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Battered by destructive flooding, California braces for another atmospheric river storm

March 12, 2023 Updated Sun., March 12, 2023 at 9:51 p.m.

Rain floods a field along San Juan Road in Pajaro near Watsonville, Calif., as the latest atmospheric river storm system hits Santa Cruz County on Friday.  (Dai Sugano/Bay Area News Group/TNS)
Rain floods a field along San Juan Road in Pajaro near Watsonville, Calif., as the latest atmospheric river storm system hits Santa Cruz County on Friday. (Dai Sugano/Bay Area News Group/TNS)
By Susanne Rust, Emily Alpert Reyes and Brittny Mejia Los Angeles Times

PAJARO, Calif. – California was bracing for another round of rain beginning Monday as officials tried to assess the damage from severe flooding along the Central Coast and Central Valley, which left scores stranded and left whole blocks under water.

Yet another atmospheric river will bring new flood concerns to Northern California beginning Monday and continuing through Tuesday night.

The Bay Area is now seeing bands of rain showers and thunderstorms, but “the focus is going to be on the next atmospheric river that arrives Monday evening,” said Patrick Ayd, a meteorologist with the National Weather Service. Flood and high wind watches are in effect for the Bay Area and Central Coast starting Monday evening, he said.

The upcoming storms are expected to hit the same areas as the last round, Ayd said, with the worst impact at higher elevations.

In the aftermath of the recent storms, “we have very saturated soils, which will make us even more prone to flooding,” and power outages are expected, especially around Monterey, Ayd said. Rock and mud slides are also possible.

Jim Bagnall, a meteorologist with the weather service in Hanford, said that some showers and thunderstorms are predicted today, mainly from Fresno County northward, but forecasters are already looking to the next storm system that will roll in starting Monday, bringing as much as six inches of rain at higher elevations in the region.

Rivers and creeks “are already running high,” Bagnall said, “so this additional water on top of that makes flooding our main concern,” especially in the Springville area in Tulare County northeast of Porterville.

“Anywhere up there in the hills is going to be of concern,” he said. Bagnall urged residents to “pay attention to the forecast. Listen to the local officials. And if they are told they need to get out, heed the advice of the local officials there.”

Southern California will see rain Tuesday and Wednesday, with flooding possible in Santa Barbara and San Luis Obispo counties, according to the National Weather Service.

“This next atmospheric river event is not looking like it’s going to be as strong, but when you have a flood on top of a flood, it just makes a bigger flood,” said Cindy Kobold, a meteorologist with the National Weather Service. “That means this next one could be more impactful, because the ground is way overly saturated, and we’re going to have additional rainfall, with gusty winds.”

The biggest impact from the recent storm was in the small town of Pajaro in Monterey County.

A levee failure on the Pajaro River – three miles upstream from the town of Pajaro – triggered massive flooding in and around the town and prompted hundreds of evacuations.

The levee breached late Friday night, said Nicholas Pasculli, a Monterey County spokesperson. Patrols noticed “bubbling up in the adjacent farmland” at 11 p.m., the first sign of trouble.

Thirty minutes later, the levee failed, Pasculli said. As of Saturday morning, he said, “the failure is approximately 100 feet wide.” Pajaro – with a population of 1,700, mostly farmworkers – is underwater.

Andres Garcia, 39, said this was his third evacuation from Pajaro because of the flooding river; in addition to January, there was one in 1995, when the town was flooded “even worse” than it is now.

He and his wife and 8-year-old daughter left the city early Saturday, after they got a knock on the door from a sheriff’s deputy who urged them to evacuate.

Garcia said they left before the water got too high, and he had no idea about the condition of his house.

His neighbor Laura Garcia left after dawn. She showed a video of water sloshing through her house – lapping against a crib, dining room set and shelves.

Andres Garcia said many farmworkers will be out of a job for as long as the water stays high and fields are submerged.

“They can’t do anything while it’s like this,” he said.

Elsewhere in Monterey County, the Salinas River flooded around the community of San Ardo, prompting evacuation orders Friday night.

Major flooding was reported in Tulare County’s Springville area – where officials conducted dozens of water rescues Friday morning – and in Kernville, where the roaring Kern River surrounded houses and mobile homes, spurring evacuations.

Valeriana López, a 55-year-old resident of Tooleville in Tulare County, said the floodwater didn’t come inside her home but turned her yard into mud. She set down boards to get across the yard and was searching for sandbags to create a walkway.

Sheriff’s deputies went door to door Friday night urging residents to be ready to leave, López said. But she chose to stay.

“I’m going to trust in God, because we can’t do anything,” she said. “We don’t have anywhere to go.”

Los Angeles Times staff writer Ian James contributed to this report.

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