Thousands evacuated as levee breaks as storms sweep California

A community in Northern California was evacuated after a levee retaining the Pajaro River was breeched following heavy storms during the state's 10th atmospheric river event of the winter.

More than 8,500 residents of Monterey County and 1,700 residents of the surrounding Pajaro community were under evacuation orders and warnings beginning on Saturday, according to The Associated Press.

The region is known for its agricultural products, including strawberries, apples, cauliflower, broccoli, and artichokes.

Officials said the breach was approximately 100 feet wide. The day before the levee failed, officials went door to door and urged residents to leave before the atmospheric river brought heavy rains to the region.

Some residents stayed and had to be rescued from the floodwaters.

The California National Guard and local first responders had to pull more than 50 people out of the flooding overnight.

"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," Luis Alejo, the chair of the Monterey County Board of Supervisors, wrote on Twitter.

He said the damage caused by the "massive" flooding would take months to repair.

Officials had hoped to shore up the levee ahead of the substantial storms that came with the atmospheric river, but the waters breached before they could sufficiently bolster the structure. Repairs began Saturday morning after the flooding had already begun.

Governor Gavin Newsom on Saturday said his office was monitoring the situation.

"Our thoughts are with everyone impacted and the state has mobilized to support the community," his office said in a statement.

This isn't the first time the levee has been overrun by floodwaters; the levees broke in 1995, pouring water over 2,500 acres of farmland in the surrounding community and killing two people. The estimated damage was around $100m.

The overflowing Pajaro River in Pajaro, California (Bobbie Grennier via REUTERS)
The overflowing Pajaro River in Pajaro, California (Bobbie Grennier via REUTERS)

State Senator John Laird, who represents the region, brought forth and passed a law to fund a new levee project for the river. That project is funded, but won't begin until next year.

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

Another atmospheric river is forecasted for next week.

The weather in California has swung the state from a likely fourth year of drought to having more water than it can handle. Officials in flooded counties have been releasing water from dams to prevent flooding as the warm airs of the atmospheric rivers melt ice and snowpack in the mountains.

Lake Oroville, which is one of the state's most important reservoirs and home to the US's tallest dam, is so filled that officials opened its spillways for the first time since April 2019.