By Nic Coury and Stefanie Dazio
The Associated Press
WATSONVILLE, Calif.>> A Northern California agricultural community famous for its strawberry crop was forced to evacuate early Saturday after the Pajaro River’s levee was breached by flooding from a new atmospheric river that pummeled the state.
Across the Central Coast’s Monterey County, more than 8,500 people were under evacuation orders and warnings Saturday, including about 1,700 residents — many of them Latino farmworkers — from the unincorporated community of Pajaro.
Officials said the Pajaro River’s levee breach is about 100 feet wide. Crews had gone door to door Friday afternoon to urge residents to leave before the rains came but some stayed and had to be pulled from floodwaters Saturday.
First responders and the California National Guard rescued more than 50 people overnight. One video showed a member of the Guard helping a driver out of a car trapped by water up to their waists.
“We were hoping to avoid and prevent this situation, but the worst-case scenario has arrived with the Pajaro River overtopping and levee breaching at about midnight,” wrote Luis Alejo, leader of the Monterey County Board of Supervisors, on Twitter.
Alejo called the flooding “massive,” saying the damage will take months to repair.
The Pajaro River separates the counties of Santa Cruz and Monterey in the area that flooded Saturday.
Officials had been working along the levee in the hopes of shoring it up when it was breached around midnight Friday into Saturday. Crews began working to fix the levee around daybreak Saturday as residents slept in evacuation centers.
The Pajaro Valley is a coastal agricultural area known for growing strawberries, apples, cauliflower, broccoli and artichokes. National brands such as Driscoll’s Strawberries and Martinelli’s are headquartered in the region.
In 1995, the Pajaro River’s levees broke, submerging 2,500 acres of farmland and the community of Pajaro. Two peopled died and the flooding caused nearly $100 million damage. A state law, passed last year, advanced state funds for a levee project. It was scheduled to start construction in 2024.
This week’s storm marked the state’s 10th atmospheric river of the winter, storms that have brought enormous amounts of rain and snow to the state and helped lessen the drought conditions that had dragged on for three years.