Monterey County levee breach causes flooding, evacuations, rescues

A levee failure on the Pajaro River in Monterey County overnight caused massive flooding and prompted hundreds of evacuations and dozens of water rescues as the latest storm surge hit large swaths of California.

The levee — three miles upstream from the town of Pajaro — breached late Friday night, said Nicholas Pasculli, a spokesman for Monterey County. Patrols noticed boils “bubbling in the adjacent farmland” at 11 p.m., the first sign that there was a problem.

Thirty minutes later, the levee failed, Pasculli said. As of Saturday morning, he said, “the failure is about 100 feet wide.” The entire town of Pajaro, made up mainly of farm workers, is under water, he said.

Authorities performed 60 rescues overnight, which included the use of high water vehicles, the sheriff’s dive team, and the Department of Forestry and Fire Protection’s swift water team. California, officials said. National Guard personnel have been dispatched to assist there. At least 96 people were placed in county shelters.

Crews will head out Saturday morning to assess the depth and extent of the flooding. In addition, Pasculli said, the state will send helicopters loaded with fill material, which they will drop, to help “plug the hole” in the dam.

Pajaro, a small town of about 1,700 people, faced the latest storms in January because a flood wall at the bottom of the levee failed, Monterey County Supervisor Luis Alejo said.

“We barely avoided, by the grace of God, the flooding of the community,” Alejo said.

On Friday afternoon, residents were ordered to evacuate, but some did not, Alejo said, because “they hoped the worst would not happen because the dam did not burst during the last series of storms.”

Monterey County sheriff’s officials, Watsonville police and the California Highway Patrol issued a second round of evacuation warnings around 11:30 pm Friday.

Alejo said he contacted President Biden and Gov. Gavin Newsom to invite them to visit Pajaro. He said that it will take months for the residents to repair the houses and that the city needs significant help to recover.

“This is an underserved community that often doesn’t get the attention it deserves,” Alejo said. “These are our friends, our neighbors, these are people we really care about and we know they’re going through tremendous difficulty in the coming months.”

Rain is expected to continue in the county Saturday, with possibly up to half an inch falling along the coast, said Cindy Kobold, a meteorologist with the National Weather Service. A tenth to a quarter of an inch is expected for the northern portions of the county overnight.

Kobold said the efforts associated with the sow break “will be further hampered by the incoming weather.”

Elsewhere in the county, the Salinas River flooded around the community of San Ardo prompting evacuation orders overnight.

Flash flood warnings remain in effect for parts of Santa Cruz, Santa Clara, Monterey, Tulare and Sonoma counties, according to the National Weather Service. At least two recent deaths have been confirmed as storm-related, officials said.

In Santa Cruz County on Friday, a woman was caught in a flood zone in Watsonville, where the water had risen to 8 feet. When swiftwater divers from California State Parks reached her, she was on top of an oversized pickup truck with water up to her thighs, said Gabe McKenna, a state parks spokesman.

Rescuers swam out to paddle boats, put her in a PFD, secured her on one of the boards, and her 100 feet to shore, McKenna said. The parks have nine rapid water dives that are currently located around Santa Clara County in high risk areas ready to deploy.

“I think we’re going to die a little bit in the rain with another one coming up in a couple of days,” McKenna said. “So we try to anticipate these and be prepared and have personnel available where the situation occurs.”

Kobold, with the National Weather Service, urged residents to “get back, don’t drown.” Some areas were hit so hard that it could be difficult to gauge the depth of the water on the roads.

“It might look like it’s only 6 inches deep, but if that road is washed out and there’s erosion underneath it, it’s possible that it could be 6 to 12 inches or deeper and you could be entering a very dangerous situation,” he said.

Major flooding was reported in the Springville area of ​​Tulare County — where officials performed dozens of water rescues Friday morning — and in Kernville, where the roaring Kern River. surrounded some houses and mobile homesspur evacuations.

The main concern now is the threat of storms on Saturday afternoon, said Gerald Meadows, a meteorologist with the National Weather Service in Hanford. The biggest risk, he said, is from the south side of Tulare County and the north side of Kern County, all the way north through the San Joaquin Valley.

“We could see winds in excess of 45 miles per hour gusting from any storm or a potential for increased precipitation,” Meadows said. “It’s just going to exacerbate any flooding problems we’re already seeing.”

A tenth to a quarter of an inch of rain is expected in the valley, with a quarter to a quarter of an inch of precipitation in the Sierra Foothills and higher ground, according to Meadows.

Although most of the precipitation fell in the last 36 hours, Meadows said Saturday morning, “we have another event on the horizon coming early next week that is going to bring a significant amount of precipitation.” .

Although it won’t be as much as the one that moved in on Friday, he said, “with slightly higher snow levels or expected snowmelt ranges we could see just as much, if not more, flooding impacts.”

“One of the big messages we want to convey to people in the San Joaquin Valley in particular, and also in the foothills of the Sierra, is even if it’s clear and it’s not raining very hard right now, we’re not going through this.” Meadows said. “The impacts are going to increase and the storms can change the situation quite quickly.”

Times staff writer Rust reported from Menlo Park; Mejia and Dillon reported from Los Angeles.

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