Storm breaches California River levee, evacuating hundreds

WATSONVILLE, Calif. (AP) — Authorities ordered more than 1,500 people to be evacuated from a Northern California farming community famous for its strawberry harvest early Saturday after flooding ruptured the levee of the Pajaro River from a new atmospheric flow , which devastated the state, had been breached.

Monterey County officials said Saturday the breach in the levee — upstream of the unincorporated community of Pajaro along California’s Central Coast — was about 100 feet wide. Crews had gone door-to-door Friday afternoon urging residents to leave before the rain hit, but some stayed and had to be pulled out of the flood waters 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 that was waist-deep in water.

“We had hoped to avoid and prevent this situation, but the worst-case scenario occurred when the Pajaro River burst its banks and the dyke broke around midnight,” he said. wrote Luis AlejoChairman of the Monterey County Board of Directors, on Twitter.

Alejo called flood “massively” and said that the 1,700 residents of Pajaro – many of them Latin American farm workers – had been hit and that repairs will take months.

The Pajaro River separates Santa Cruz and Monterey counties in the area that flooded Saturday.

Officials had been working along the levee hoping to shore it up when it was breached early Saturday morning. Crews began repairing the levee at dawn on Saturday as 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 levees of the Pajaro River broke, flooding 2,500 acres (1,011 hectares) 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 promoted state funds for a dyke project. The start of construction was planned for 2024.

This week’s storm marked the state’s 10th atmospheric flow of the winter, storms that have brought copious amounts of rain and snow to the state and helped ease drought conditions that had dragged on for three years. State reservoirs, which had dropped to conspicuously low levels, are now well above the 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, Californians battled soggy rains and rising water levels on Saturday. In Tulare County, the sheriff ordered residents living near the Tule River to evacuate, while those near Poso Creek in Kern County were under an evacuation alert. Meteorologists from the National Weather Service issued flood warnings and advisories, asking motorists to stay away from flooded roads.

Democratic Gov. Gavin Newsom has declared emergencies in 34 counties in recent weeks, and the Biden administration on Friday morning approved a presidential disaster declaration for some, a move that will bring more federal aid.

The atmospheric flow, known as the “Pineapple Express” because it brought warm subtropical moisture from near Hawaii across the Pacific, melted lower portions of the vast snowpack that had formed in the California mountains.

Snow levels in the Sierra Nevada, which provides about a third of the state’s water supply, are more than 180% of the April 1 average when they reach their historical peak. Officials reported that as of Saturday morning, 81 inches of snow had fallen at Mount Rose ski resort on the outskirts of Reno, Nevada.

The snowpack at high altitudes is so massive that it was expected to be able to absorb the rain, but snow below 4,000 feet (1,219 meters) could start to melt and potentially contribute to flooding, forecasters said.

State transportation officials said Friday they cleared enough snow from the streets in February to fill the iconic Rose Bowl 100 times.

Lake Oroville — one of the state’s most important reservoirs and home to the tallest dam in the country — has so much water that officials on Friday opened the dam’s spillways for the first time since April 2019. The reservoir’s water has risen 54.8 meters (180 ft) since December 1. Of the state’s 17 major reservoirs, seven are still below their historical averages this year.

State water managers also struggled with the best way to use the storms to get out of a severe drought. On Friday, Newsom signed an executive order making it easier for farmers and water agencies to use floodwater to replenish underground aquifers. Groundwater provides, on average, about 41% of the state’s supply each year. But many of these underground pools have become overcrowded in recent years.

Forecasters warned mountain travel could be difficult if not impossible during the latest storm. At high altitudes, the storm was forecast to dump heavy snow of up to 8 feet (2.4 meters) over several days.

Another atmospheric flow is already forecast for early next week. State climatologist Michael Anderson said a third appears to be taking shape over the Pacific, and possibly a fourth.

California appeared “on track for a fourth year of drought” ahead of the early winter series of storms, Anderson said. “We’re in a very different state now,” he added.


Dazio reported from Los Angeles. Storm breaches California River levee, evacuating hundreds

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