The March 21 wind event that “sounded like death” left homes and property damaged throughout the Santa Cruz Mountains, with some residents still displaced after trees weighing several tons splintered their homes.
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If Bobby Pilgreen understands one thing, it is trees: how to prune them, how to move them, and, particularly handy on this early April morning, how to remove them after they’ve fallen and crushed a house. He’s spent a lot of 12-hour days in Boulder Creek over the past two weeks.
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“It’s like a chess game, and you cannot make the wrong move,” Pilgreen said, solemnly. “You cut the wrong part of the tree and put too much weight on the house, you can fall right through.”
The tall and otherwise jovial Pilgreen oversees a crew of roughly a dozen in neon vests and hard hats as a crane lifts the long trunk of a 100-year-old redwood from a two-story red house in Boulder Creek’s Riverside Grove neighborhood.
In 43 years of operating Travis Tree Professionals, Pilgreen has responded to countless natural disasters and tree catastrophes. Yet the surprise storm that rolled through the Santa Cruz Mountains on March 21 was of a different magnitude. Pilgreen’s eyes widen into a thousand-yard stare.
“Holy s--- is all I can say,” Pilgreen said as he rapidly thumps his hand over his heart and shakes his head in disbelief. “I do s--- like this every year after a windstorm or whatever, but this is beyond. This is the worst.”
As the region’s eyes and resources zeroed in on the devastating aftermath of the March 11 Pajaro River levee breach, the Earth was crashing down on Boulder Creek. Early estimates from local nonprofits say trees wrecked 50 homes, possibly more, after a rare weather event sent 90 mph winds through the mountain community.
The term “unprecedented” has been thrown around ad nauseam throughout these late-winter storms. However, the weather event that arrived in the Santa Cruz Mountains on March 21 was unlike any of the previous atmospheric rivers, or, really, anything in recent memory.
Some residents who were home describe a seismic event that “sounded like death.” Others report something more akin to a cyclone, and say they watched redwoods and Douglas firs lift off the ground before being thrown through homes and on top of cars.
Broken glass, shredded beams, shingles and all sorts of domestic debris lay scattered across the neighborhoods and properties, a scene closer to an explosion or tornado. This makes sense if you consider that a 100-year-old redwood can weigh around 60,000 pounds, and a Douglas fir can reach 90,000 pounds, heavier than a fully loaded 18-wheeler.
Notes from damage surveys by local nonprofit organizations Community Bridges and Coongie offer a glimpse at some of the terror brought on by the storm:
“Family lost their home in CZU fires. Once again they have been devastated, having lost everything.”
“[Mother] home with youngest daughter at the time — she grabbed kids and ran out of the house after the second tree hit and then the third hit and she ran across the street and the fourth fell and hit the living room. They don’t have money for rental in the area at this time.”
“Mom is a bit traumatized after her baby almost hit by the tree.”
“Five trees on house.”
Jim Meltzer, a retired tech professional, was two bites into his lunch — Canadian bacon and cheese on a bagel — when a redwood crashed through the ceiling, opening his living room to stormy skies above, as torrential rain combined with a burst fire-suppression system to dump thousands of gallons of water into his home. Blinded by the cloud of insulation dust that filled the room, Meltzer and his wife located one another by voice before rushing to secure a few valuables, unsure if the house was going to collapse. Then three more trees came down on their home.
“We had to get the hell out of here,” Meltzer said.
The scientific term for what happened on March 21 is called the Fujiwhara effect, named after famed Japanese meteorologist Sakuhei Fujiwhara. The National Weather Service definition of the term refers to two hurricanes dancing around one another until they merge. Although the storms that arrived two weeks ago were not technically hurricanes, they were hurricanelike, eyes and all.
During a media briefing that day, UCLA climate scientist Daniel Swain said the radar showed images “much closer to a landfalling hurricane than anything I’ve ever seen in California.”
“In fact, it’s the most dramatic radar imagery I think I’ve ever seen in Northern California,” Swain said. “I’ve never seen anything quite like it.”
Conditions in the mountains were only exacerbated by the conditions in the atmosphere. Years of drought combined with the 2020 CZU fire meant widespread root damage that not even a record-wet winter had time to heal. However, three months of rain and atmospheric rivers did loosen up the topsoil.
“Those strong winds are going to knock over trees, especially when you have saturated soils,” said Richard Gessner, who has worked as a certified arborist in Santa Cruz County since 2007. “Add to that years and years of drought, wildfire damage and possibly root rot disease. Sometimes extreme wind can bring down healthy trees, but usually there are some underlying factors. It’s not totally random.”
Since much of the tree damage happened on private property, the government response has so far been meager. People like Mark Coolidge and his wife, Pam Salsgiver, have had to respond with their own wallets and hope their insurance can cover the expenses.
By the time the peak of the storm rolled through, Coolidge was already over the hill in Campbell, working with a trainee as a battery technician for AAA. Sometime in the late morning, a gust of wind shot through Campbell and Coolidge, parked in a parking lot, says it felt like his car had gotten T-boned.
Only a few minutes later, his phone buzzed with a text from his neighbor, asking if he and Salsgiver were OK. Coolidge was confused at first, but then his neighbor sent over photos: three roughly 80-foot-tall trees thrown through the home. Theirs was the only home in the immediate area to suffer damage.
“My first concern was the animals: our dog, Max, and cat, Simba,” Coolidge said from a Scotts Valley hotel , where he, Salsgiver and the two pets are now staying indefinitely. “We’re waiting on a report back from the insurance adjustor, and to see if it’s a total knockdown. We’re still getting through the shock and sadness. Just grateful everyone is OK.”
Where the government response has been limited, organizations such as Community Bridges, Coongie and Santa Cruz Relief have stepped up to help cover broken roofs with tarp, hand out weatherproof storage bins, coordinate tree removal, offer direct financial aid, connect people to temporary housing and even, in some cases, take in pets.
“When you see some of these houses, it feels like the Wizard of Oz, as if a tornado had come through,” said Rebekah Uccellini, founder of local relief organization Coongie, as she stared at a coop filled with six chickens, calculating how she could transport them from one resident’s home to her own. “We’ve never seen anything like it.”
Moving forward, however, the federal government is expected to play a central role in the recovery. On Monday, President Joe Biden formally declared a major disaster for Santa Cruz County, the second such declaration in two months. The declaration opens the federal government’s coffers to help individuals and businesses with finding temporary housing, home and business repairs, and covering uninsured property losses.
Meltzer says, with insurance, he expects to be back in his house in about a year. Standing amid the scattered debris, he watches Pilgreen’s crew lift yet another tree from his neighbor’s property, and lets out an exhale.
“One step at a time,” he said. “It’s really all you can do.”
He gazes up at the hundreds of mature redwoods still standing tall around his neighborhood, which offer a majestic image when rooted firmly in the ground. The trees, Meltzer says, are part of the reason he chose this location, and he has no plans on leaving.
“This is just nature’s way of pruning,” Meltzer said, just feet from his shredded roof. “Now, all the bad trees are gone. I’ll be able to see the North Star again.”