Recovering from weekend floods, Santa Cruz County prepares for possibility of more severe storm on Wednesday

A woman walks past the Cement Ship at Seacliff State Beach on Monday January 2, 2023.
Santa Cruz beaches were busy with people parsing through the debris left behind after heavy storms wreaked havoc across Santa Cruz this past weekend.
(Kevin Painchaud/Lookout Local

Santa Cruz County will find no reprieve from the rain after damaging storms rolled through the region on New Year’s Eve; another storm system, forecasted to be more severe, is expected to arrive Wednesday.

Dozens of roads across Santa Cruz County remained closed Monday following torrential New Year’s Eve storms that flooded local streets and damaged homes. Now, amid the days-long clean-up effort, county residents are being told to prepare again for yet another storm late Tuesday into Wednesday, forecasted to be more severe than the deluge that killed one person just days earlier.

The National Weather Service forecasts this next storm could bring “dangerously strong” winds and 3-6 inches of rain to parts of the county and as much as 10 inches to areas of the Santa Cruz Mountains, raising the risk of even more flooding in already-swollen creeks and rivers. Weather service officials also say the saturated condition of the county following the recent rains only increases the risk for landslides, particularly in wildfire burn scars.

“Given the saturated soils and recent rains we can expect rapid responses on smaller creeks with quick rises on the [main] rivers Wednesday through Friday,” the NWS said. “This system will result in an increased risk of mudslides and debris flows across the region and especially over recent wildfire burn areas.”

In Watsonville, where flooded waterways on New Year’s Eve sent multiple feet of water into some homes, the city is enlisting the help of nonprofit organizations and volunteers to knock on doors and warn residents of the upcoming storm. City spokesperson Michelle Pulido told Lookout on Monday that the city is bringing in an additional 100 tons of sand for sandbags, and will be available for the community at Fire Station 1 and Ramsay Park.

Pulido added that the Bridge Street area, which is largely a senior community area, is heavily impacted by flooding. Outreach efforts are underway as the next storm draws closer.

“A lot of those residents may not have social media, so we want to make sure that information gets to them,” she said, adding that the city is also working to deliver pre-filled sandbags to senior residents. “We’re advising residents to prepare for flooding and evacuations. Ramsay Park is set up as a shelter for evacuations, and we’re working to identify other locations in town that can serve as shelters.”

Santa Cruz beaches were busy with people sifting through the debris left behind by heavy storms.
Santa Cruz beaches were busy with people parsing through the debris left behind after heavy storms wreaked havoc across Santa Cruz this past weekend.
(Kevin Painchaud / Lookout Santa Cruz)

The Santa Cruz County Sheriff’s Office, the lead agency deciding evacuation orders in the county’s unincorporated areas, has been working on messaging the community through social media “in hopes that everyone will take this storm seriously and prepare,” according to Sheriff’s Office spokesperson Ashley Keehn.

Keehn said the agency is closely monitoring the San Lorenzo River, as well as Corralitos, Salsipuedes and Soquel creeks.

“These [waterways] can rise so quickly,” Keehn said. “We’re asking people who live near them to have go-bags ready and potentially even self-evacuate before the storm hits.”

A fallen tree in the middle of Park Ave past McGregor Ave in Aptos on Monday, January 2, 2023.
(Kevin Painchaud/Lookout Local)

The Sheriff’s Office will be working closely with the county’s Office of Response, Recovery and Resilience, NWS, and local first responders to determine if and when to issue evacuation warnings and orders.

Keehn said the Sheriff’s Office would only issue such orders for unincorporated areas of the county, where it has jurisdiction. During the New Year’s Eve storm, evacuation orders were in place in Paradise Park and Felton Grove, with additional advisories for areas along Corralitos Creek.

Ahead of Wednesday’s forecasted storm, the city of Santa Cruz was planning to formally activate its Emergency Operations Center, a multi-agency, interdepartmental effort, which city manager Matt Huffaker said hasn’t been activated since the CZU fires and pandemic.

Huffaker said it’s the first time in “many years” the EOC will be activated for an emergency related to flooding. The center acts as a centralized location for the city to push out information to residents regarding all aspects and impacts of the storm.

The San Lorenzo river and the beaches of Santa Cruz after heavy storms over the New Year's weekend.
The San Lorenzo river and the beaches of Santa Cruz were busy with people sifting through the debris left behind after heavy storms wreaked havoc across Santa Cruz over the New Year’s weekend.
(Kevin Painchaud/Lookout Local)

Huffaker said the city plans to declare a local emergency for the damage sustained from the weekend storm and the expected damage from Wednesday’s storm. He said the county is still assessing whether to declare its own local emergency. A state declaration will ultimately be up to the governor. A formal local disaster declaration allows the city to make mutual aid requests to neighboring agencies. A state disaster declaration would allow the city to seek reimbursements for storm impacts.

City staff is monitoring and working to reinforce parts of Santa Cruz prone to flooding, such as the area around the San Lorenzo River, behind the Tannery, Harvey West Park, the coastline, as well as some low-lying parts of downtown.

“Our priority over the coming days will be protection of public health and infrastructure,” Huffaker said. “City staff will be monitoring areas prone to flooding and providing regular updates to the community. I encourage our residents to have an emergency plan in place, be prepared for power outages and to stay off the roads as much as possible.”

Huffaker urged Santa Cruzans to keep an eye out for emergency push alerts from the city and reverse 911 calls for potential evacuation orders and other urgent updates, such as expected power outages.

Santa Cruz County put together a list of disaster resources. Find it here. The county also published a storm preparation checklist and a list of locations where residents can pick up sandbags and sand.

Andrew Gaul of 4701 Soquel Center Offices unloads sandbags on Monday, January 2, 2023 ahead of a coming storm.
Andrew Gaul, owner of 4701 Soquel Center Offices, unloads sandbags in preparation for the upcoming storm expecting to hit Santa Cruz County on Wednesday.
(Kevin Painchaud/Lookout Local)

Across the county, residents were cleaning up from flooded creeks, rivers, beaches and roadways that brought severe flooding.

On Monday, Andrew Gaul, owner of 4701 Soquel Center Offices, was preparing sandbags to protect his building at the corner of Porter Street and Soquel Drive from the coming storm. The area flooded on Saturday, with mud and water reaching up to bumpers of cars in the building’s parking lot. “We’re seeing the forecast coming and we’re thinking we should probably put up some sandbags,” Gaul said.

At the Santa Cruz Boardwalk on Monday afternoon, a team of PG&E workers was preparing for the coming storm. Incident commander Sid Silva says the utility company is studying weather models to prepare for possible damage on Wednesday.

“Obviously the ground is very saturated right now. There could be a lot of trees falling, so we want to make sure that we’re prepared to repair those power lines if anything happens,” he told Lookout.

PG&E Incident Commander Sid Silva at the Santa Cruz Boardwalk.
PG&E Incident Commander Sid Silva was at the Santa Cruz Boardwalk Monday preparing to have as many as 50 workers on hand to repair any power outages as a result of the upcoming storm.
(Kevin Painchaud/Lookout Local)

Silva said PG&E could add as many as 30-50 additional crew to the area, with repairs taking anywhere from three days to two weeks, depending on the extent of the damage from Wednesday’s rainfall.

National Weather Service meteorologist Rick Canepa said that the weekend storm produced eight to nine inches of rainfall in the mountains near Boulder Creek and Felton. He said that the intensity of the storm was mostly in line with the models, but forecasts often cannot capture the full picture.

“How [the storm] interacts with the coastal terrain is something the models might not know exactly, and that can make the difference,” said Canepa.

He added that Wednesday’s storm is expected to be shorter in duration, but that it will still likely generate significant precipitation.

“It’s only going to be around 24 hours, barely 50% of the residence time of this last one,” he said. “The question is, how much will the southwest winds and dynamics generate precipitation.

“Again, I would expect heavy rainfall, especially over the mountains, including the Santa Cruz Mountains.”

Road closures

Downtown Soquel is muddy and its storefronts are lined with sandbags on January 2, 2023.
Downtown Soquel is muddy and its storefronts are lined with sandbags, after getting hit with huge rainfall this past weekend. Santa Cruz county is expecting even larger rainfall numbers on Wednesday.
(Kevin Painchaud/Lookout Local)

Caltrans said northbound Highway 1 in Santa Cruz would remain closed into Tuesday as crews worked to remove a buildup of trees and other debris beneath the bridge over the San Lorenzo River. The agency said crews would work overnight, with the assistance of a crane, to clear the channel beneath the bridge in anticipation of Wednesday’s storm.

Across the county, two dozen roads remained closed Monday because of flooding, downed trees, power lines and landslides. See a list of road closures here, along with traffic conditions here.

One lane of Highway 9 north of Boulder Creek was reopened between Bear Creek Road and Riverdale Boulevard Sunday night after crews removed debris from a mudslide.

Workers also reopened one lane of Highway 9 at Scenic Way, south of Ben Lomond, while a section of the highway between Paradise Exit Road and Glengarry Road remained closed Monday because of several landslides that left several 100-foot-tall trees leaning precariously across the roadway, county officials said.

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