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As the Salinas river swells, more storms are on the way. Pajaro is already underwater

Pajaro flood waters contain sewage, and have pushed more than 1750 from their homes.
Scott Cohn
Pajaro flood waters contain sewage, and have pushed more than 1,750 from their homes.

Rain is coming, four rivers are flooding, and it may be months before Pajaro residents can return home safely

It may be months before thousands of displaced residents from the town of Pajaro, CA can return home, after the aging levee burst early Saturday morning, flooding the low-income community with water from the rising Pajaro river.

Monterey County Sheriff Tina Nieto said the gap in the levee had grown to 150 feet. Officials are unsure how long it will take to patch the train car-sized hole, but are working to add boulders and riprap as a temporary fix ahead of approaching storms. And with more rain on the way, flooding will continue in the town of Pajaro and elsewhere in the region.

“We’re dealing with four rivers, not just one river,” Nieto said during a Sunday afternoon press conference. “It’s a holy moly situation."

Map of Monterey County evacuation orders
Mandatory evacuation orders are expected to span from Watsonville to SLO County

California’s eleventh atmospheric river since December is expected to hit the region Monday night, bringing with it more of the high winds, flooding, power outages and road closures that have accompanied previous storms. The Salinas river is expected to swell to near 26 feet in Spreckels, CA.

Last week, President Biden approved a federal emergency declaration that includes both Santa Cruz and Monterey Counties. There are currently more than 10,000 residents in Monterey County under evacuation warnings or orders.

County officials were concerned the levees would fail during the intense storms in January. State and federal officials have known for decades that the Pajaro river levees needed to be replaced. The levees were built in 1949 by the Army Corps of Engineers — they first failed just six years later, in 1955. Locals have pushed for action ever since.

Last year, Congress approved $149 million in funding under the Bipartisan Infrastructure Law to rebuild the levee system, bringing it up to 100-year flood protection. But that project is a decade away from completion.

Some Pajaro residents ignored the evacuation orders due to financial concerns. Others slept in their vehicles because they were worried about COVID exposure at evacuation shelters.

Jercea Cerventes lives in a second-floor apartment in the mandatory evacuation area. On Sunday, with no working utilities, he finally decided to leave. He packed up his SUV for the three-hour drive to his brother's home in Sacramento.

“You know, I'm leaving just right now because we don't have any more water in the house,” he said.

Cerventes is also out of workThe mechanic shop he works at is underwater.

“I have to find an extra job right now,” he said.

Other residents stayed because there was nowhere else to go.

Across the Pajaro River in South Watsonville, many unhoused people have no viable options to transport their belongings – including bags of wet clothes, dozens of bicycle frames, and live chickens. They stayed behind despite multiple verbal warnings from the officers stationed at the nearby Salinas road bridge.

A man nicknamed “Batman” said he fell asleep around 10 p.m. on Friday night. His tent was about 15 ft. away from the river's edge. Two and a half hours later, he said the water had come up to the base of his tent.

“It was at our feet,” he said. “It rose ten feet in no time.”

Despite the danger, Batman said the nearby shelter prohibits pets. He sleeps every night with his pet chicken.

“She’s like my family, like my kid,” he said. “She lays an egg every day for the last two and a half months. She comes in everyday. She lays on my leg and goes to sleep.”

Batman at the river's edge
Batman at the river's edge.

The rest of the region is also suffering from the onslaught of atmospheric rivers. On the Monterey Peninsula, over 35,000 residents were without power over the weekend, after a tree smashed into a PG&E transmission line. In San Ardo and Arroyo Secco, flooding prompted mandatory evacuations. Big Sur suffered yet more mud and rock slides, further complicating CalTrans road restoration plans from the previous storms. Salinas city workers filled sandbags, and in south Watsonville, small businesses put sandbags on the sidewalks in preparation for the next round of storms.

Monterey County officials say there were more than 200 swift water rescues. Divers and National Guard stationed at the Pajaro Golf Course told KAZU that many rescues were family groups of up to a dozen people. To the north in Santa Cruz County, the storms fell trees that smashed vehicles.

Highway 1 near the Salinas road exit is closed, as floodwaters began spilling over the asphalt early Sunday morning. Monterey County Sheriff Nieto told reporters Sunday that the roadway is damaged.

“Even when the waters recede, we don't anticipate that the roads are going to be opened immediately because they all have to be checked for safety,” Nieto said.

The damage has stretched county resources thin. But despite the tremendous stress of long hours and exhausting work, Sheriff Nieto reported that first responders are performing brilliantly

“We've had no reports of death, knock on wood,” Nieto said. “Thank you to the community that's helped us with that. The only injury that we know of so far… was the firefighter who was hit by a falling tree about two nights ago.”

This story was reported by Jerimiah Oetting, Jonathan Linden, Scott Cohn, and John Sepulvado.

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