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New atmospheric river pushes into swamped California

3 Photos
Erik Narez walks through floodwaters while leaving his home in the community of Pajaro in Monterey County, Calif., on Monday, March 13, 2023.
Erik Narez walks through floodwaters while leaving his home in the community of Pajaro in Monterey County, Calif., on Monday, March 13, 2023. (AP Photo/Noah Berger) Photo Gallery

WATSONVILLE, Calif. (AP) — The latest powerful atmospheric river to drench California has put nearly 27,000 people under evacuation orders as of Tuesday due to flooding and landslide risks. On the central coast, workers hauled truckloads of rocks to plug a broken river levee amid steady rain and wind.

At one end of the muddy Pajaro River’s ruptured levee, the long arm of a yellow earth-moving machine pressed rocks into place before big boulders were brought in to fill the gap that opened late Friday, about 70 miles (110 kilometers) south of San Francisco.

The new storm initially spread light to moderate rain over northern and central regions of the state. But the National Weather Service said it was moving more quickly than expected and most of the precipitation would shift southward.

Along the Southern California coast, evacuation orders took effect at 8 a.m. in Santa Barbara County for several areas that were burned by wildfires in recent years, creating increased risk of flash floods and debris flows.

The storm added to woes that have led to emergency declarations for 40 counties.

In addition to evacuation orders, more than 71,600 people were under evacuation warnings and 546 people were in shelters, said Brian Ferguson, spokesperson for the California Office of Emergency Services.

So far this winter, the state has been battered by 10 previous atmospheric rivers, long plumes of moisture from the Pacific Ocean, as well as powerful storms fueled by arctic air that produced blizzard conditions. On the East Coast, the start of a winter storm with heavy, wet snow caused a plane to slide off the runway and led to hundreds of school closings, canceled flights and thousands of power outages in parts of the Northeast on Tuesday.

In California, flooding was expected to continue on the central coast, where the Pajaro River swelled with runoff from an atmospheric river last week.

The levee breach grew to at least 400 feet (120 meters) since the failure late Friday, officials said. More than 8,500 people were forced to evacuate, and about 50 people had to be rescued as the water rose that night.

Still, some stayed behind in Pajaro, an unincorporated community known for its strawberry crops and that’s now mostly flooded. The largely Latino farmworker community there is already struggling to find food with so many roads and businesses closed in the storm’s aftermath.

“Some people have nowhere to go, and maybe that’s why there’s still people around,” resident Jorbelit Rincon said Monday. “Pretty much they don’t know where to go and don’t have money to provide for themselves.”

A second breach opened up another 100 feet (30 meters) of the levee closer to the Pacific coast, providing a “relief valve” for the floodwaters to recede near the mouth of the river, officials said at a news conference Monday.

Built in the late 1940s to provide flood protection, the levee has been a known risk for decades and had several breaches in the 1990s. Emergency repairs to a section of the berm were undertaken in January. A $400 million rebuild is set to begin in the next few years.

Water from the newest storm was likely to go over the Pajaro’s levee — but crews were working to make sure the rupture doesn’t get any larger, said Shaunna Murray of the Monterey County Water Resources Agency. Over the weekend, crews had to build access roads to reach the site of the breach, and bring in rocks and boulders to plug the gap.

The river separates Santa Cruz and Monterey counties, and several roads were closed including a stretch of coastal Highway 1, a main route between the two counties.

Monterey County officials also warned that the Salinas River could cause significant flooding of roadways and agricultural land, cutting off the Monterey Peninsula from the rest of the county. The city of Monterey and other communities are located on the peninsula.

Undersheriff Keith Boyd said first responders have rescued about 170 people who were stranded within the county’s evacuation areas since Friday, including a woman and her baby who got stuck trying to drive through high waters.

The undersheriff said 20 to 40 people remained trapped Monday near the Salinas River because the roads were impassible for rescuers.

Authorities had not received reports of any deaths or missing persons related to the storm as of Monday afternoon.

Winery and agricultural experts from the region said they are concerned about the storms’ effect on crops — both ones in the ground that are currently submerged and ones that should be planted for the upcoming growing season.

Karla Loreto, who works at a Pajaro gas station, said she is worried about the toll the flooding will take on the area’s farmworkers.

“The fields are flooded right now,” she said Monday. “Probably no jobs there right now. For this year, probably no strawberries, no blackberries, no blueberries.”