California town races for survival after levees fail: ‘It destroyed everything’

The town of Pajaro was flooded by the nearby river after repeated deluges, forcing residents to shelter at a fairground

Gertrudis Rubio stepped into the darkness, pushing through the rushing water that slung rocks against her shins. There wasn’t enough time to grab essentials or documents – rapidly rising waters were already waist-high and surging through the small community in Monterey county. Rubio and her family of eight had little time to lose.

“It has felt traumatic,” she said. “The water came and destroyed our house. It destroyed everything.”

Just after midnight on Friday, sirens wailed through the town of Pajaro, warning residents it was time to leave. Engorged by unrelenting rains, the river that snakes alongside the community had escaped its banks and ageing levees ruptured against the weight of the furious waterway. Parts of the town were quickly steeped in brown-tinged water deep enough to submerge cars, inundate key infrastructure and soak homes, leaving thousands displaced.

The Pajaro flood is the latest in a series of weather-caused catastrophes that have rocked California since last December. The recently drought-stricken state has been drenched, as the deluges chewed into saturated hillsides that sent mud and debris cascading across highways and into homes. Mountain towns tucked along the Sierra Nevada range have been buried by snow as the cold conditions and thrashing winds caused widespread power outages and cut off both access and escape.

As the sun burst through the darkened clouds during a brief reprieve from the storms on Monday, emergency response crews in boats, high-clearance vehicles or on foot wading through the waters rushed through the vacant streets of Pajaro to secure the water-soaked neighborhoods and provide aid for those still in their homes.

“Our number one priority is the preservation of life but second to that is the preservation of property,” said Battalion Chief Gino Degraffenreid. The clang of a submerged railroad crossing perpetually echoed in the distance. Assigned with California’s office of emergency services water team 11 out of Marin county, Degraffenreid and his team were one of a dozen deployed throughout the state to provide emergency support during the storms.

Ian Hanson, a fire captain with the southern Marin fire department, has spent days in Pajaro helping with the rescue and recovery effort.
Ian Hanson, a fire captain with the southern Marin fire department, has spent days in Pajaro helping with the rescue and recovery effort. Photograph: Gabrielle Canon/The Guardian

He had spent the preceding day helping a few remaining residents escape. Among them, a priest from a local parish who offered a prayer for the crews in return. There were several pets left behind during the rush to get out that have since been safely delivered to their frantic families.

Still, there are some people who have chosen to stay. Much of the work now, Degraffenreid said, was trying to re-establish critical infrastructure, including clean water access and sewage. “We are trying to restore normalcy as quickly as possible,” he added.

The task is a daunting one. Three water systems have been identified as potentially contaminated, according to county officials. Eleven schools have had to close, and hundreds of people are being housed in shelters where beds are mostly full. County officials are bracing for more evacuations and new impacts from the next big rain.

The levee breach, which tripled in size between Friday and Monday is now 400ft wide. There is ongoing work to secure and stabilize it with rocks and sandbags but the damage is significant. And this isn’t the first time the levee has failed.

For decades it has been clear that the levee was vulnerable. There was catastrophic flooding here three times in the 1990s, including one breach that left two dead and caused up to $95m in damage. Waters rose again in 2017 and evacuations were ordered just this past January, when the state was pummeled by a series of severe storms.

Despite the known dangers, needed repairs hadn’t been done.

“It’s a low-income area,” Stu Townsley, the US army corps of engineers’ deputy district engineer for project management for the San Francisco region, told the Los Angeles Times, noting that mostly farm workers live in Pajaro. “Therefore, you get basically Bay Area construction costs but the value of property isn’t all that high.”

A child reclines in a shelter at the Santa Cruz fairgrounds.
Four-year-old Adriel evacuated with his family before dawn on Saturday, one of hundreds who were sheltering at the Santa Cruz county fairgrounds. Photograph: Gabrielle Canon/The Guardian

Roughly 3,000 people call Pajaro home and 92% of them are Hispanic, according to census records. Just over 18% fall below the poverty line and per capita income – $15,018 – is about a third of what it is statewide.

In 2022, state and federal funds were allocated to repair the levee – a project expected to cost roughly $400m – but construction wasn’t slated to start until 2024 at the earliest.

Now, at an emergency shelter staged at the Santa Cruz county fairgrounds to the north, hundreds wait and wonder what will remain of their homes when the waters recede.

Rubio, housed with hundreds of others in a large room filled with cots, watched as her four-year-old brother, Adriel, drew a pink cat with donated crayons. “We have nowhere to go,” she said solemnly. She wished there were rubber bands to pull her long hair back, but more importantly she worried about her sister, who has seizures, and where the family will live when the water recedes. “We will stay here until it’s over,” she said. “But we don’t have enough money to pay rent.”

Levees on the Pajaro River failed on Friday night, inundating the town and forcing residents to seek emergency shelter.
Levees on the Pajaro River failed on Friday night, inundating the town and forcing residents to seek emergency shelter. Photograph: Gabrielle Canon/The Guardian

She’s not alone, and others just trying to get through the next several days are anticipating the struggle that could stretch across the coming years. “It’s clear from what I am hearing that for many people there will be no place to go back to,” said Michael Flores, a deputy secretary for California’s department of food and agriculture.

As the official who oversees the fairgrounds across the state – sites that are often used during disasters – he is hoping to gain a better understanding of people’s most urgent needs. There are requests for better food and staples like tortillas, rice and beans. There is also a need for insulin and other medications. And the spread of Covid is a concern.

Flores is taking notes for the future, though, and the broader infrastructure needs of these old buildings, many of which were built in the 1940s and 50s. After all, this won’t be the last time this recreation area will be used for emergency response.

“Not all of our facilities are set up for that,” he said, acknowledging that the government is not always nimble. “Because of climate change we know the effect is long term – this is not just something that is going to go away.” With a $150m planned investment in resiliency centers across the state, Flores said he would like to see retrofits or new buildings that have the amenities that older ones lack, such as HVAC systems, commercial grade kitchens and “proper hygiene facilities”.

Lorina Sosa, who had been at the shelter through the weekend, said she was appreciative of the aid but felt like more could have been done to prepare. She evacuated Friday night after emergency responders knocked on her door, and arrived at the shelter to find that cots hadn’t yet been set up for the surge in evacuees that would soon land at its doors.

Her elderly parents, who evacuated during the storms in January, were wary of a repeat experience – last time they had both contracted Covid while housed in shelters. But when the warnings started to echo through their neighborhood on Friday night, Sosa knew it was a risk they would all have to take.

Her boyfriend was out of town, working in Bakersfield when the rains started, so it was up to her to get the family – which includes her boyfriend’s two sisters, niece and brother-in-law, along with the parents and three dogs – to safety. Buddy and Icy, two large and loving pitbulls, weren’t allowed inside and had to be tied up just outside the shelter.

“We were struggling before this,” Sosa said, her thoughts filled with the future and what was left behind. “And we all still have lives that are going on.”

She wonders whether her niece’s beautiful quinceañera dress, just weeks away from when it would be worn, survived the floods. “They went all the way to Mexico to get it,” she said with a sigh, adding: “She is being such a good sport, poor thing.”

Residents of Pajaro wait out the flooding in an emergency shelter.
Lorina Sosa and her parents landed in the Santa Cruz county fairgrounds shelter last Friday – the second time they have had to evacuate this year. Photograph: Gabrielle Canon/The Guardian

But by Monday evening Sosa would get some good news.

On a small metal boat, Ian Hanson, a fire captain with the southern Marin fire department, and Esteban Cespedes, a San Rafael fire captain – two members of Degraffenreid’s team – had located her home. Receiving the message that her cats were still inside, and with her permission to enter, they waded into the water that reached up to their waists. The cats were safe and secure. The inside of the house, miraculously, was still dry.

It’s a hopeful update, and one not everyone in the community will be lucky enough to receive. The sodden state isn’t yet through its very wet winter – another atmospheric river is expected to unleash more rain across California through the end of the week.

The waters in Pajaro may yet rise further.

“Mother Nature is always reminding us that she is in charge,” Degraffenreid said. “A year ago we were begging for water and now we are swimming in it – literally.”

  • This article was amended on 17 March 2023 to correct a misspelling in the dateline.


Gabrielle Canon in Pajaro, California

The GuardianTramp

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