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Update: Monterey County levee breach prompts evacuations, water rescues in Pajaro

Atmospheric river wreaks havoc across Bay Area with widespread flooding, road closures
Atmospheric river wreaks havoc across Bay Area with widespread flooding, road closures 08:42

PAJARO  -- Authorities ordered more than 1,500 people to evacuate early Saturday from a Northern California agricultural community famous for its strawberry crop after the Pajaro River's levee was breached by flooding from a new atmospheric river pummeling the state.

First responders and the California National Guard rescued more than 50 people overnight from the unincorporated Monterey Bay community of Pajaro along California's Central Coast. The National Weather Service said a flash flood warning alerting of major life-threatening flooding in the area was in effect until 11:45 a.m. Saturday.

UPDATE: Next atmospheric river takes aim at Northern California; Heavy rain, gusty winds forecast

Evacuations of most of the Pajaro community were ordered just before midnight and expanded shortly after to include all flood zones in the Pajaro area.

Across Monterey County, more than 8,500 people were under evacuation orders and warnings Saturday, including roughly 1,700 residents — many of them Latino farmworkers — from Pajaro.  

Monterey County evacuation zone map

National Guard high-water rescue vehicles were stationed in the area to help the evacuation effort, which included door-to-door checks from Monterey County sheriff's deputies, Cal Fire crews and North Monterey County firefighters.

"We were hoping to avoid and prevent this situation, but the worst case scenario has arrived with the Pajaro River overtopping and levee breaching at about midnight," wrote Luis Alejo, chair of the Monterey County Board of Supervisors, on Twitter.

Alejo called the flooding "massive," saying it has impacted Pajaro's 1,700 residents -- many of them Latino farmworkers -- and that the damage will take months to repair.

Residents of Pajaro were advised not to use tap water for drinking and cooking until further notice, county officials said Saturday.

Instead, residents should use bottled water for all drinking including baby formula and juice, brushing teeth, washing dishes, making ice and food preparation until further notice.

KPIX 5 First Alert Weather: Current Conditions, Forecasts, Alerts For Your Area

The Pajaro Valley is a coastal agricultural area known for growing strawberries, apples, cauliflower, broccoli and artichokes. National brands like Driscoll's Strawberries and Martinelli's are headquartered in the region. The Pajaro River separates the counties of Santa Cruz and Monterey in the area that flooded Saturday.

Officials had been working along the levee in the hopes of shoring it up when it was breached early Saturday morning. Crews began working to fix the levee around daybreak Saturday as residents slept in evacuation centers.

Gov. Gavin Newsom's office on Saturday said it was monitoring the situation in Pajaro.

"Our thoughts are with everyone impacted and the state has mobilized to support the community," the governor's office wrote on Twitter.

In 1995, the Pajaro River's levees broke, submerging 2,500 acres of farmland and the community of Pajaro. Two peopled died and the flooding caused nearly $100 million in damage. A state law, passed last year, advanced state funds for a levee project. It was scheduled to start construction in 2024.

State Sen. John Laird, who spearheaded the law and represents the area, said the project is fully funded now but it just came down to bad timing with this year's rains.

"It's tragic, we were so close to getting this done before any storms," he said.

About 80 miles southeast of Pajaro, residents of the community of San Ardo were told to evacuate just before 1 a.m. Saturday because of flooding from the Salinas River.

There are emergency evacuation shelters at the Santa Cruz County Fairgrounds, located at 2601 East Lake Ave., in Watsonville, in the Crosetti Building, and at the Compass Church, located at 10325 S. Main Street, in Salinas.

Residents can get a ride to a shelter at a temporary evacuation point, which are located at the Prunedale Library, at 17822 Moro Rd., the Carmel Valley Library, at 65 W. Carmel Valley Rd., and the King City Library, at 402 Broadway St.

For assistance with animals, the SPCA can be reached at 831-373-2631, and after normal hours at 831-646-5534.The Monterey County Sheriff's Office Friday issued evacuation orders for the areas of Carmel Valley, Arroyo Seco and Pajaro as a result of the atmospheric river storm hitting the area.

On Friday night, the sheriff's office made changes to evacuation orders and downgraded them to evacuation warnings for residents in the Carmel Valley area.

The downgrade declaration is effective immediately and until further notice.

Evacuation warnings also remain in effect for the following areas: areas of north Salinas, areas of Bolsa Knolls, Carmel River Lagoon area, Big Sur River, all areas of the Salinas River.

This week's storm marked the state's 10th atmospheric river of the winter, storms that have brought enormous amounts of rain and snow to the state and helped lessen the drought conditions that had dragged on for three years. 

State reservoirs that had dipped to strikingly low levels are now well above the average for this time of year, prompting state officials to release water from dams to assist with flood control and make room for even more rain.

Across the state on Saturday, Californians contended with drenching rains and rising water levels in the atmospheric river's aftermath.

 In Tulare County, the sheriff ordered residents who live near the Tule River to evacuate, while people near the Poso Creek in Kern County were under an evacuation warning. The National Weather Service's meteorologists issued flood warnings and advisories, begging motorists to stay off deluged roadways.

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