PAJARO, Calif. — Surging rivers. Sliding rocks. Flooded towns.

The 11th atmospheric river storm of the season left a trail of soggy misery in California as it broke decades-old rainfall records and breached levees this week.

In the Tulare County city of Porterville, residents on both sides of the Tule River were ordered to evacuate Wednesday morning as levels rose at Lake Success, sending water running over the spillway at Schafer Dam.

The runoff “expedited the need for us to get out of the area,” Tulare County Sheriff Mike Boudreaux said in a video update around 1 a.m., adding that about 100 homes lie between the spillway and Road 284. Emergency shelters are open at the Exeter Veterans Memorial Building, Porterville College Gym and Dinuba Memorial Hall.

Lake Success saw a significant increase in inflows overnight, peaking at nearly 19,800 cubic feet of water rushing in per second Wednesday morning, according to state data. Visalia and Porterville have declared a state of emergency.

Gov. Gavin Newsom said the devastation across the state was indicative of extreme weather swings driven by climate change.

“You look back at the last few years in this state – it’s been fire to ice, and no warm bath in between,” he said during a news briefing Wednesday in Pajaro, the Monterey County town flooded by a levee breach last week. “If anyone has any doubt about Mother Nature and her fury – if anyone has any doubt about what this is all about in terms of what’s happening to the climate and the changes that we’re experiencing – come to the state of California.”

Lingering effects

Storm clouds were beginning to clear Wednesday, though many effects are expected to linger.

More than 150,000 people remained without power statewide, many in the San Francisco Bay Area, where classes were canceled at more than a dozen schools in Cupertino.

In San Clemente, four apartment buildings were evacuated after mud, rocks and debris tumbled down a hillside behind the buildings, the Orange County Fire Authority said. No injuries were reported, but the trail below the properties as well as a portion of Buena Vista along the shore were closed.

In the Los Angeles area, a debris flow in Baldwin Hills trapped several cars overnight. On Wednesday morning, as many as 30 vehicles were disabled by about five large potholes on the 71 Freeway near Pomona, according to the California Highway Patrol.

Multiple rainfall records for the date were set by large margins Tuesday, including 2.54 inches in Santa Barbara, breaking a record of 1.36 inches set in 1952, and 2.25 inches in Oxnard, beating 1930’s mark of 1.46 inches. Los Angeles International Airport saw 1.97 inches, smashing a record of 0.43 of an inch set in 1982.

In the San Bernardino Mountains, heavy rain melted dense snowpack and sent torrents of water rushing down streets. As much as 4.3 inches of rain fell on the mountain slopes during the last storm, according to the National Weather Service, but officials said there weren’t any major issues from the rains.

In Sacramento, reports of surfers and kayakers on the surging American River prompted warnings from the county.

The Fresno Fire Department responded to an apartment complex where a very large tree had toppled onto the building, displacing at least five adults and five children, said spokesman Jonathan Lopez-Galvan.

A flooded town

Perhaps the most lasting effect of the storm will be in the flooded community of Pajaro. A levee breach on the Pajaro River late Friday sent floodwaters rushing into the migrant town of about 3,000 people, prompting widespread evacuations and cutting off potable water to the area.

State and county officials were working to stabilize the breach, but there was no official timeline for when it will be fixed.

“We want people to get back into their homes as soon as possible, and we’re going to do whatever we can to make that happen,” county spokesman Nicholas Pasculli said during a news briefing Tuesday. “But there’s going to be cases, without a doubt, that people will not be able to return to some of their homes.”

Officials knew for decades that the levee was vulnerable to failure but never prioritized repairs because they believed it did not make financial sense to protect the low-income area, a Los Angeles Times report found this week.

On Wednesday, California U.S. Sen. Alex Padilla grilled Shalanda Young, director of the White House Office of Management and Budget, about the Army Corps of Engineers’ policy.

“We need to address how the Army Corps, as well as OMB, should be thinking beyond just the benefit-cost ratio in order to ensure we’re protecting vulnerable communities equitably,” said Padilla, D-Calif. “How can we shift the federal government’s approach to ensure that communities like Pajaro and Watsonville receive the resources they need before it’s too late?”

Young committed to working with Congress to ensure lasting changes “because there’s never enough money even with the infrastructure law,” she said.

A project to improve the Pajaro River levee system is anticipated to go to construction in 2024, and has so far received $67 million from President Joe Biden’s $1.2 trillion infrastructure bill signed in 2021. That is the first in a series of federal investments.

The total project is expected to cost more than $400 million. Roughly 65% will be paid by the federal government, and the remainder by the state.

“Lots of communities have flood control projects that we can’t get to,” Young said. “But this idea that poor communities don’t deserve the same flood control protection as those with higher value and houses is just patently unfair.”

'Committed to this community'

Speaking from Pajaro on Wednesday, Newsom said he was “committed to this community” and spoke critically of the fact that the levee – which has flooded several times since its construction in 1949 – wasn’t fixed decades ago.

In addition to federal funds, he said he has committed nearly $140 million in state funds to match project costs and help fix the levee. However, the process could take five to seven years to complete.

“We’ve got to change the way the federal government scores these projects to prioritize those communities that are most vulnerable, period, full stop,” he said.

He added that the United Way had secured $42 million from the U.S. Department of Agriculture to assist farmworkers affected by flooding in the region and will begin sending $600 checks immediately, regardless of recipients’ immigration status.

Officials on Wednesday were also keeping a close eye on the nearby Salinas River, which remained swollen at Bradley and Spreckels on Wednesday morning.

Though the rains have mostly stopped, additional rises in the rivers are expected due to runoff, said Jeff Lorber, a meteorologist with the National Weather Service in the Bay Area. “It’s still very saturated, the soil, so moisture that’s pooled up in the mountains will take a while to filter down into the valleys.”

In Southern California, officials were similarly eyeing Conejo Creek in Camarillo, which peaked Wednesday morning and spurred a flood warning.

Officials in Santa Barbara County reported that the storm had created a waterfall in Tucker’s Grove Park, noting that the “flowing water will find its way to San Antonio Creek and eventually drain into the ocean.”

In Orange County, Supervisor Katrina Foley declared a local state of emergency Tuesday to support storm responses in the area, prompted in part by a hillside collapse in Newport Beach that threatened some homes and sent a chunk of bluff tumbling down.

“My hope is that there is no further sliding on the shore, but if these three homes fall, a cascading effect may happen to the 50 other homes on the bluff and we must be prepared in case that happens,” Foley said in a statement.

Newsom expanded his state of emergency Tuesday night to include Orange, Alpine and Trinity counties, meaning 43 of California’s 58 counties are now covered by the declaration. More than 30 flood watches and warnings are in effect from the National Weather Service.

Forecasters said rain should taper in most areas by Wednesday afternoon. However, another atmospheric river is likely to hit the state next week.

For many Californians, relief can’t come soon enough. In flooded Pajaro, residents from nearby Watsonville joined a group of volunteers helping residents affected by the flood.

“I knew of one woman at a shelter that wanted a blanket for her grandson but she didn’t speak English and she didn’t speak Spanish really well,” said Jessica Sanchez, 34, who was helping hand out foam containers of chicken soup, pan dulce and atole, a hot Mexican drink.

“Some people have been wearing the same clothes for days now, they have no money and can’t afford to go to hotels,” Sanchez said.

Jose Aguirre, a farmworker, said he was unable to find space at a shelter and had to rent a hotel room. Paying $103 a day for a room he and his wife share with their 15-year-old daughter, he said he has enough money to stay for three days. He’s not sure what he’ll do next.

“We don’t have any work,” he said. “We all need help, some more than others.”

Los Angeles Times staff writers Vives reported from Pajaro, Rust from Menlo Park and Smith from Los Angeles. Times staff writer Grace Toohey contributed to this report.


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