Santa Cruz’s bomb cyclones might be gone — but don’t relax yet

Landslide on Highway 9 near Ben Lomond.
(Kevin Painchaud / Lookout Santa Cruz)

Much of Santa Cruz County fared better than worse-case scenarios, but road blockages, lots of localized flooding have caused a fair amount of pain. With new ocean swells set to join the nonstop precipitation — 1.5 inches of rain and 50 mph winds to the coastal areas and up to 3 inches of rain and 60 mph winds in the mountains in the next 24 hours — all bets are off on how much dislocation is ahead of us.

With a dry Monday afternoon, Santa Cruz County got a reprieve from the biblical soaking brought to the Central Coast by the 10-day parade of storms that began on New Year’s Eve. The news of the night: The heaviest rainstorms appear behind us, says National Weather Service meteorologist Brayden Murdock.

But there’s a but.

Murdock’s and local officials’ careful advice: Don’t relax yet.

“The main band of rain has moved on, but this isn’t over,” Murdock told Lookout from his office in Monterey. The storm system coming in about midnight Monday night and lasting most of the day Tuesday is forecast to bring up to 1.5 inches of rain and 50 mph winds to coastal areas and up to 3 inches of rain and 60 mph winds in the mountains. Unlike the previous storms, this one appears to be bringing lightning as it starts.

The storm that rolled through the region Sunday night into Monday morning rang the alarm bells for many in the region, with 2nd District Santa Cruz County Supervisor Zach Friend warning of generational flooding.

For the most part, though, it wasn’t as bad as it could have been, as the system moved south more quickly than expected, county spokesperson Jason Hoppin said.

The storm did drop 10 inches over 24 hours in Bonny Doon. It also accelerated landslides in the Santa Cruz Mountains and shut down major state highways. The San Lorenzo River rose to 25 feet — to its highest elevation since the rain began on New Year’s Eve — and flooding was seen from the mountains to the coasts.

Still, Hoppin wants residents to stay just as cautious ahead of the approaching storm.

“Do not let your guard down, more rain is on the way, and everyone needs to be ready to evacuate, especially in the low-lying areas,” Hoppin said.

UC Santa Cruz moved classes to emergency remote or online instruction Monday and Tuesday after the recent storms created...

Monday’s news was largely better for most of Santa Cruz County, but it’s important to consider how localized the impacts are across its diverse topography.

The San Lorenzo River flowing rapidly Monday.
The San Lorenzo River flowing rapidly Monday.
(Kevin Painchaud / Lookout Santa Cruz )

“In some respects, the damage maybe even exceeded some of what we were concerned about happening because of the magnitude of the road failures, the magnitude of some of the property damage,” said Friend. “In Felton, and in the areas on the San Lorenzo River near the Tannery, this is unquestionably the worst flooding that has occurred in those areas in the last 40 years, since the 1982 storm.”

On the other hand, “we’ve lifted evacuation orders for many parts of the county,” said 1st District County Supervisor Manu Koenig. “They are still in effect for some flood-impacted areas like Rio Del Mar, a limited area adjacent to College Road in South County and the Pajaro River flood zone areas [full map here]. We’re still worried about the Pajaro River because of the need for upstream reservoirs to release water.”

Sandbags at Santa Cruz Coffee Roasting in Downtown Santa Cruzon Monday, January 9, 2023.
Sandbags at Santa Cruz Coffee Roasting in downtown Santa Cruz, where many stores were closed Monday because of an evacuation warning.
(Thomas Sawano / Lookout Santa Cruz)

While the San Lorenzo River crested earlier Monday and has been steadily receding since, all eyes remained on the Pajaro River, with its delayed rising — and the potential impact of flooding on South County communities. As of 5 p.m. Monday, the Pajaro River swelled to more than 27 feet; that was higher than it reached at any point following the New Year’s Eve storms, and it was continuing to rise.

Officials expected the river to reach its highest point by 3 a.m. Tuesday.

“The Pajaro River usually takes about 24 hours to reveal what it’s really going to do,” Hoppin said.

Although the Watsonville area is a significant concern, the entire county is expected to see impact from the approaching storm.

The coast, which saw little new damage Monday, faces a high surf warning for Tuesday, with a storm surge expected to bring up to 25-foot waves — and the possibility of further coastal damage.

Flooded fields along East Lake Avenue in Watsonville on Monday.
(Kevin Painchaud / Lookout Santa Cruz)

Hoppin urged residents who don’t have to drive to stay home.

“If you left Santa Cruz County this morning, it is very difficult to get back in this evening,” Hoppin said. Highways 9, 17, 129 and 236 all experienced closures due to landslides. Highway 17 southbound near Laurel Curve was expected to reopen Monday at 10 p.m., Hoppin said, but the other closures are taking longer, including Highway 9 near Ben Lomond, where a massive landslide took over much of the highway.

Beyond the storm approaching Monday night into Tuesday, the region is expected to see another seven to 10 days of wet weather. However, no new high-impact storms — those bomb cyclones — were forecast as of Monday night. With soils now deeply saturated, it’s not so much the intense downpour to be wary of, say the watchers, but the impact of all that water, with the possibility of more slides, and more havoc.

“We’ll be watching the storm system coming in tonight closely,” Koenig said. “It’s not as big as the one today, but the ground is so saturated that even relatively small amounts of rain can have an impact. To put it in perspective, we’ve had over 20 inches of rain since Christmas. The ground just can’t absorb anymore water and so new rain flows right into the creeks and rivers.”

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