Storm breaches California river’s levee, thousands evacuate

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A Northern California farming community famous for its strawberry crop was forced to evacuate early Saturday after the Pajaro River broke its levee.

In Monterey County on the Central Coast, more than 8,500 people were subject to evacuation orders and warnings on Saturday, including about 1,700 residents – many of them Latino farmworkers – from the unincorporated community of Pajaro.

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The embankment of the Pajaro river is about 100 feet (30.48 metres) wide, officials said.

Crews went door-to-door Friday afternoon to urge residents to leave before the rains arrived, but some stayed and had to be pulled from floodwaters early Saturday.

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First responders and the California National Guard rescued more than 50 people overnight. A video showed a member of the guard helping a driver out of a car stuck in waist-deep water.

“We were hoping to prevent and avoid this situation, but the worst has arrived at midnight with the Pajaro River overtopping and levee breaching,” Monterey County Board of Supervisors Chairman Luis Alejo wrote on Twitter.

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Alejo called the flooding “enormous”, adding that it would take months to repair the damage.
The Pajaro River separates Santa Cruz and Monterey counties in the floodplain area on Saturday.

Officials were working with levees in hopes of towing it when it broke between midnight Friday and Saturday. People sleeping in evacuation centers began working to fix the embankment around dawn on Saturday.

The Pajaro Valley is a coastal agricultural region known for growing strawberries, apples, cauliflower, broccoli and artichokes. National brands such as Driscoll’s Strawberries and Martinelli’s are headquartered in this area.

In 1995, the Pajaro River levees broke, submerging 2,500 acres (1,011 ha) of farmland and the community of Pajaro. Two people died and the flood caused approximately $100 million in damage. A state law, passed last year, advanced state funding for a levee project. It was set to begin construction in 2024.

This week’s storm marked the state’s 10th atmospheric river of the winter, a storm that brought heavy amounts of rain and snow to the state and helped ease drought conditions that had dragged on for three years.

State reservoirs that had dropped to astonishingly low levels are now well above average for this time of year, prompting state officials to release water from dams to aid flood control and make room for more rain Did.

Across the state Saturday, Californians faced rising water levels after drenching rain and a swollen river. In Tulare County, the sheriff ordered the evacuation of residents living near the Tule River, while those living near Poso Creek in Kern County were warned to evacuate.

National Weather Service meteorologists issued flood warnings and advisories, begging motorists to stay away from submerged roadways.

Democratic Gov. Gavin Newsom has declared a state of emergency in 34 counties in recent weeks, and the Biden administration approved presidential disaster declarations for some on Friday morning, a move that will bring more federal aid.

The atmospheric river, known as the “Pineapple Express” because it brings warm subtropical moisture into the Pacific from near Hawaii, was melting the lower parts of the vast snowpack that had built up in the California mountains.

Snowfall levels in the Sierra Nevada, which provide about a third of the state’s water supply, are more than 180% above the April 1 average, when it historically peaked. As of Saturday morning, 32 inches (81 cm) of snow had fallen at the Mount Rose ski resort on the edge of Reno, Nevada, officials said.

Forecasters said the snow cover at higher elevations is so vast that it was expected to be able to absorb rain, but below 4,000 feet (1,219 m) the snow may begin to melt, potentially contributing to flooding. Is.

State transportation officials said Friday that they removed so much snow from roadways in February that it would be enough to fill the iconic Rose Bowl 100 times.

Lake Auroville – one of the state’s most important reservoirs and home to the country’s tallest dam – holds so much water that officials on Friday opened the dam’s spillways for the first time since April 2019. Reservoir water has risen 180 feet (54.8 m) since 1 December. Seven of the state’s 17 major reservoirs are still below their historical averages this year.

State water managers were also grappling with how best to use the storms to help them emerge from severe drought. On Friday, Newsom signed an executive order making it easier for farmers and water agencies to use floodwaters to refill underground aquifers. Groundwater provides an average of about 41% of the state’s supply every year. But many of these underground basins have been overdrawn in recent years.

Forecasters have warned that mountain travel could be difficult from impossible during the latest storm. At higher elevations, the storm was predicted to drop heavy snow of up to 8 feet (2.4 m) over several days.

Yet another atmospheric river is already in the forecast for early next week. State climatologist Michael Anderson said a third Pacific region and possibly a fourth are taking shape.

Anderson said California appeared “well on its way to a fourth year of drought” ahead of the early winter series of storms. “We are in a very different position now,” he said.

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