Monterey County officials said the Pajaro River breached around midnight Friday about 3 miles upstream from Pajaro, displacing around 1,700 residents in the community just across the Santa Cruz County line. The river hit 29.23 feet overnight Saturday, its highest level since January 1997. The California National Guard said it helped rescue 56 people from the floodwaters.
Hundreds of residents were forced to evacuate as the Pajaro River breached its levee overnight Friday into Saturday, flooding sections of the small agricultural community of Pajaro in north Monterey County.
“Flooding is massive in Pajaro,” Monterey County Supervisor Luis Alejo wrote on Twitter. Alejo said he had reached out to President Joe Biden and Gov. Gavin Newsom, inviting them to tour the flood-stricken community. “The need will be great! Will take months for our residents to repair homes!”
State and local officials, including Santa Cruz County Supervisor Felipe Hernandez, went door-to-door in the community throughout the day Friday to urge residents to evacuate.
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A man who only gave his first name as Danny said he was staying in Pajaro and was asleep around 1 a.m. Saturday when his mother burst into the room.
“She came out of nowhere, shaking uncontrollably, turning on the lights and she’s like, ‘wake up, wake up,’” he said. “She told me we need to go get up because the bridge broke and the river opened up.”
He left the home and rode his bike to a nearby Target, where he spent the night outdoors before biking to the Santa Cruz County Fairgrounds to take shelter around 8 a.m.
He said his mother told him the home they were staying in was likely flooded, though law enforcement officials refused to let her travel into the community to see it for herself.
He didn’t know how soon he could be allowed to return to Pajaro: “Right now, I’m just waiting to see what’s next.”
Monterey County Sheriff Tina Nieto said no one was killed or injured in the floods, but more than 90 people had to be rescued overnight and into Saturday, including as many as 20 rescues by boat and one by air.
“We even rescued a man floating down one of the areas in a tube with his pet on top of him,” she said.
The California National Guard said it helped rescue 56 people from the floodwaters overnight using high-water vehicles. Evacuees were being offered transportation to nearby emergency shelters, including the Santa Cruz County Fairgrounds in Watsonville.
Community of Pajaro floods after Pajaro River breaches its levee
“We are closely monitoring the situation in Pajaro,” Newsom’s office tweeted Saturday. “Our thoughts are with everyone impacted and the state has mobilized to support the community.”
Local officials said the river breached around 120 feet of the levee around midnight about 3 miles upstream from Pajaro, displacing roughly 1,700 people from the community just across the Santa Cruz County line.
The Pajaro River hit 29.23 feet overnight Saturday, its highest level since January 1997. The river remained below its official flood stage of 32 feet, but rose high enough to breach the levee. Crews from Monterey County Water Resources Agency and the California Department of Water Resources were working on flood-fighting efforts at the time of the breach.
The river had crested by Saturday morning and was expected to gradually recede to 24. However, Lew Bauman, interim general manager of the Monterey County Water Resources Agency, said the flooding from the levee breach would likely remain uncontrolled until state contractors could work out a temporary fix, something they warned might not happen before another atmospheric river is due to hit the Central Coast early next week.
“Folks, we are not done yet,” Nieto, the Monterey County Sheriff, told a Saturday afternoon news conference. “We are dealing with rain and wind events that I can only describe as a super-soaker saturation event.”
Pajaro Valley Unified School District Superintendent Michelle Rodriguez said in a statement Saturday that sandbags had been placed at Pajaro Middle School, but because of road closures and evacuation orders, district staff had not been able to access to school campus to assess damage.
“We are being provided limited updates on the status of Pajaro Middle School through the National Guard,” she wrote.
Rodriguez said the district is planning to reopen the middle school in an alternate location, but said students should expect to continue receiving instruction via Google Classroom. Several of the district’s schools were closed Friday due to evacuation orders.
Rodriguez said the district planned to update families on Sunday afternoon whether schools will continue to be closed on Monday.
Javier Vazquez, a retired Cal Fire firefighter lives in Watsonville close to the Pajaro Valley. He said he watched the frenzy of activity going on overnight and got ready to offer support.
“A soon as daybreak hit, we got out of the house and started trying to figure out where we could help,” he said.
He was volunteering at an emergency shelter at the fairgrounds Saturday and said he planned to continue volunteering for “as long as it takes.”
“We’re here for the duration,” Vazquez said. “Whether at the shelter, or if the community of Pajaro opens up, we’ll be out there with our shovels and boots to start the cleanup process.”
The Pajaro River levee system underwent emergency repairs in January after showing signs of seepage during a series of winter storms.
The work, known as a “seepage berm,” was a temporary fix to add support and structure to the levee system until planned a $400 million levee replacement starts construction, which is not expected until 2025.