WATSONVILLE, Calif. (AP) – A Northern California farming community famous for its strawberry crop was forced to evacuate early Saturday after a levee on the Pajaro River was breached by flooding from a new atmospheric river that broke the state.
In Monterey County on the Central Coast, more than 8,500 people were under evacuation orders and warnings Saturday, including about 1,700 residents — many of them Latino farmers — from the unincorporated community of Pajaro.
Officials said the breach in the Pajaro River levee is about 100 feet (30.48 meters) wide. Crews had gone door-to-door Friday afternoon to urge residents to leave before the rain hit, but some stayed and had to be pulled from floodwaters early Saturday.
First responders and the California National Guard rescued more than 50 people overnight. A video showed a member of the Guard helping a driver out of a car trapped in waist-deep water.
“We were hoping to avoid and prevent this situation, but the worst-case scenario came with the Pajaro River overflowing and the dam breaking around midnight,” wrote Luis Alejochairman of the Monterey County Board of Supervisors, on Twitter.
Invited called floods “Massive,” saying the damage will take months to repair.
The Pajaro River separates Santa Cruz and Monterey counties in the area that flooded Saturday.
Officials were working on the levee in hopes of supporting it when it was breached around midnight Friday through Saturday. Crews began working to repair the levee around dawn Saturday while residents slept in evacuation centers.
The Pajaro Valley is a coastal agricultural area known for growing strawberries, apples, cauliflower, broccoli and artichokes. National brands such as Driscoll’s Strawberries and Martinelli’s are headquartered in the region.
In 1995, the dams on the Pajaro River broke, washing away 2,500 hectares (1,011 acres) of farmland and the community of Pajaro. Two people died and the flooding caused nearly $100 million in damage. A state law, passed last year, advanced state funds for a levee project. Construction was expected to begin in 2024.
This week’s storm marked the state’s 10th atmospheric downpour of the winter, storms that brought huge amounts of rain and snow to the state and helped ease drought conditions that had dragged on for three years. State reservoirs that had dropped to shockingly low levels are now well above average for this time of year, prompting state officials to release water from dams to help with flood control and make room for even more. rain
Across the state on Saturday, Californians encountered drenching rains and rising water levels following the atmospheric river. In Tulare County, the sheriff ordered residents living near the Tule River to evacuate, while people near Poso Creek in Kern County were under an evacuation notice. National Weather Service forecasters have issued flood advisories and warnings, imploring motorists to stay off flooded roads.
Democratic Gov. Gavin Newsom has declared emergencies in 34 counties in recent weeks, and the Biden administration approved a presidential disaster declaration for some on Friday morning, a move that will bring more federal assistance.
The atmospheric river, known as the “Pineapple Express” because it carried warm subtropical moisture across the Pacific from near Hawaii, was melting the lower parts of the huge snowpack built up in the California mountains.
Snow levels in the Sierra Nevada, which provide about a third of the state’s water supply, are more than 180% of the April 1 average, when it is historically at its peak. Officials said 32 inches (81 centimeters) of snow had fallen since Saturday morning at the Mount Rose ski resort on the edge of Reno, Nevada.
The high-altitude snowpack is so massive it was expected to absorb rain, but snow below 4,000 feet (1,219 meters) could begin to melt, potentially contributing to flooding, forecasters said.
State transportation officials said Friday that they cleared so much snow from the roads in February that it would be enough to fill the iconic Rose Bowl 100 times.
Lake Oroville — one of the state’s largest reservoirs and home to the nation’s tallest dam — has so much water that officials on Friday opened the dam’s spillways for the first time since April 2019. reservoir water rose 180 feet (54.8 meters). ) from December 1. Of the state’s 17 major reservoirs, seven are still below their historical average this year.
State water managers were also grappling with the best way to use the storms to help them emerge from a severe drought. On Friday, Newsom signed an executive order making it easier for farmers and water agencies to use floodwaters to fill underground aquifers. Groundwater provides on average about 41% of the state’s water supply each year. But many of these underground basins have been cleared in recent years.
Forecasters warned that travel to the mountains could be difficult to impossible during the latest storm. At higher elevations, the storm was expected to dump heavy snow, up to 8 feet (2.4 meters) over several days.
However, another atmospheric river is already in the forecast for the beginning of next week. State climatologist Michael Anderson said a third appeared to be taking shape over the Pacific and possibly a fourth.
California appeared to be “well on its way to a fourth year of drought” before the first round of winter storms, Anderson said. “We are in a very different condition now,” he added.
Dazio said from Los Angeles.