that pressure that existed in the river.”

Alejo said the evacuation will put an additional strain on the residences and businesses in Pajaro, which were already displaced for eight days in January after a series of atmospheric river storms.

Alejo said he has already urged Monterey County staff to reach out to state and federal officials to request funding necessary to help residents cope in both the near and long-term effects of the flood.

“It’s just unfortunate to see Pajaro go through this once again,” he said. “Now they’re in a worse situation, and we believe it’s going to take months based on experience to get those homes repaired so they can be habitable again.”

•••

The Monterey Salinas Transit is transporting community members in the evacuation zone to shelters.

These include: 

Santa Cruz Fairgrounds, 2061 E. Lake Blvd, Watsonville. 

Salinas at Compass Church,10325 S. Main Street.  

A temporary evacuation center at the Prunedale Library, 17822 Moro Rd.   

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Tarmo Hannula
Tarmo Hannula has been the lead photographer with The Pajaronian newspaper in Watsonville since 1997. He also reports on a wide range of topics, including police, fire, environment, schools, the arts and events. A fifth generation Californian, Tarmo was born in the Mother Lode of the Sierra (Columbia) and has lived in Santa Cruz County since the late 1970s. He earned a BA from UC Santa Cruz and has traveled to 33 countries.
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