National Guard Searches for California Residents After Levee Breaches

California National Guard soldiers support local first responders in rescue operations.
California National Guard soldiers support local first responders in rescue operations due to flooding in Monterey County, California, March 11, 2023. (California National Guard)

PAJARO — Residents who stayed in their homes were abruptly awakened by bright lights and the sound of sirens early Saturday morning after the Pajaro River levee breached around midnight, flooding the North Monterey County community.

According to Monterey County Sheriff Tina Nieto, 1,700 people are displaced from the Pajaro area and more than 90 rescues have been performed.

"We're still conducting (water rescues) now as we're speaking today," Nieto said during a news conference Saturday afternoon, adding no deaths or injuries have been reported so far.

According to Lew Bauman, interim general manager of the Monterey County Water Resources Agency, the river breached a portion near river mile 10. It's approximately a 120-foot breach.

"It will flow uncontrolled until we are able to secure that with interim protective measures," he said during the news conference. "The State of California Department of Water Resources is currently en route with their contractor to formulate a mitigation plan that will require not only access but appropriate materials and construction technologies to close that breach. Until then, there will be continued flows and the appropriate emergency response."

Bauman said the levee experienced boils and overtopping locations, as it did during January's storms, on the Santa Cruz side and the Monterey side. He said the cause of failure in the levee is yet to be fully determined.

"It's been crazy," said Pajaro resident Juan Ceja. "It has left me in shock to be honest because this is the first time I've ever lived through something like this and I never thought it could happen. Last night, around 1 a.m., we heard sirens going off and my uncle came in to get me, so I just grabbed as much of my stuff that I could and we dipped out."

Monterey County Supervisor Luis Alejo and Santa Cruz County Supervisor Felipe Hernandez along with volunteers from Casa La Cultura went door to door in Pajaro Friday afternoon into the evening to speak with residents under evacuation orders to share information about evacuation locations and services.

First responders, law enforcement, firefighters and the California National Guard helped community members evacuate the flood zone during the night and into the morning and afternoon, but many residents chose to stay in the area, with some making the best of the disaster, riding bikes through puddles and exploring the area, as National Guard trucks forded the flooded streets and drones flew overhead, searching for those in immediate danger.

Some Pajaro residents, such as Miguel Sepulveda, who lived through a similar flood event in Pajaro in 1995, chose not to evacuate the area with the rest of his family because he feared that if he left his vehicle and home unattended, looters may move in and steal his belongings.

"There were troublemakers that came and did this the first time, about a month ago," said Sepulveda, who was with his son, Esteban. "The cops are doing a great job right now, but the trouble comes at night."

Other longtime residents that decided not to evacuate the community mentioned the flooding that happened in the winter of 1995, such as Jose Rocha, who was taking refuge with his family in a relative's third-floor apartment.

"I woke up and had the same reaction I did in '95," said Rocha. "It was a little bit different then though because I was my son's age and I didn't always realize the danger we were in. Now, the first thing I thought about was protecting my family. I hope the river doesn't rise anymore, but we'll have to wait and see."

According to meteorologist David King with the National Weather Service, this weekend is a very brief respite from the stormy weather. He said another atmospheric river storm is forecast to arrive Monday night.

"The confidence (in the forecast) has already grown so we've issued a flood watch for this atmospheric river as well as a high wind watch for this atmospheric river," he said during the news conference. "Those watches begin Monday at 10 p.m. and go all the way through Wednesday at 4 a.m."

King said that given the close proximity to the previous storm, the ground is incredibly saturated.

"It will not take much to knock down trees and cause power outages," he said. "Flooding is expected. If you come across flooded roadways please remember, turn around don't drown."

Pajaro residents such as Isiah and Alfonso Robledo, who were out exploring the perimeter of the flooded neighborhood, were also taking temporary refuge at one of their relative's homes that wasn't flooded during the night.

"We are at our uncle's house right now," said Isiah Robledo. "We'll probably stay there and come back and check on our things. We just hope this all goes away soon."

Some residents that decided to stay had homes on high ground, such as Matthew Quintero, who was checking out the height of the Pajaro River with his son, Julian, Saturday afternoon.

"It's been stressful," said Matthew Quintero. "Our hopes are that the city workers and police officers get everything sorted out and the water goes down. Until then, we just have to wait it out."

Monterey County warned residents in Pajaro to not use tap water to drink or to cook because the wells were flooded and the water may be contaminated with chemicals that will remain after boiling or disinfection.

The Pajaro Valley Unified School District said staff placed sandbags at Pajaro Middle School and prepared the campus for the flood but its status is unknown. The district is planning to reopen the school at an alternate site if needed.

Sister Rosa Dolores Rodriguez, founder of the Casa de la Cultura Center in Pajaro, stood on the Pajaro River Bridge, cut off from her center, watching law enforcement and first responders at work. She vividly recalled the flooding that happened there in March 1995 and pointed out that the road to recovery would not be easy.

"There's a certain stress or worry that comes when you are waiting to see if it's going to flood or not," said Rodriguez. "Now that it flooded, we have to worry about the recovery period, the people and their houses and cars. And I think the recovery is going to be quite difficult."

Displaced families waited along the bridge for transport to shelters. The closest shelter to Pajaro is at the Santa Cruz County Fairgrounds at 2601 East Lake Ave. in Watsonville.

Nieto said during the conference that people can bring displaced pets to the bridge at 1 Main St. in Watsonville, where officials from SPCA Monterey County can help.

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