Levee breach in Monterey County triggers massive flooding, prompts evacuations, rescues
Susanne Rust, Brittny Mejia, Liam Dillon
Sat, March 11, 2023 at 10:57 AM MST·10 min read
A levee failure on the Pajaro River in Monterey County triggered massive flooding and prompted hundreds of evacuations and dozens of water rescues as the latest atmospheric river storm pummeled large swaths of California.
The levee — three miles upstream from the town of Pajaro — breached late Friday night, said Nicholas Pasculli, a Monterey County spokesperson. Patrols noticed “bubbling up in the adjacent farmland” at 11 p.m., the first sign there was a problem.
Thirty minutes later, the levee failed, Pasculli said. As of Saturday morning, he said, “the failure is approximately 100 feet wide.” The town of Pajaro — with a population of 1,700, mostly farmworkers — is underwater.
Authorities conducted 60 rescues that included the use of high-water vehicles, the sheriff’s diving team and the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection’s swift-water team, officials said. National Guard personnel were dispatched to assist. At least 96 people were placed in county shelters.
Pajaro weathered previous storms because a flood wall in the lower part of the levee held up, said Monterey County Supervisor Luis Alejo.
“We had avoided just barely, by the grace of God, the flooding of the community,” Alejo said of recent storms. Residents were ordered to evacuate Friday afternoon, but some didn’t, he said, because they “were hoping that the worst would not happen because the levee did not breach during the last set of storms.”
“This is a disadvantaged community that often doesn’t get the attention it deserves,” Alejo said. “These are our friends, our neighbors, these are people that we really care about, and we know that they’re going to go through some tremendous hardship over the next several months.”
President Biden, in a phone call Saturday to Gov. Gavin Newsom, said California will have the “full support of the federal government” when responding to the devastation caused by the storms, according to a spokesperson for the governor.
On Saturday afternoon, crowds of onlookers stood on the Watsonville side of the Pajaro River Bridge watching the swollen, muddy river rushing below and the submerged town of Pajaro on the other side.
Sheriff’s deputies, county divers and boat rescue crews were parked along the bridge, behind yellow tape. Law enforcement officials stopped those with relatives or businesses on the other side, as well as the merely curious, from crossing.
One man, who declined to provide his name, said his grandmother was stuck on the other side in a flooded home. Authorities would not let him cross but took down her address and promised to check.
Connie and Victor Alvarez said they were trying to get in to check on their business, Alvarez Collision and Paint. They said they’d been notified by Monterey County that the business was likely flooded, and there was concern that toxic chemicals and solvents could be getting into the water.
“So, we’re here to check,” said Connie Alvarez, as she waited for a sheriff’s deputy to see if she had permission to cross.
Three blocks upstream, on the other side of a flooded area, three people were walking east along the river, carrying black plastic bags. Javier Gomez, a legislative analyst for Alejo, said they were likely among the residents who didn’t heed the evacuation warnings.
“I don’t know how many stayed,” he said. “But we’ve been doing back-to-back rescues all day. Feels like there were at least 100.”
At the Santa Cruz County fairgrounds, about 150 evacuees from Pajaro were talking, drawing, going through donated clothing and blankets and getting ready for what they guessed would be a stay of at least a few weeks.
Monterey County Sheriff’s Deputy Mike Hampson said many of the same people had been evacuated in January, when the river got high.
“At that time, they were displaced for about a week,” he said, noting that this time it’s likely to be longer — as crews will have to clean flooded and contaminated streets and homes and reestablish electricity to the area.
As of Saturday night, there were approximately 18,000 customers without power, mostly in the Central Coast region, according to Pacific Gas & Electric.
Andres Garcia, 39, said this was his third evacuation from Pajaro because of the flooding river; in addition to January, there was one in 1995, when the town was flooded “even worse” than it is now.
He and his wife and 8-year-old daughter left the city early Saturday, after they got a knock on the door from a sheriff’s deputy who urged them to evacuate. Garcia said they left before the water got too high, and he had no idea about the condition of his house.
His neighbor Laura Garcia left after dawn. She showed a video of water sloshing through her house — lapping against a crib, dining room set and shelves.
Andres Garcia said many farmworkers will be out of a job for as long as the water stays high and fields are submerged.
“They can’t do anything while it’s like this,” he said.
Elsewhere in Monterey County, the Salinas River flooded around the community of San Ardo, prompting evacuation orders Friday night.
Rain was expected to continue in the county Saturday, with up to half an inch possible along the coast, sai