More than 8,500 forced to evacuate in California after levee breaks in storms | California

Crews rushed to repair a levee break on a storm-swollen river in California’s central coast as yet another atmospheric river arrived on Monday with the potential to wallop the state’s swamped farmland and agricultural communities.

The Pajaro River’s first levee rupture grew to at least 400ft (120 meters) since it failed late Friday, officials said. More than 8,500 people were forced to evacuate and about 50 people had to be rescued as the water rose that night.

Still, some stayed behind in Pajaro, an unincorporated community that is known for its strawberry crops and is now mostly flooded. The largely Latino farmworker community there is already struggling to find food with many roads and businesses closed in the storm’s aftermath.

Floodwater rushes into farmland through the breach of a levee on the Pajaro River near Royal Oaks.Pin
Floodwater rushes into farmland through the breach of a levee on the Pajaro River near Royal Oaks. Photograph: Drone Base/Reuters

“Some people have nowhere to go and maybe that’s why there’s still people around,” resident Jorbelit Rincon said Monday. “Pretty much they don’t know where to go and don’t have money to provide for themselves.”

A second breach opened up another 100ft (30.48 meters) of the levee closer to the Pacific coast, providing a “relief valve” for the floodwaters to recede near the mouth of the river, officials said on Monday during a news conference.

Built in the late 1940s to provide flood protection, the levee has been a known risk for decades and had several breaches in the 1990s. Emergency repairs to a section of the berm were undertaken in January. A $400m rebuild is set to begin in the next few years.

Forecasters warned of more flooding, wind damage and potential power outages from the new atmospheric river that came ashore on Monday evening in northern and central parts of the state and was expected to move south over several days. California has been pummeled this winter by 10 atmospheric rivers, which are long, narrow plumes of moisture that turn into rain and snow when they make landfall.

Along the southern California coast, evacuation orders were scheduled to take effect at 8am on Tuesday in Santa Barbara county for several areas that were burned by wildfires in recent years. Burned soil can be water-repellent, increasing the risk of flash floods and flows of debris such as downed trees, according to the National Weather Service.

Water from the newest storm will likely go over the Pajaro River’s levee – but crews were working to make sure the rupture doesn’t get any larger, said Shaunna Murray of the Monterey county water resources agency. Over the weekend, crews had to build access roads to get to the site of the breach, and bring in rocks and boulders to plug the gap.

The river separates Santa Cruz and Monterey counties, about 70 miles (110km) south of San Francisco. Several roads were closed including a stretch of coastal Highway 1, a main route between the two counties.

Monterey county officials also warned that the Salinas River could cause significant flooding of roadways and agricultural land, cutting off the Monterey peninsula from the rest of the county. The city of Monterey and other communities are located on the peninsula.

Esteban Sepulveda holds his dog Milo while leaving his home in Pajaro Valley, California.Pin
Esteban Sepulveda holds his dog Milo while leaving his home in Pajaro Valley, California. Photograph: Shae Hammond/AP

Undersheriff Keith Boyd said first responders have rescued about 170 people who were stranded within the county’s evacuation areas since Friday, including a woman and her baby who got stuck trying to drive through high waters.

The undersheriff said 20 to 40 people remained trapped Monday near the Salinas River because the roads were impassible for rescuers.

Authorities had not received reports of any deaths or missing persons related to the storm as of Monday afternoon.

Winery and agricultural experts from the region said they are concerned about the storms’ impact on crops – both ones in the ground that are currently submerged, and ones that should be planted for the upcoming growing season.

Karla Loreto, who works at a Pajaro gas station, said she is worried about the toll the flooding will take on the area’s farmworkers.

“The fields are flooded right now,” she said on Monday. “Probably no jobs there right now. For this year, probably no strawberries, no blackberries, no blueberries.”

Governor Gavin Newsom on Sunday declared a state of emergency in six more counties after earlier making declarations for 34 counties.

Floodwaters inundating the central California town of Pajaro.Pin
Floodwaters inundating the central California town of Pajaro. Photograph: Nathan Frandino/Reuters

Last week’s atmospheric river carried warm subtropical moisture that caused melting at lower elevations of California’s Sierra Nevada snowpack, adding to runoff that has swelled rivers and streams.

But the snowpack is so deep and cold that it mostly absorbed the rain, resulting in an even greater snowpack in the southern and central Sierra, said Daniel Swain, a climate scientist at the University of California, Los Angeles.

California department of water resources online data showed on Monday that the water content of the Sierra snowpack was 207% of the 1 April average, when it is normally at its peak. In the southern Sierra it was 248% of the average.

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