Paradise with a price: John Laird’s long view of dealing with the aftermath of natural disaster

State Sen. John Laird during Friday's tour of Seacliff State Beach.
(Kevin Painchaud / Lookout Santa Cruz)

Before he was state Sen. John Laird, he was the County of Santa Cruz’s John Laird, and before that, he was Santa Cruz mayor, city councilmember and staffer John Laird. They were formative years for observing and responding to disasters. And they taught him perspective both on accepting nature’s random, inevitable penance and finding ways to make this uniquely disaster-prone county as ready as possible for the next lashing.

It was October of 1989, and Santa Cruz City Councilmember John Laird was sitting at his desk in the Loma Prieta earthquake-battered downtown, somewhere amid a four-day power outage.

In one hand he held a hammer and in the other a towel filled with coffee beans.

FEMA Administrator Deanne Criswell and members of her staff visited parts of Rio Del Mar, Capitola and were set to...

“I swore before the next disaster that I was going to get a hand-crank coffee grinder,” he said.

Four decades, several key leaps up the political ladder and multiple natural disaster responses later, state Sen. John Laird still doesn’t own that coffee grinder.

“We’ll go into chaos again and there I’ll be,” he laughed last week while being whisked by staff toward the set-to-overflow Salinas River, a day before Laird and other Central Coast electeds would visit the combined coast-and-redwoods wreckage in his longtime home county.

What it takes to be prepared for even the small-scale loss of creature comforts like a palatable cup of coffee underscores the larger point about this historical moment of flooding that just keeps on coming.

It has simultaneously propped up little ol’ Santa Cruz County as the national poster child for climate change and as California’s Stormageddon 2023 centerpiece. The New York Times, Washington Post, Wall Street Journal and Los Angeles Times all chose to spotlight this county for what were obvious reasons from the outside looking in.

But here in paradise, mesmerized by our picture-postcard views, caught up in our deep inhales of the good life while striding along this path or that trail, it’s easy to forget there’s a price. And a history.

It’s human nature to forget. Outta sight, outta mind — I think that is what’s happening right now.

“It’s human nature to forget,” Laird reasoned. “Outta sight, outta mind — I think that is what’s happening right now.”

Now the dogfight for federal dollars to clean up this mess and prepare for the next begins in earnest. It became easier over the weekend as local officials successfully lobbied President Joe Biden to declare a state a major disaster in Santa Cruz County.

In a trying moment like this, Laird’s memory bank becomes a valuable treasure trove of the county cleanup and improvement efforts.

* * *

He had been six weeks into politics, serving his first stint as a city councilmember, when the “100-year storm” of 1982 rocked the county. He was still on the council during ‘89’s quake, of course, and was working for the county in various capacities during the storms of the 1990s.

So long before he’d even earned a seat at the table in Sacramento (he was elected to the Assembly in 2002), Laird had been well groomed on the fragilities of the place he lived, loved and often watched get whooped up on by Mother Nature.

Sen. John Laird has seen it all over the better part of a half-century in public service in Santa Cruz County.
(Kevin Painchaud / Lookout Santa Cruz)

He recalls that in the aftermath of the ‘82 event, a passionate ocean scientist at UC Santa Cruz named Gary Griggs, then on his way to becoming the Distinguished Professor of Earth and Planetary Sciences he is now, provided testimony to the city council as it considered what actions could be taken to prepare for next time.

“I remember him saying, ‘Just remember, nature always wins’,” Laird said. “And that has been good guidance.”

Which is to say, long before climate change and sea-level rise became ubiquitous conversation points at cocktail parties, major weather events that bordered on freakish in their extreme nature have been a very real thing. They just don’t typically happen consistently enough for us to keep them top of mind.

“I saw an interview on TV last week of a person in the Soquel mobile home park that flooded saying they had no idea something like that could happen,” Laird said. “And I was like, ‘Geez, that mobile home park was completely wiped out in 1982.’”

The scene at Old Mill Mobile Home Park, ravaged by the flooding of nearby Soquel Creek.
(Kevin Painchaud / Lookout Santa Cruz)

There is little doubt that the extremes are becoming more extreme, particularly when it comes to how winter storms manifest — often circling an area slowly and pelting it over and over. The whiplash we’ve felt in only a few short weeks has been no aberration, either.

It went from what scientists predicted to be a third consecutive dry-ish La Niña winter, one that would perpetuate our drought, into a nonstop parade of atmospheric rivers, bomb cyclones and whatever meteorological anomalies are foisted upon us next.

But the long-term resiliency of this county is clearly not all up to a coin flip by Mother Nature. Besides a level of acceptance and inevitability gained, Laird also remembers the important people and conversations that followed events like the ‘82 storm.

Ones that led to bridges along the San Lorenzo River and Soquel Creek being rebuilt in better-arched modern ways aimed at preventing those spots from becoming dangerous downstream dams. Ones that located the current roadway along West Cliff Drive farther away from the cliff’s edge when the city was finalizing plans for Lighthouse Field.

“One of the controversial things we were doing was moving the road back in some places,” Laird recalled. “Surfers and some other people were really irritated at the time, but it turned out to be the right thing for what’s happened since then.”

* * *

Which brings up some important questions. What happens to West Cliff Drive now and how quickly? What precautions can be taken in the areas that took on heavy water and the iconic structures that took a beating?

“There’s really gonna be tough decisions,” Laird said. “Tough decisions in Capitola, tough decisions all along West Cliff, tough decisions involving the pier by the [cement] ship.”

Touring Seacliff State Beach.
Left to right: Rep. Jimmy Panetta, Santa Cruz County Supervisor Zach Friend, Assemblymember Dawn Addis and state Sen. John Laird viewing storm damage at Seacliff State Beach in Aptos on Friday.
(Kevin Painchaud / Lookout Santa Cruz)

Laird toured that zone along with his fellow politicos and state parks leadership Friday. He anticipates an animated debate ahead over the future of the decimated Seacliff pier and the iconic SS Palo Alto once attached to it. Whether the pier gets rebuilt “is probably a 50-50 shot,” he said.

They are distinct vestiges of the past. Do they make sense moving ahead into the future or are there more important focuses for funding and attention? Those are the type of tough decisions Laird is talking about.

But it also has to do with where people live. For those who live in places like Felton Grove, Paradise Park and along the lower-lying banks of Soquel Creek, does it make sense to keep playing the weatherman’s version of Russian roulette?

“They’re probably wondering whether they can keep doing this over time,” Laird said. “It’s just that with the drought of the last decade, and the drought of the last few years, people didn’t realize that this was possible. People were thinking that it was going to be as dry as last winter and that was just 100% wrong.”

Antonio Oliveira (left) and his father, Ron, have lived in Felton Grove for 20 years.
Antonio Oliveira (left) and his father, Ron, have lived in Felton Grove for 20 years.
(Christopher Neely / Lookout Santa Cruz)

Some of the solutions can be found in places that have already been responding to climate change more aggressively — hurricane zones, for instance, where loss of life is perceived to be a much greater threat. The result is coastal and riverside locations that are now built for flooding, buildings that jut upward on stilts and prohibit any first-level habitation.

But improving safety with modern building code standards affects only a small segment of the county population. Here’s another that is far more wide-reaching in Santa Cruz County: roads. And one of the features that makes this county so unique — its percentage of rural habitat — makes that an even tougher equation.

Having a geography where half of the population resides not just in an unincorporated zone — but is spread out in a zigzagging pattern in all directions and to varying elevations into the Santa Cruz Mountains — puts a challenging onus on the county for upkeep.

Asked for statewide comparatives among the 58 counties on a disaster-prone scale, Laird’s mind jumped to the treacherousness of Big Sur on a micro level and perhaps Butte’s recent fate with the Paradise fire and Oroville Dam scare at the other end. But for our diversity and breadth of potential disaster?

“For a compact area that is reasonably populated, Santa Cruz just seems to have more issues per capita,” he said.

State Sen. John Laird touring the wreckage at Seacliff State Beach.
(Kevin Painchaud / Lookout Santa Cruz)

* * *

So if you thought you were alone in thinking this place seems to get hit harder than most — and in a myriad more different ways — you’ve got good company from someone who has watched it from a unique position for nearly half a century.

This latest, and highly unexpected, miracle of Mother Nature is healthy in a way. It forces some tough conversations that are long overdue.

It opens up a conversation about resiliency — about what we can do and what we cannot do.

“It opens up a conversation about resiliency — about what we can do and what we cannot do,” Laird said. “We’ll have to have those conversations because I think the extremes with climate change will just continue to happen.”

Laird will be reintroducing a sea level rise planning bill later in the governing session. He noted that Gov. Gavin Newsom cut coastal resiliency from his proposed budget, which was prepared before these events.

The governor recently allocated new funding toward flood preparedness and response, including $135 million for the next two years to reduce urban flooding, and delta levees will also get $40.6 million for repairs and upgrades. But Laird was referring to Newsom’s proposal to eliminate $6 billion in climate spending in his 2023-24 budget

“We’ll probably be having some animated conversations about whether that was the right thing to do,” he said.

But the most important dialogue must first come right here from a varied cast of local stakeholders. As the wave of national spotlight recedes, hopefully helping free up important dollars from Washington, it will be up to Santa Cruz County to decide its own fate.

“Soon everyone will go away,” Laird said, “and it will be up to us that are local to do what it takes to respond.”

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