Farmers pumped millions of gallons of water from the nation’s salad bowl Thursday, while officials warned people to stay away from a river filled with sewage by the floods.
Under sunny skies, high water continued to recede as farmers and residents tried to gauge the damage from the weeklong deluge that ended Wednesday.
At least 15 people died in the storms that dumped up to 10 1/2 inches of rain on parts of California. Five people were missing. Damage to homes, businesses, crops and roads could reach more than $2 billion.
Forty-eight of the state’s 58 counties have been declared disaster areas, making people eligible for federal money.
The Federal Emergency Management Agency has taken more than 7,000 telephone applications for aid, many from farmers and workers washed out in Monterey County, where thousands of acres of lettuce, celery, strawberries and other crops were turned into lakes.
Some farmers pumped floodwater from fields. Others couldn’t because the water was still too high and they had nowhere to put the runoff. Statewide, up to 164,000 acres of farmland were flooded.
“We still don’t know how bad we got hit - but it was pretty bad,” said Gary Metzler of the county emergency office, adding that Monterey’s $220 million estimate for farm damages is very preliminary.
“With so much still under water, we don’t know how much damage there was to the soil, to pumping equipment, to all the things that affect the agriculture industry,” he said.
The flooding also filled the Pajaro River with sewage, which flowed through broken levees and into streets and fields.
Santa Cruz and Monterey counties warned people Thursday to stay away from the river, which runs through prime farmland in the central part of the state.
At Monterey Bay, silt, sewage and pesticides sent out a brown plume that stretched as far as the eye could see in the usually crystal blue waters. Tests were planned to determine how badly it was polluted.
Efren Barajas of the United Farm Workers union in Salinas estimated that more than 20,000 farm workers in the Salinas Valley, the nation’s so-called salad bowl, will be affected by flooding.
“Right now, they’re in the streets. A good portion of the workers don’t have houses or jobs,” Barajas said.
Some farmers said they would hire workers to help in the cleanup.