Evacuation warnings lifted after high surf and flooding shut down Santa Cruz, coastal areas

The Bay Area's beach towns got hammered on Thursday as high surf and storm surges ravaged the coastline. 

Around Santa Cruz, seaside streets were littered with debris, soaked with flooding, and battered by big waves. The city closed the Santa Cruz Wharf, Main Beach and Cowell Beach because of the massive waves and resulting damage. 

At Rio Del Mar State Beach in Santa Cruz, logs littered the sandy coast and onlookers sat on perches witnessing Mother Nature in action. 

In addition, West Cliff in Santa Cruz was also closed between Columbia and David Way. The iconic road is still being repaired from last year's storms. 

Meanwhile, in Pacifica, a pair of crab fishers arrived at Linda Mar Beach and then turned around to go home. 

"Apparently, that's not going to happen," Paul Gonzales said. "But the pier's closed. These waves are outrageous." 

Steve Ramirez sighed and said: "We're just going to pack up." 

High surf warnings and advisories are in effect along the entire California coast as waves are expected to break up to 40 feet high. As of Thursday afternoon, reports from the Bay Area's coastal buoys were showing waves just under 30 feet off both the Sonoma County coast and Monterey Bay.

Huge low-pressure systems in the Pacific Ocean are pushing large groups of waves toward the California coast. 

The National Weather Service reported that its buoy off Bodega Bay recorded waves up to 28 feet on Thursday morning, closing in on the previous record of 31 feet seen during January storms at the beginning of the year.

At Rio Del Mar Beach, the waves crashed over walls, flooding streets, and depositing massive trees and driftwood ashore.

"The trees act like battering rams against the houses and the garage doors that are along the street here," says resident, Steve Benedetti.

Residents in Santa Cruz County know the danger all too well. So do the authorities. But they worried about the tourists.

"We do have visitors from out of town that may not have been expecting this kind of tidal surge during their visit. So we did have deputies out here very early going door to door explaining to people hey this is coming," says Ashley Keehn, public information officer with the Santa Cruz County Sheriff's Office.

Early in the morning, the Stinson Beach Fire Department issued an evacuation order for several neighborhoods because of high surf as the winds and waves were enormous, telling people they could find a temporary safe harbor at the Stinson Beach Community Center. 

The order was issued just before 10 a.m., and people were sent to the Stinson Beach Community Center for refuge. Residents in the Calles Pinos, Pradero, Sierra, Onda Resaca, Ribera, Embarcadero, and sections of Calle Del Arroyo weren’t told to return to their homes until early in the afternoon.

Drone pilot David Golubev shot video of the swell hitting the beach around 11 a.m. and getting dangerously close to houses and buildings along the shoreline. 

"Definitely the highest tide I’ve seen so far. You could see it on the beach. It came up all the way to the top," Golubev said. "I saw it was high tide, and I heard the water so I came out to see how far the water came up."

Officials said the waves reached 10 feet, more than the National Weather Service predicted.

The evacuation order was lifted in the early afternoon when the tide receded. 

Stinson Beach Fire Chief Jesse Peri said crews are still assessing the damage in the area and at last count Thursday afternoon one person has minor injuries and a handful of homes suffered minor structural damage. 

"The community is really resilient, so they came together to help sandbag and help each other out," said Peri, who reiterated that people should continue to stay away from the water.

Further south in San Francisco, strong swells crashed against San Francisco's Fort Point.

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Rio Del Mar Esplanade is currently flooded in Santa Cruz on Dec. 28, 2023. Photo: Santa Cruz County