As Mother Nature stirs, Capitola braces for a surging Soquel Creek, Thursday’s XL swell

A city worker surveys the flow of Soquel Creek into the ocean from the Capitola Esplanade on Wednesday.
(Mark Conley / Lookout Santa Cruz)

Capitola Village, sitting closer to the Pacific Ocean than any other local area, knows when its in harm’s way. With a massive northwest swell projected to send large waves crashing into its decreasing shoreline Thursday, those who work closest to that meeting of land and sea were watching closely on Wednesday morning.

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Patty Cameron wasn’t sure what to expect when she decided to open up the doors of the iconic Wharf House restaurant Wednesday morning.

But having helped manage the popular breakfast spot for 17 years, she had a feeling the hungry and curious would show up at Capitola’s most maritime-exposed location for a cup of coffee or a Bloody Mary — and some real-time storm updates.

Patty Cameron of Capitola's iconic Wharf House restaurant gets ready as storms roll into the area Wednesday morning.
(Mark Conley/Lookout Local)

“People tend to come here to watch the weather,” she said, looking around at the decent-size mid-week crowd as outside the warm restaurant wind-whipped city workers in neon yellow jumpsuits removed benches that could otherwise go flying as the wind and swells increase. “But when the water starts coming up through those boards below us, that’s when it’s over.”

That will be Thursday when one of the biggest northwest swells in recent memory will test the resolve of the 166-year old Capitola Wharf that has undergone retrofits to its pilings in recent years. There will be no bloodies on the wharf Thursday morning.

Late Wednesday afternoon, Capitola officials issued an evacuation order to 380 residences, most of them along Soquel Creek and in low-lying areas of Capitola Village.

Many of those who live along Riverview Drive already experienced flooding damage during the deluge and water level surge on New Year’s Eve. Less than a week later, they face a similar challenge from nature.

The thing that scares Cameron the most, looking out into the water of Capitola from the end of the wharf: the number of massive trees floating about and already clogging up what is left of the sand on the beach.

“I’ve never seen that many in all my years,” she said. “And they can do a lot of damage.”

Meanwhile, the rest of Capitola Village remained relatively quiet mid-morning except for the buzz of city trucks and tractors trying to batten down the final hatches.

capitola ocean
(Mark Conley / Lookout Santa Cruz)

Rain was light, winds were picking up but the XL swell has many more miles to travel before posing a threat to village businesses and the wharf.

Only a few along the Esplanade — Mr. Toot’s and the Sand Bar — opened their doors for business Thursday. Some others had placed sandbags in front of their closed doors while others had not.

A 5.7 high tide at 8 a.m. eliminated much of the sand buffering the businesses closest to the ocean as Soquel Creek poured out at a steady pace. Thursday’s boost in swell, combined with an equally high tide, could make that equation dicier.

Dani Cony, who was handling the small trickle of business at the Sand Bar, wasn’t sure whether the owner would decide to open for business on Thursday but said she was glad she wasn’t on the schedule to work.

“Looking out there, there isn’t much beach between us and the ocean,” she said. “I’d err on the side of caution.”

Considering the size of the incoming swell, one some of the top surf forecasters in the business are calling perhaps the largest in 15 years, it’s probably not a bad call.

Big swell

Surfers of the sane variety won’t be entering Santa Cruz waters on Thursday. It will resemble more a turbo-charged washing machine than a localized version of Mavericks.

Friday, however, could present an opportunity with more cleaned-up conditions for the spots that can handle sizable swell. Steamer Lane, Pleasure Point and Capitola will be worth a look for wave-watchers on Friday.

Jessica Kahn, the city’s public works director, hopes the preparations that were made over the past few days will be enough to minimize damage as the storm descends.

“City crews have been working diligently since yesterday morning to prepare for the storm system,” Kahn said Wednesday morning. “This includes removal of the wharf benches and closure of the wharf to public access later this morning.”

Businesses took different preparatory tacts. Zelda’s, the popular spot to sip a drink inches from the sand when the weather is beautiful, had its back windows fully boarded up, seemingly ready for hurricane-force winds and anything Mother Nature could deliver. Next door, the windows of Tacos Morenos were wide open.

Zelda's had its windows solidly boarded up before the rise in swell on Thursday.
(Mark Conley / Lookout Santa Cruz)

Kahn added that city staff has also been clearing waterways and storm drains of potential blockages, that the Capitola Police went door to door Tuesday afternoon to inform low-lying residents of potential storm impacts and that sand is available for residents in the upper parking lot at city hall.

Capitola has been here before. Its history of flooding during major weather eventsis well-documented and part of its rugged survivalist past. What will Thursday’s increasingly violent elements mean for it? All who love the county’s little hamlet-by-the-sea will all watch with rapt attention and hope for the best.


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