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Flooding threatens hundreds of homeless people in Santa Cruz

MON San Lorenzo and Branciforte
Jerimiah Oetting
/
KAZU News
The confluence of Branciforte Creek and the San Lorenzo River, where the earliest flooding occurred.

One of Santa Cruz’s most populated homeless encampments flooded early this week, after torrential rain raised the San Lorenzo river over a foot in under 24 hours.

By Monday afternoon, many tents on the banks of the river were partially submerged as the river continued to rise. Images and videos on social media show belongings and trash washing downstream. A drone video captured the extent of the flooding early Monday night. One resident said somebody fell into the rapidly moving river while trying to relocate their tent, but was able to get out safely.

Monica, a 25-year-old who lives in the encampment, said she was concerned people wouldn't move their things before the water level washed them away. She wasn’t comfortable sharing her last name for safety reasons.

“This water, it rises high. Once it starts flooding, there’s nothing we can do about it. It comes so fast,” she said. “I don’t even think most people can move their things in time.”

MON: afternoon flood
Jerimiah Oetting
/
KAZU News
The rising river swept trash and belongings downstream, and flooded tents along the banks of the San Lorenzo.

Elizabeth Smith, the communications manager for Santa Cruz, estimates there are more than 200 people who live in the city-sanctioned encampment, called the “Benchlands.” Speaking by phone late Monday afternoon, she said the city was setting up a temporary shelter at a parking garage on the other side of the river from the camp.

“We didn't expect for the flood to come with such intensity,” she said. “The storm has been changing rapidly.”

Smith said city officials visited the encampment on Friday and Sunday to encourage residents to move elsewhere before the storm. Crews also worked to remove trash and debris over the weekend, she said. And the city provided a van for part of the day on Monday that ran between the temporary shelter and the Benchlands.

The services were “modestly taken advantage of,” Smith said, with only between 50 and 60 people staying at the temporary shelter.

Some of the structures in the Benchlands are akin to elaborate four-wall tents, with an apartment’s worth of furniture and belongings inside. For many people, moving to the shelter in the thick of the storm meant abandoning their only housing and all of their belongings, which could end up washed down the river.

PC131894.jpg
Jerimiah Oetting
/
KAZU News
Some of the structures in the encampment are more permanent than simple tents, and are filled with possessions and would be difficult to move.

Tim Bone, who has lived in the Benchlands since October, said moving all of his stuff was impractical.

“I got electronics and bedding and stuff. And I’m supposed to, in the rain, haul it across the bridge over there?” he said. “It just didn’t make a lot of sense to me.”

Bone said he works at UPS. When he arrived at his tent after work on Monday evening, it was already submerged in water. He said he spent hours that night helping his neighbors move their belongings away from the river.

By early Tuesday morning, the flooding had subsided and Bone was already moving his things back to the soaked and muddy ground of the encampment. Like many other residents, he had pulled his tent uphill of the Benchlands and camped overnight in San Lorenzo Park. He said he was issued a citation by police for camping in the park.

TIM_BONE.jpg
Jerimiah Oetting
/
KAZU News
Tim Bone has lived in the Benchlands since October. On Tuesday morning, he was moving his tent and belongings back after fleeing the rising water Monday night.

“It’s just an infraction, something like 80 bucks, not the end of the world,” he said. “But I guess I’m not really sure how I was supposed to comply.”

On Monday afternoon, after many tents had already flooded, KAZU News spoke with two city officials who were handing out trash bags to help people move their things. Two community service officers were also patrolling the perimeter of the camp. But resources were scarce, and many residents were on their own to decide whether and how to evacuate.

“We have provided really limited shuttle options for people who can't move themselves or have something that they absolutely need assistance moving,” said Santa Cruz Superintendent of Parks Tony Beck. “But on short notice like this, we couldn't put together a full airlift operation to move everyone's belongings.”

The Benchlands lie along the floodplain of the San Lorenzo river, an area that is known to become inundated with water during intense winter storms. More rain is expected this week — the National Weather Service forecasts total rainfall of up to three-quarters of an inch by Wednesday night.