Where we stand: Fast-coming storm prompts fears of major flooding in Santa Cruz County

Santa Cruz County Supervisor Zach Friend
Santa Cruz County Supervisor Zach Friend speaks at a Sunday news conference.
(Hillary Ojeda / Lookout Santa Cruz)

The deluge continues.

With a brief lull and a few rays of sunshine, Sunday has so far offered a brief respite for most of us, as hundreds deal with the storm damage already.

Sunday night, though, the rain comes back, and promises a fierce return.

This latest system is “fast approaching” says Warren Blier, meteorologist with the National Weather Service. Rain is expected to arrive around 7 p.m., with the most intense rain and wind expected overnight. The rain will begin to taper off midday Monday, but return with a follow-up thunderstorm, but diminished winds, by evening and continue into Tuesday afternoon.

Expect wind gusts Sunday night into Monday to range as high as 45-55 mph between the coastal areas and tallest peaks in the Santa Cruz Mountains. Between Sunday night and Tuesday, the county’s low-lying areas could see more than 3 inches of rain, with up to 8 inches in the wettest areas of the mountains.

“Between now and 7 p.m. is the time to prepare,” Blier said.

Among those preparations, UC Santa Cruz is canceling in-person instruction Monday.

“All classes will be delivered using online or emergency remote instruction, and we encourage our campus community to limit non essential travel,” Chancellor Cynthia Larive wrote Sunday afternoon, adding that the campus would be updated at 3 p.m. Monday about the week ahead.

Lookout is checking with public schools on their plans. Cabrillo College doesn’t resume its normal schedule until later this month.

This next storm follows the weekend one that brought about an inch of rain in lower lying areas of the county and up to four inches in parts of the Santa Cruz Mountains.

On Sunday afternoon, county and city officials held a news conference to assess where things stand with the storms. The big concerns, unsurprisingly, are flooding and landslides.

Santa Cruz County Supervisor Felipe Hernandez
Santa Cruz County Supervisor Felipe Hernandez discusses preparations for coming storms at a news conference Sunday.
(Hillary Ojeda / Lookout Santa Cruz )

“We will do everything we can to get through this together,” said Santa Cruz County Supervisor Zach Friend. “But we need people to understand that this is a very serious event, and it may be the kind of flooding that we haven’t seen here in the last generation.”

Santa Cruz County officials are urging the public to be prepared for what could be significant flooding of the Pajaro and San Lorenzo rivers, overflowing of creeks like Soquel as well as mudslides in the Santa Cruz Mountains.

Friend spoke alongside newly sworn-in County Supervisor Felipe Hernandez, as well as officials from both Monterey County and the city of Pajaro. They emphasized the importance of people in both counties staying informed about evacuation warnings as both areas are in a crisis with developing storm conditions for Monday and Tuesday. Sign up for emergency notifications and evacuation warnings from CodeRED alerting system by clicking here.

Santa Cruz County spokesperson Jason Hoppin told Lookout there are several major areas of concern in the county: flooding of the Pajaro River, flooding of the San Lorenzo River and other creeks in the county, as well as mudslides in the mountains. As for flooding prevention, crews are adding height to the Pajaro River levee and removing debris from creeks in the county.

Hoppin said that while predictions are constantly changing, the rivers are projected to flood starting Monday evening.

“At this moment, the [National Weather Service] tells us there’s a 60% chance that the Pajaro River will reach flood stage [as a result of the coming storm],” he said. “That [likelihood] changed from a few hours ago and it will change in another few hours. So I’m not sure how much to put into those numbers.”

The Pajaro River is a larger watershed and so there’s a lag in time for it to flood; the San Lorenzo River floods first, according to Hoppin. The Paradise Park and Felton Grove areas could be under evacuation orders later Monday as a result of flooding from the San Lorenzo River.

It’s unclear when mudslides could affect the mountains, but they should be expected.

“There will be mudslides,” Hoppin said. “There is a 100% chance that there will be mudslides.”

Hoppin added it’s possible there will be evacuation warnings for areas in the mountains, especially near wildfire burn scars.

It is those CZU burn scars, only beginning to heal from destructive fires of 2020, that cause major concern with heavy and continuing rainfall.

“Especially south of the burn scar, so anybody on those east-facing slopes below the CZU burn scar, up in Boulder Creek, Boulder Brook, Foreman Creek — all those kinds of areas that we’ve seen activity before. They should be on alert and they should be ready to go now,” Hoppin said. “Don’t wait until the last minute to get your stuff together.”

He added that the San Lorenzo Valley is already significantly impacted from the storms. There were 31 closures on county roads as of 2 p.m. Sunday, most due to erosion, washouts and landslides.

The better news: Areas near the coastline that experienced damages from the ocean surge aren’t expected to have additional damages with the coming storm.

PG&E was reporting outages throughout the county with a larger number of outages in the mountains. Thousands have been without power since Wednesday and some areas aren’t projected to have light restored until Tuesday, according to PG&E’s outage center.

Jeff Gaffney, operations manager for the county’s emergency operations center, said Sunday that about 150 people remained displaced from their homes in the unincorporated areas, and less than 1,000 people are without power.

Hoppin said the county is still preparing to open shelters for anyone needing shelter but the details have yet to be finalized. He and county officials are urging the public to sign up for CodeRED alerts to receive emergency notifications.

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