As ‘Pineapple Express’ morphs into ‘bomb cyclone,’ how do we make new sense of our relationship with water?

Capitola Village after the storm.
Capitola Village, already with a history of being hammered by winter storms, will remember the winter of ’23 for years to come.
(Kevin Painchaud / Lookout Santa Cruz)

In California’s disaster mythology, the winter storm doesn’t carry the mystique of the earthquake and the wildfire. At the heart of the wet apocalypse is a great irony, that so many of us are in Santa Cruz exactly because of a deep and abiding love of water.

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Out in the world, when you tell someone you’re from California, traditionally the conversation will lead to earthquakes. For the past few years maybe, wildfires have muscled into that small-talk-with-strangers slot. But, as any Californian who has not just now emerged from a two-week coma can tell you, there is a third sister in that family of calamities regularly visited upon us in the Golden State. That great 1970s-era funk band almost got it right — in California, it’s always Earth, Fire & Water.

Earthquakes and wildfires are more exotic and viscerally sensational — they makemovies about them, after all — but winter storms, the Jan Brady of catastrophes, are every bit as devastating.

In disaster mythology, the winter storm doesn’t carry the mystique of the quake and the fire, largely because it is more common. In the vernacular of local trauma when it comes to Earth, Fire & Water, years are often freighted with meaning.

When talking about earthquakes, the shorthand is always 1989, the year of the Loma Prieta quake. While the rest of the country will always associate 2020 with the pandemic, that year is linked forever to fire apocalypse in Santa Cruz County. When it comes to the water part of the trinity, however, there are several dates:

  • 1938-41 featured three of four winters with brutal storms featuring typhoon winds, widespread flooding, and nearly a foot of rain in the Santa Cruz Mountains in one 24-hour period.
  • 1955 saw the infamous Christmas flooding of downtown Santa Cruz, considered the worst flood damage for its era, killing eight people.
  • 1982, which is still evoked today for its widespread devastation, including the San Lorenzo River and Soquel Creek overrunning their banks, leading to hundreds evacuating their homes, horrific mudslides and a catastrophic collapse at Love Creek near Ben Lomond which killed 10 people. All told, 22 people died in weather-related incidents in January of ’82.
  • 1983, the very next year, El Niño-related storms laid waste to much of the coast and especially crippled Capitola Village and Rio Del Mar.
  • 1995 saw particular damage in Watsonville and the Pajaro Valley as levees failed on the Pajaro River and Salsipuedes Creek.
The iconic WWI "Cement Ship" off the Aptos coast.
The combination of high tides and huge swells did extensive damage to the pier at Seacliff State Beach and the iconic “Cement Ship” (made of concrete) that lies off the Aptos coast.
(Kevin Painchaud / Lookout Santa Cruz)

As recently as 2017, Santa Cruz County experienced a particularly brutal winter, launching a surreal new vocabulary for what was once, almost fondly referred to as a “Pineapple Express.” Now, we deal with “atmospheric rivers” and “bomb cyclones.” There are sleep-deprived meteorologists, both professional and amateur, at this moment attempting to coin new blockbuster terminology for these storms.

While wildfires are often seen as phenomena of the West, and earthquakes are almost quintessentially Californian, rare is the region in the continental U.S. that doesn’t regularly experience scary rainstorms. So, for outsiders, the quake and the fire are symbols of the risk of living in California, and are fascinating for that reason. But a storm? Nobody in Tulsa or Tampa wants to hear you whine about a bunch of rain. Hurricanes are scary enough to have names. Tornadoes can pick you up and send you to Oz. Get out of here with your Pineapple Express.

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Climate change, however, is recalibrating the math of natural disasters. It’s not a factor with earthquakes, and a significant, if secondary factor, when it comes to wildfires. But with storms, it’s the whole ballgame. At least that’s the prevailing theory, that more carbon in the atmosphere is going to unleash — is already unleashing — monstrous atmospheric events of which we have no experience. And that’s the really unnerving part: 1955 and 1982 happened without these climate-change factors at play. So far in 2023, it’s been a rough ride. But until future storms make ’55 and ’82 look puny by comparison, we’re still innocent of what climate change has in store for us.

The deck at Zelda's On The Beach in Capitola was destroyed during the Jan. 5 storm surge.
(Kevin Painchaud / Lookout Santa Cruz)

At the heart of the wet apocalypse is a great irony. Many, maybe most, people on the West Coast are here in spite of the geological fault lines and in defiance of the danger of wildfire, but mostly because of water. About 40% of Americans, for example, live in a county that has a coastline, though those counties make up only about 10% of the country’s land mass. That magnificent ocean that so wantonly battered Capitola Village and made even more progress in its quest to swallow completely the beloved Cement Ship is the very same ocean that so many of us look to as a symbol of peace and serenity and enormity. In Santa Cruz, surfing isn’t just a leisure pursuit or even a lifestyle, it’s a calling, almost like a religious or spiritual vocation is a calling.

Significantly, Santa Cruz is home to the “Blue Mind” guy. His name is Wallace J. Nichols, and he’s a marine biologist and author of a book called “Blue Mind,” which posits the idea that humans are ancestrally at home in or near water, that the sense of majesty and peace that comes to so many of us when near a large body of water is a tell that we have evolved to find spiritual solace in water.

When I first met Nichols, more than a decade ago, he gave me a blue marble. It was a clever marketing gimmick for an ambitious author selling a book about water. But, oddly enough, I’ve kept it with me for many years now, often carrying it in my pocket or my bag.

Human civilization has always followed coastlines and major river systems for obvious reasons — that’s where you find the best food and water. But, at least according to the “Blue Mind” idea, there is a spiritual dimension at play here, too. I’ll bet it’s not easy to find a longtime Santa Cruzan who doesn’t have some deep-seated affinity for surfing, boating, beach-combing or other advantage for living so close to the ocean — and, if not the ocean, then the bays, rivers and lakes that are so part of the landscape of northern California. Can you think of a more cogent reason for these real-estate prices?

Volunteers fill sandbags in Watsonville on Jan. 4.
(Kevin Painchaud / Lookout Santa Cruz)

How many short weeks ago was it that you couldn’t have a conversation without someone mentioning our acute need of rain? And there’s your other reason that the winter storm deserves more respect. No one laments how long we’ve been without an earthquake. No one dreads the absence of wildfire. But no rain is as painful as too much.

Maybe we’ve prayed a bit too hard for rain. Maybe the gods are angry and capricious, and are now hurling at us what they have denied for so long. Maybe the alchemy of weather is utterly indifferent to human needs or desires. But these winter storms are harrowing — every bit as harrowing as those other, more vainglorious disasters. They deserve the same respect. And it’s time to tell anyone in Tulsa, or Tampa, or elsewhere, even if they’d rather hear about the more sensational sisters.

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