PAJARO, Calif. (KRON) — A levee breach on the Pajaro River grew in size from 100-feet-wide to more than 400-feet-wide as crews struggled to repair damages before the next atmospheric river storm blows in Monday night.
During a brief lull between storms, crews worked around-the-clock to repair the breach. But the breach has tripled in size since the levee failed Saturday, Monterey County officials said Monday.
The Pajaro River is swollen with rainwater flowing downstream and the community of Pajaro is already swamped. “This is going to get worse before it gets better,” county supervisor Luis Alejo told KRON4 Monday.
With yet another atmospheric river forecast to hit the coastal agricultural region on Monday night, officials are closely monitoring the levee for potential new breaches that could flood parts of neighboring Watsonville.
The Monterey County Office of Emergency Services wrote, “Emergency temporary repair work to stabilize the breach is underway. Flood waters are moving through the community and southward. Residents who have not left the area are still encouraged to do so. High water vehicles, dive and search and rescue and mutual support agencies continue to work in the area.”
County water resources engineer Shaunna Murray said high water levels are creating challenging conditions for crews attempting to repair the breach. Workers constructed paths to haul in large rocks that will be used to fill the gap and build a temporary wall.
Thousands of residents were evacuated in the middle of the night from Pajaro when the levee breached upstream Saturday and spilled floodwaters into surrounding farmland and neighborhoods.
Alejo said hundreds of residents are now living in evacuation shelters. “We are seeing a growing number of people. Many of them left in the middle of the night with almost nothing,” Alejo said. “The levees just couldn’t hold. This was a worst-case scenario.”
During Friday’s drenching storm, Alejo, firefighters, and volunteers went door-to-door alerting residents that the river could flood. Some residents followed evacuation orders, but some stayed behind. Dozens of victims were rescued by swift-water rescue crews and the California National Guard Saturday. No injuries or deaths were reported.
The majority of Pajaro’s flood victims are low-income Latino farmworkers and immigrants. “These are folks who can least afford to be hit by these devastating floods,” Alejo said. Evacuees told KRON4 that they will not be able to return to their homes for weeks.
The Pajaro River levee system had several close calls during January’s powerful rainstorms. Rivers flowing through four counties feed into the Pajaro River downstream before reaching the ocean.
Built in the late 1940s to provide flood protection, the Pajaro River’s levee has been a known risk for decades with several breaches in the 1990s. Emergency repairs to a section of the berm were undertaken in January. A $400 million rebuild is set to begin in 2025.
The river separates Santa Cruz and Monterey counties. California has already been battered by 10 atmospheric rivers this winter.
KRON4 Meteorologist Lawrence Karnow said the brunt of this week’s new storm will arrive before sunrise Tuesday. Karnow said, “The real start time, with winds and heavy rains, will be between 2-4 in the morning. That’s when it’s going to get really heavy.”
How You Can Help
Community Bridges is accepting donations. They have staff and resources at the shelters and will put donations to direct use for evacuated Pajaro residents.
Community Foundation of Monterey County is also accepting donations. TCFMC created a Monterey County Storm Relief Fund to raise funds to provide relief and recovery for flood victims.
County officials said emergency shelters are available to any and all resident impacted by flooding, regardless of immigration status, at the following locations:
Santa Cruz County Fairgrounds 2061 E. Lake Blvd, Watsonville
Compass Church, 10325 S. Main Street, Salinas
Holy Trinity Church Hall 27 South El Camino Real, Greenfield
Salvation Army Contra Costa 1491 Contra Costa Blvd, Seaside
Castroville Recreation Center, 11261 Crane Street, Castroville
All Schools Closed Tuesday
More than 18,000 students were ordered to stay home on Tuesday by the Pajaro Valley Unified School District. The district superintendent wrote, “This weather system will worsen starting at midnight tonight and continue throughout the day tomorrow, resulting in flooding and unsafe road conditions across our area. All PVUSD schools will be physically closed tomorrow, Tuesday March 14.”
The Associated Press contributed to this report.