Pajaro residents question levee's integrity after breach causes massive flooding

Thousands of residents in Pajaro remained out of their homes Monday as another winter storm headed for the Central Coast.

"We’re probably going to return in three weeks. We don’t know yet. It depends on the weather," said evacuee Andres Garcia.

Garcia is among dozens of evacuees now calling the Santa Cruz County Fairgrounds home.

Garcia, his wife, and 8-year-old daughter were forced from their home due to chest-deep flood water.

Over the weekend, Pajaro River’s levee was breached by flooding from an atmospheric river that pummeled the state. The breach expanded to 300 feet since it failed, officials said.

A second breach opened up another 100 feet of the levee.


Aerial view of breached levee on the Pajaro River in Monterey County

Heavy rains over the weekend breached a levee on the Pajaro River on California's Central Coast, flooding out nearly the entire town.

"It’s acting as a relief valve for the community. So we’re starting to see elevations of the floodwaters in the impacted areas starting to recede. And so this is actually a good news thing for a secondary breach like this," said Shaunna Murray, a senior water resources engineer for Monterey County.

It is the second time in 28 years that the levee has failed. In March 1995, a similar breach flooded homes, although witnesses who remember the event said it wasn’t as bad.

"We had so many years without rain, how come they didn’t fix what was holding the rain (levee)," said Garcia. "It could have prevented this from happening many years ago."

While some of the growing ire is aimed at political leaders, other residents have elevated frustration over not being allowed back into the sections of Pajaro that aren't flooded to check on homes and loved ones left behind.

"I’m just worried about my neighbor, because I normally feed him. Thursday night was the last time I fed him. Because he’s by himself," said evacuee Carmen Cisneros.

County officials said despite a release of water from the second breach, water levels are still high and will likely become higher when the next storm hits.

Officials have rescued 150 to 170 people, mostly residents, who drove into high water and got stuck. One of those people is Karla Loreto, who said she's riding out the rising tide.

"I’m waiting until the last minute because I need to protect my stuff, my house. Actually it’s not too dangerous here. I’m waiting for loss of power or gas, and then I’m leaving," said Loreto.

Loreto said she’s concerned about removing her two-month-old baby girl from the home and leaving her house unguarded.

The Monterey County Sheriff’s Office said there has been one report of a commercial burglary and several car break-ins since the flooding.

The county Farm Bureau reports floodwaters are impacting crops, most notably the production of strawberries and raspberries.